St. Stephen’s Cathedral Church is an important symbol of the Anglican Christian community within Kenya. Starting in 1848 with the arrival of Church Missionary Society [CMS] missionaries, the Anglican church has grown rapidly during the next century in Kenya. Today more than 84% of Kenyans identify as Christians, with over 5 million Kenyans being active in the church. Many attend church service daily. This essay is about one of the churches that Kenyans attend in their millions every Sunday--the St. Stephen's Cathedral Church, Kisumu.
He was probably one of the most mercurial and charismatic religious leaders in independent Kenya. He was brave and fearless. He was described in nearly every notable Kenyan newspapers as a fiery and vocal cleric who fearlessly, relentlessly, and courageously criticized the government of President Daniel arap Moi for its human rights abuses against Kenyans. He was a tireless campaigner for the cause of justice and human rights in Kenya. He was one of the advocates for the re-introduction of multi-party democracy in Kenya. When Moi finally acceded to the re-introduction of the the multi-party system in Kenya in late 1991, his name was mentioned alongside those of other stalwarts who had also relentlessly campaigned for an end to the one-party dictatorship that had thrived under President Moi, and for the re-introduction of the multi-party system of government in Kenya. His name was Bishop Dr. John Henry Okullu. His platform? The church; serving first, as Provost at the Nairobi All Saints Cathedral in Nairobi, and later, as Bishop of Maseno South Diocese based at St. Stephen’s Cathedral Church in Kisumu.
Indeed, if there is any one singular issue for which St. Stephen’s Cathedral Church in Kisumu is well-known, it is the fact that Bishop Henry Okullu was based there for many years. The St. Stephen’s Cathedral Church can arguably be said to have become famous during the time Bishop Okullu was based there as chaplain and head of the Maseno South Diocese during the 1980s and 1990s.
St. Stephen’s Cathedral Church was where Bishop Okullu served until his retirement in 1994. It was from its pulpit that Bishop Okullu issued some of his most fiery summons against President Moi, and his government. It was from this church that Okullu constantly condemned human rights violations under the one-party system government of President Moi, and it was from here that he called for an end to the one-party system and for the re-introduction of the multi-party system of government. It was from here that Okullu advocated for policies promoting social justice, respecting human rights, and focusing on the eradication of poverty among the people.
And yet although St. Stephen’s Church is well-known as the base where Bishop Okullu served at before retiring from his canonical duties in 1994, very little is known about the church itself. When, and why was it built? How has it evolved? What is its history? What has been its contribution to the social, economic, and political development of Kisumu, and Kenya?
The St. Stephen’s Cathedral Church has a longer and more complicated history than just being the place where Bishop Okullu issued those fiery summons in the 1980s and 1990s.
St. Stephen’s Church is one of the oldest institutions in Kisumu. Built in 1913, St. Stephen’s Church has contributed immensely to the social, economic, and political development of Kisumu. These developments can be traced back to the introduction of Christianity in Kenya by European missionaries. The missionaries who were responsible for building St. Stephen’s Cathedral belonged to the Church Missionary Society [CMS].
The CMS missionaries were sent from Europe to spread the gospel in Africa beginning in the early 19th century. Their work in the interior of East Africa begun in Uganda among the Baganda people. Due to rivalries created by the arrival of Roman Catholic priests chiefly in Buganda that led to conflicts and, in some cases, bloodshed among people in the region, the CMS missionaries decided to look for greener pastures in Western Kenya.
In 1904, Bishop Alfred Robert Tucker accompanied by Rev. J.J. Willis and a Mr. Purvis visited the Maragoli Hills in western Kenya and were welcomed by the Friends Missionaries [the Quakers] who were already working there. They started a mission there headed by Rev. Willis. The mission was later moved to Maseno in 1905. Rev. Willis therefore set up a mission on a piece of land which was given to him by the local chief, Mr. Ogolla Ayieko. Maseno is 21 kilometers from Kisumu town, which by then was a railway terminus.
Due to the arrival of many European administrators and their families in Kisumu, the Church Missionary Society clerics felt it necessary to start a mission station in Kisumu to serve the administrators and their families. Bishop Tucker therefore constructed a small church for the Europeans in Kisumu in 1907. This church was the St. Peter’s Church. Due to the racial segregation prevalent under the colonial system in Kenya at the time, the church was reserved for whites only. Africans were not allowed to attend service at the church. In fact, the locals referred, and still do refer, to the church as the white man’s church.
