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The rise and rise of the Catholic church to multi-billion enterprise

By Dominic Omondi | September 28th 2021

Catholic faithful at the Holy Family Basilica, Nairobi. [Elvis Ogina, Standard]

The soothing breeze blew away perspiration from reporters' faces as they eagerly waited for one of the biggest events of the day to get underway.

They had been invited to witness the groundbreaking of a Sh15 billion student’s hostel project next to the Catholic University of Eastern Africa (CUEA) in Nairobi earlier this year. 

To kickstart the occasion, several men of the cloth consecrated the construction site.

This investment, said one of the priests, his voice rising above the hum of the excavator, was how human beings continued with God’s work of creation. 

The Catholic Church, through the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops, was giving away the land for the construction of the Student Village, Karen.

The hostel complex would also have a gym, café, hospital, playground and other amenities. 

The construction of the hostel is just one among millions of investments that the Roman Catholic Church, one of the richest and most powerful religious organisations in the world, has been involved in recently even as the flow of tithes, offerings and donations reduce to a trickle.

Official data shows that almost a fifth of Christians, or 9,726,169 Kenyans, say they are affiliated with the Catholic Church.

The church has built up a treasure of assets running into hundreds of billions.

Infographics: The Standard

The church’s reach has spread to almost every sector, from health, education, agriculture, real estate, finance, and insurance.   

The Catholic Church - and by extension all religious groupings - believes that such investments as the Sh15 billion hostel project are underwritten by God.  

The Nairobi Archdiocese Financial Administrator Father Simon Ng’ang’a said retired Cardinal John Njue, who stepped down earlier this year when he attained the mandatory retirement age of 75 years, had helped create Sh2.8 billion investments for the church during his 14-year reign.

This included the Cardinal Otunga Plaza in Nairobi’s central business district built for Sh916 million.

The church also splashed Sh419 million on a retirement home for its clergy.

Unfortunately, some of these assets have turned into a bitter pill for the church.

They are credited for opening up ugly wounds of colonial disenfranchisement and tarnishing the piety of the church, with some accusing it of illegal acquisition of the wealth.

They have also been at the centre of embarrassing court battles as the clergy fight for their control.

Traditionally, the main source of church finances has been offerings, tithes and donations.

Donations were especially critical for the Catholic Church, which for long emphasised the idea that good works could save sinners from purgatory.

As a result, the rich during the medieval ages aggressively bought pardons from the Pope, a trend that incensed German Catholic priest, the late Martin Luther.

German priests would then instigate a split of the Catholic Church. This was referred to as the Protestant reformation - a religious reform movement that swept through Europe in the 1500s, resulting in the creation of a branch of Christianity called Protestantism.

The majority of Kenyans are protestants. To date, devout Catholics around the world continue to generously give to the church.

These funds are, in turn, pumped into projects, such as the church’s hostel project, whose exorbitant costs, in the opinion of some people, bellies the church’s evangelistic mission.

George Njenga, the vice-chancellor at Strathmore University, who also sits on the advisory board of the Catholic-owned Caritas Microfinance Bank, said the number of people sending financial assistance to Africa has reduced due to the economic crisis in Europe.

“For a long time, we were dependent as a mission, and still are to a large extent, on funding from international church NGOs and religious organisations,” said Dr Njenga.

He also advises Pacis Insurance, owned by Catholic bishops

Njenga said his work is to wean the clergy of dependency on church funds and introduce them to the business world. While churches are supposed to operate as nonprofit entities, some of their commercial services may appear prohibitive.

For example, students will pay between Sh18,000 and Sh20,000 per month for accommodation at the hostel set for completion before the end of next year.

If you add tuition fees of about Sh72,000 for an undergraduate student at the CUEA next door, it will set one back as much as Sh152,000 per semester.

The church reckons that this model can be compared to the fable of Robin Hood who stole from the rich to give to the poor, only the church is not stealing. According to Charles Kanjama, a lawyer and devout Catholic, the surplus that the church gets from charging high tuition fees at the university is offered as scholarships and bursaries to poor students.

