End of an era as fiery archbishop exits altar after 50-year service

Incoming Kisumu Archbishop Philip Anyolo presides over a farewell mass at St Paul’s Catholic Church in Homa Bay yesterday. [James Omoro, Standard]
An altar boy who become one of the youngest Catholic priests takes a graceful exit after 50 years of service.

Renowned for his booming voice, thick rimmed spectacles and humour, Archbishop Zacchaeus Okoth, who was ordained at 26, was indubitably the salt of the Kenyan Catholic church who seasoned many a soul. A tough human rights defender, he did not shy away from dabbling in controversial political debates when delivering his sermons. The 76-year-old will be the focus at the lawns of Uzima University College in Kisumu today when he hands over the expansive Kisumu Archdiocese to another veteran, Archbishopdesignate Philip Arnold Subira Anyolo, 62,  who arrived in Kisumu in style yesterday evening.

He was a common feature at episcopal press conferences where bishops bashed the government over corruption, extrajudicial killings and ethnicity.

A friend and adviser to ODM leader Raila Odinga, Archbishop Okoth is presently a member of the Building Bridges team, cobbled by Raila and President Kenyatta soon after they shook hands on March 9 last year.

Archbishop Okoth who was ordained to head the Kisumu Archdiocese in May 1990, could not grant an interview yesterday since he was preparing for the big handing over ceremony but other bishops, priests and lay leaders we spoke to, spoke of a man who totally dedicated his life to the Church.

He will also be remembered as a fiery prelate who gave sleepless night to the Kanu regime and later the Kibaki government through his hard-hitting sermons.

During the one party regime in the 1990, It was Okoth and the late Maseno South Anglican Bishop John Henry Okullu who kept Kanu on its toes. Under cover police officers, then, known as the Special Branch always trailed them and formed part of their congregation. His friendship with Raila started when he saved him from being arrested by police who had pursued him all the way from Nairobi at the height of purge on anti-government politicians in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Raila recently revealed how Archbishop Okoth had him sneaked into the Ukweli Pastoral Centre under cover of darkness, dressed as a priest and later helped him board a boat that ferried him to Uganda through Lake Victoria.

Raila has in many occasions hailed Archbishop Okoth as a dedicated cleric  who has been fighting injustices in the society.

Kisumu the Archdiocese Vicar General, Fr Moses Omollo described Okoth as a hardworking man who brought a lot of spiritual development in the church. “He was a no-nonsense man with a strong personality but in his way, he brought joy to many,” said Omollo.

Closer to people

He said the focused clergyman spent all the money he received on development projects. “We are grateful for him and we wish him a joyful retirement, his spirit was to bring joy God’s word closer to the people,” said Fr Omollo. 

Father Karoli Achok of Nyawita Parish said Okoth has accomplished his core mandate of bringing Christ to the people.

“He disciplined us and showed us the right directions, walked with us and encouraged us all along,” said Fr Achok. Records from the church and which were confirmed by Fr Omollo, show that Archbishop Okoth helped found a number of organisations which include, Kolping Kenya, Catholic University of Eastern Africa, Pacis Insurance Company, Bondo Teachers Training College, Maseno University, Ramogi Institute of Advanced Technology (RIAT), MEDS and Centenary House. Fr Omollo said Archbishop Okoth was also the inspiration behind the Jubilee Mall in Karen, Uzima University colleges, Monica Hospital and ADOK Timo Microfinance in Kisumu. He is credited with scaling up the number of parishes in the archdiocese from 14 to 57. Now, the archdiocese has about 400 sponsored primary schools, 200 secondary schools, 22 health centres among many other notable projects.

Colourful career

But it has not been a bed of roses for the archbishop as allegations of  corruption once threatened to wreck his liturgical career.

One chilly morning in March 2015, the Catholic fraternity in Nyanza woke up to a disturbing news story that Archbishop Okoth had been linked to an alleged corruption network in which millions of shillings from the Vatican had been lost through ghost projects. It was alleged that the archbishop had known about a network of fraudsters that siphoned millions of dollars for ghost projects but did nothing about it.

The reports shook the church but Archbishop Okoth came out fighting, describing the allegations as blackmail. 

Addressing the media, Archbishop Okoth who was flanked by several priests, lay leaders and nuns, denied the claims.

Yesterday, Anyolo who has been the Bishop of Homa Bay Diocese since 2003, bid farewell to faithful. “The mood here indicates I will miss you,” he said as he presided over a morning farewell mass at St Paul’s Homa Bay Church. “I will miss you but I will have you in my heart.”

-Additional reporting by James Omoro

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Catholic priestsArchbishop Zacchaeus OkothKenyan Catholic churchRaila Odinga