As Christianity took hold in Kisumu, the Africans started demanding a similar house of worship like St. Peter’s Church that was reserved for the British and other Europeans based in Kisumu. The number of Africans converting to Christianity was also growing and it was no longer tenable to continue denying Africans a place to worship. By 1910, the colonial administrators and the church realized that there was a need to build a place of worship to accommodate all the African Anglican church members who were working and living in Kisumu.
In 1910, the colonial administrators allocated land for the construction of a church and a school for the African converts of the CMS mission. Construction of the church began around 1912, and was completed in 1913. This is the church that came to be known as St. Stephen’s Church. The first chaplain of the church was Rev. F.H. Wright. Rev. Wright served as the chaplain for the European community at St. Peter’s and also extended his services to the African community as well at St. Stephen’s Church.
Rev. Wright served as chaplain of the St, Stephen’s Church from 1913 to 1924. In 1924, the Rev. Reuben Omulo became the vicar of the church and soon also assumed the role of headmaster of a school which was run within the church. This was because the church building also served as a school during weekdays.
In 1944, the Archbishop of Canterbury in Britain submitted a constitution in which the Anglican Church became independent and was no longer controlled by the Church Missionary Society. This led to the church in Kenya getting a new name: The African Anglican Church and Government. The mission in Maseno became the Rural Deanery of Nyanza. St. Stephen’s Church was under this Deanery.
Throughout this early period, the main heads of the CMS mission stations were still largely the Europeans. But, in a major development in the history of the church, in 1960, Bishop Festo Olang’ was nominated and later in 1961 consecrated Bishop of Maseno Diocese covering the whole of Nyanza and Western provinces. The consecration of Bishop Festo Olang’ was done at St. Stephen’s Church, proving how important St. Stephen’s Church was to the development of Christianity in Nyanza and western Kenya.
In 1963, due to the large number of Christians attending the church for service, a major renovation was undertaken on the St. Stephen church building to accommodate all these people. The “whole setup of the church was,” in the words of Phoebe Awiti, the Curator of Kisumu Museum, “turned around. The altar was moved from the front of the church to the back. The whole interior of the church was made to face the opposite direction. At the same time, the section which was formerly at the back of the building was expanded so that it could accommodate the new altar.” Following these renovations, the church was then dedicated in 1963 as a pre–cathedral–which is why the building is now called St. Stephen’s Cathedral Church.
Ever since the days of Rev. F.H. Wright serving as chaplain of St. Stephen’s Church, many clerics have also served there. Rev. Omulo was the first African to serve as chaplain of the church. After Rev. Omulo, other more notable clerics who have served at the church include Bishop Festo Olang, Bishop Henry Okullu, and Bishop Francis Mwai Abiero. The current head of St. Stephen’s Cathedral Church is Charles Ong’injo.
Although the church is most closely associated with the struggle against one-party dictatorship and for championing human rights, it would be a huge mistake to discount its other activities that are equally important in Kisumu City and the entire region. Its mission goes beyond politics. The clerics at the church see St. Stephen’s Church as a religious order that was founded to minister to the soul and the body of the congregants. Apart from offering spiritual nourishment, the church is also dedicated to fighting against poverty. The clerics assert that their church is also committed to human developments. They are always quick to urge the county governments in the Nyanza region to develop policies focusing on ending poverty in the region. The church leaders have been complaining that, five years after the introduction of the devolved system of government in Kenya, there is little to show in terms of the standard of living of the local people. People are still poor and are still suffering. The clerics have therefore been calling for a joint and comprehensive strategy by the counties to fight poverty and bring development to the people.
The clerics assert that the church is committed to combating poverty through strategies such as promoting entrepreneurship among the youth and women, and supporting the socially disadvantaged families through faith based social programs. They are also interested in strategies aimed at helping the needy and the disadvantaged in the society such as the youth and widows.
Since it was founded, the church has also expanded the scope of its community service through programs such as Mothers’ Unions, Ladies’ Fellowships, and Estate [Neighborhood] Fellowships. The church leaders believe that the needs of their community are growing by the day and they have expanded their programs to meet those needs. They have also introduced counseling programs to attend to people’s concerns or at the very least to listen to their concerns. As one of the leaders of the church says, “what we have learned over the years … [is] … that what people sometimes need the most is someone who will listen to their concerns … someone they can turn up to for support when the going is not well” (Ali Birya, Maseno University Student).