The money is also pumped into mission schools and hospitals, which have been critical in offering education and medication for millions of poor families.

A 10 minutes drive from CUEA to the city centre is the imposing facade of the Holy Family Minor Basilica.

This is the seat of the Archdiocese of Nairobi. Here, the Chinese have just completed the construction of one of the largest underground parking silos in the city centre. Built in 1904, the church was the first stone building in Nairobi. But now, this architectural antique is also an expression of modernity.

Motorists are charged Sh100 for the first two hours of parking their cars in these underground parking silos. An additional hour attracts an additional Sh100.

Also nearby is the Cardinal Otunga Plaza, a building owned by the diocese, which besides offering offices to the diocese is rented out to the public.

By relying on donations from abroad, the church was able to offer different services on the cheap. This was the case with most mission hospitals such as the St Mary’s Hospital in Lang’ata.

“You will find that they offer education or health at lower prices than their counterparts in private hospitals or schools,” said city lawyer Charles Kanjama, noting that this was possible not only because of the donations but also because the church was able to save on inputs, such as salaries to nuns and priests.  

However, explained Kanjama, there is a model where the church could charge at market rates. 

“But because this is a charitable institution, what would otherwise be profit (but is now known as surplus) is used to do good.”

He gives the example of Strathmore College, which offers massive scholarships and bursaries that the public may not know of.

“The money made from the parking silo is used to run so many charitable activities and things the Catholic archdiocese runs,” explained Kanjama, noting that this is the most sustainable model.  

It is a famous maxim among history students that Kenya was subdued using both a Gun and Bible, some kind of carrot and stick tactic with the former used by missionaries while the latter by the colonialists.

The British colonialists forced Africans into servitude and crammed those who resisted “civilisation” into prisons.

The missionaries also built schools and hospitals to rid Africans of the twin scourge of ignorance and disease.

Both colonialists and missionaries occupied arable lands in the formerly White Highlands that stretched from the foothills of Mount Kenya to the escarpments of the Rift Valley.

Godfrey Muriuku in his historical account of the Kikuyu noted that while the government was busy forcibly subduing the Kikuyu and establishing British rule and the European settlers were busy taking up land for settlement, another equally important incursion was taking place: that of the Church.

Eventually, it was the Roman Catholic Church that curved out the largest sphere of influence in Kikuyuland by the end of 1903.

However, it was the East African Scottish Industrial Mission, which had until 1898 been operating in Kibwezi, that endeared itself to the Kikuyu when they set camp at Baraniki near Dagoretti. 

With famine and disease raging in the land, the arrival of the Scottish missionaries was particularly opportune. The missionaries played a notable part in organising famine relief and caring for the sick. 

“Both acts earned them a good name, and a lasting gratitude and augured well for their evangelising enterprise,” said Professor Muriuki in his analysis.

As the country gained independence, most of the white settlers sold their land to the natives and left. 

However, the assets owned by the church, especially the Catholic Church, though not managed by the white, never quite left the grip of the church.   

To date, the Catholic Church retains some of the most valuable lands in Kenya, including in the Karen suburb in Nairobi.

These assets have been both a blessing and a curse to the church.

The Ndung’u Land Report, officially known as the Commission of Inquiry into the Illegal/Irregular Allocation of Public Land, also showed how the Catholic Church benefited from 1,040 acres, which it bought at Sh13 per acre.

Other churches that were also implicated included the African Inland Church (AIC), which got 3,851 acres; as well as the Methodist Church, which was accused of illegally excising 40.47 acres in Meru on which it put up the Methodist University.

The Consolata Catholic Mission has also been fingered in the displacement of Kenyans from their land in Tigoni in Kiambu County, a situation that resulted in the Lari Massacre.

The 11-year legal spat for control of two Kenyan hospitals, including St Mary’s Mission hospital, between Assumption Sisters of Nairobi and the former Maryknoll priest William Fryda, has painted the Catholic Church badly.

Even the Vatican Bank, where all the church’s contributions are banked, has had its fair share of scandals, with the Pope at one time sending the entire board packing over impropriety claims.

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