From Imperial Symbol to Haven for Justice in Nairobi

Photos: All Saints' Cathedral


All Saints’ Cathedral, Nairobi

By Jesse Masai

I first encountered Nairobi’s All Saints’ Cathedral while working at my first job, running errands for an Anglican priest who led an indigenous missionary agency located nearby. On the way to work each day, I passed by the imposing gray-stone church with its enigmatic Rose Window.

It stands within the city’s central business district, neighboring its largest open public space, Uhuru Park. These were the heady 1990s, when Kenya’s fledgling multi-party democracy was still straining under the heavy hand of the Kenya African National Union, which had ruled the nation since its independence in from Great Britain in 1963.

For the idealistic among us, the cathedral was the place to be. Its pulpit was among the most watched in Kenya, owing to the bold and prophetic leadership of Bishops Henry Okullu, David Gitari, and Alexander Muge, who denounced brutality and called for justice.

This building that began its life as a symbol of “soft power” for the Empire was, by this time, known for welcoming pro-democracy protesters from Uhuru Park.

All Saints’ Cathedral, the seat of the Archbishop of the Anglican Church of Kenya, celebrated its centenary in 2017, 19 years after its province, which dates its founding to the establishment of the first Kenyan diocese, at Mombasa, in 1898.

It joins the nearby Kenyan State House, Parliament, and McMillan Library as outstanding examples of colonial-era architecture in the midst of modern Nairobi’s fast-changing skyline, embodying the city’s alluring yet troubled past.

An Anglican mission was established in the growing city by 1900, and in 1903, St. Stephen’s Church, a wood building roofed with corrugated iron, was constructed through the patronage of railway officials. In the next decade, the city tripled in size, becoming the capital of the Kenyan colony as well as a popular spot for big-game hunting.

A 1908 outbreak of the plague was blamed on unhygienic conditions in Nairobi’s Indian bazaar. In response, city officials imposed a strict system of residential and commercial segregation, restricting lower-class South Asians and native Africans to a few crowded zones. Nairobi’s core became a largely whites-only zone, and like a few other colonial outposts, it retained a white majority until the early 1920s.

St. Stephen’s Church soon became too small for the city’s ruling elite, and the colonial governor, Sir Henry Conway Belfield, arranged an important meeting with the regional primate, the Most Rev. William Carter, Archbishop of Cape Town, when he visited the city in 1914. With Belfield’s support, the local chaplain proposed building a new whites-only church to relieve the crowding at St. Stephen’s.

Renowned English architect Temple Moore was commissioned to design a grand English-style Gothic church that would symbolize the aspirations of the city’s leaders. Belfield laid its foundation stone on February 3, 1917.

The front part of the nave was completed the next year, and worship began after its dedication on July 31, 1918. In 1924, the North Tower was added, along with a peal of bells cast in Loughborough, England. The same year, the church became Cathedral of the Highlands, a status equal to the original Kenyan cathedral at Mombasa. Additional portions, including East Africa’s largest pipe organ, were added a decade later, and the cathedral was completed in 1952.

An important shift in the cathedral’s identity, along with that of the larger Anglican Church of Kenya, was signaled on May 15, 1955, when Festo Olang’ and Obadiah Kariuki were consecrated as its first African bishops. By the 1970s, when Olang’ was enthroned there as the first African Archbishop of Kenya, its congregation was racially mixed, and included prominent Black leaders like Charles Njonjo, the independent nation’s first attorney general.

The closing decade of rule by Kenya’s founding president, Mzee Jomo Kenyatta, were marked by increasing authoritarianism, and power soon passed to his disciple Daniel arap Moi, who vowed to walk in Kenyatta’s nyayo (footsteps).

By 1982, Kenya was a one-party state, and dissent increasingly moved underground. All Saints’ provost, the Very Rev. Peter Njenga, however, spoke out against the brutal demolition of unauthorized slums in the city’s Muoroto district in May 1990.

“Clerical leadership at All Saints’ Cathedral provided a strategic platform for national discourse in [Kenya’s] unfolding democratization process,” remembered the Rt. Rev. Joseph Wandera, currently the Bishop of Mumias. “The engagement of the clergymen took the form of sermons, publications, the stimulus of critical national debate, and the provision of refuge for political activists.”

In February 1992, a group of women whose sons had been seized by the government as political prisoners began gathering in Uhuru Park. Led by Professor Wangari Maathai, who would later become the first Kenyan to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, the women engaged in hunger strikes, while large supportive crowds gathered for prayer, public addresses, and the singing of freedom songs.

When police tried to disperse the protesting mothers with batons and tear gas, they famously stripped themselves naked and shook their breasts at the cops. The lawmen fled in fear, responding to social taboos that deem a mother’s stripping in anger as a powerful curse. The police returned a few days later and the women fled into the cathedral, which offered them sanctuary for three days, while police occupied the grounds, ready to arrest them.

“Archbishop Manasseh Kuria protested the police presence, stating that ‘idlers’ were officially barred from the cathedral grounds,” Wandera said. All Saints,’ Archbishop Kuria proclaimed, was “serving as ‘a sanctuary for the mothers of political prisoners.’”

When another series of political protests broke out in July 1997, the cathedral allowed activists to camp on its grounds. Kenyan security forces stormed the cathedral complex, Wandera said, and “physically abused and tear-gassed worshipers and activists. Pews were bloodied, furniture was destroyed, and the floor of the cathedral was littered with tear gas canisters.”

In August 2010, Uhuru Park would host jubilant crowds celebrating the promulgation of the nation’s progressive constitution, which safeguards multi-party rule. The park continues to witness periodic protests against state excesses, as well as commemorations of past struggles.

All Saints’ Cathedral, which is now the see of one of two Anglican dioceses that serve central Nairobi, continues to host services that mark important moments in the ministry of Kenya’s five million-member Anglican church, as well as the nation’s civic life. The cathedral has a staff of 14 clergy, and offers as many as ten services on Sundays, in English, Swahili, and sign language. It has active ministries among children, teens, and young adults, as well as an acclaimed traditional choir.

In Prof. Gilbert Ogutu’s All Saints’ Cathedral Church Nairobi-Centenary 1917-2017, its current provost, the Very Rev. Canon Dr. Sammy Wainaina, described the structure as a valuable guide to spiritual life.

“A walk into the cathedral takes you through various sections of the church, which symbolize some of the great spiritual moments in our life as Anglicans. During the construction of the temple, it is evident that God cared about the tiny details of what the temple would look like. Every section of the temple had a special significance to teach and remind God’s people about prayer and the way God should be worshiped.”


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