Thus, although St. Stephen’s Cathedral Church is primarily a place for ministering to the spiritual needs of its congregation, the clerics based there do not look at their mission narrowly in terms of spiritual needs alone. The church is also dedicated to promoting the total wellbeing of its congregation. It is dedicated to both the spiritual and the physical. It is interested in the total social, economic, and political well-being of the congregation. Its clerics believe in ministering to the soul and body of its members and their communities.
St. Stephen’s Cathedral Church is located on the opposite side of the road from the Central Police Station in Kisumu. The building is located next to Palmer’s Hotel in Kisumu. It offers three church services every Sunday. The first service is from 7-8:30 am. This service is mainly for the youth, but the older people who “feel young at heart” can also attend it. The second service runs from 8:30 to 10:00 am. This one is usually in Kiswahili and is geared towards those who feel more comfortable with the Kiswahili language. The third service runs from 10 am to 12:30 pm. This is a more family-oriented service and is usually conducted in English.
But, as already noted, the church also runs several programs throughout the weekdays, mainly geared towards offering help and support to the unemployed youth, the widows, the elderly, and the sick.
It should be noted that since 2017, a newer and much bigger building has been commissioned to replace the current St. Stephen’s Cathedral Church. When completed, this building will be a mega church catering for a much larger congregation. The church building is not very far from the older building. The new church building, just like the older one, will be called St. Stephen’s Cathedral Church. Like the older church building, the newer one will also continue fighting for the spiritual and physical needs of the congregation.
Bishop Okullu who served at St. Stephen’s Cathedral Church was born in 1929 in Asembo, Siaya County. He was educated in Kenya and the United States. He was consecrated as the first black Provost of the Nairobi All Saints Cathedral in 1971, and then as Bishop of Maseno South Diocese based at St. Stephen’s Cathedral Church, where he served until his retirement in 1994.
Bishop Henry Okullu, who passed away in 1999 after serving for many years at the church, would still be proud if he woke up today and saw how St. Stephen’s Cathedral Church is still dedicated to the social, economic, and political well-being of its congregation and the community at large. Ultimately the church such as St. Stephen’s Cathedral, and its leaders such as Bishop Henry Okullu, have played a huge role in the spiritual and physical wellbeing of Africans in Kenya, and throughout Africa.
St. Stephen's Cathedral entrance gate: This shows the entrance gate to the cathedral grounds, as well as the exterior of the building itself. ~ Photo by Phoebe Awiti
St. Peter's side view: This is an older photo of the side of St. Peter's Church that shows the stained-glass windows, front entrance, and side entrance. ~ Courtesy of Phoebe Awiti, Kisumu Museum
St. Peter's Church, Kisumu: A Section of the Whites Only St. Peter's Church ~ Photo by Meshack Owino, January 8, 2018
St. Stephen's Historical Plaque: This plaque shows when the church was built, venerated as a cathedral, and the past and current pastors. ~ Photo by Phoebe Awiti
Rev. Canon Omulo: Rev. Canon Omulo was the first African pastor of the church and started a school in the church. St. Stephen's was by then known locally as Ko Mulo [Omolu's place]. Many prominent people from Kisumu attended this primary school. ~ Photo by Phoebe Awiti
Directional sign: This is a sign not far from the cathedral, close to the entrance. ~ Photo by Phoebe Awiti
Interior of St. Stephen's: A view of the inside of the church facing the altar. Where the altar stands was formally the back of the church in colonial times. ~ Photo by Phoebe Awiti
Unfinished New St. Stephen's Cathedral: Another view of the new St. Stephen's as it appeared during its long period of construction. ~ SOURCE?
Bishop Francis Mwayi Abiero Showing New St. Stephen's Construction: Rt. Rev. Dr. Francis Mwayi Abiero, Bishop of the Diocese of Maseno - South, shows the cathedral under construction. St Stephen's was long overdue to complete the project due to financial constraints but has since been completed with the help of private donors.
Omolo Agar Road, Kisumu ~ St. Stephen's Cathedral Church is located on the opposite side of the Central Police Station, Kisumu. One can locate the church either that way, or buy going towards the Palmer' Hotel. The church is located next to the Palmer's Hotel. ~ https://www.st-stephens-kisumu.org/