August 10, 2018

School outreach in Uganda helps build bridges of faith

Father Tom Kovatch, top, and Jenna Dedek, center, both of St. Charles Borromeo Parish in Bloomington, pose with the students at St. Jerome Primary School in Kapeeka, Uganda, during a mission trip on June 10, 2016. The parish makes regular trips to visit the school. (Submitted photo)

Father Tom Kovatch, top, and Jenna Dedek, center, both of St. Charles Borromeo Parish in Bloomington, pose with the students at St. Jerome Primary School in Kapeeka, Uganda, during a mission trip on June 10, 2016. The parish makes regular trips to visit the school. (Submitted photo)

By Katie Rutter (Special to The Criterion)

BLOOMINGTON—The people of Kapeeka, Uganda, were so eager to begin work on a new dormitory for their school, they brought a bulldozer to the groundbreaking ceremony.

“[I expected] a shovel with a ribbon tied around it and everyone holds it together,” said Ashley Barnett, who traveled to the African country to help represent St. Charles Borromeo Parish in Bloomington at the joyous occasion.

“They were like, serious about it. It was not just a cute little thing, it was like, this was happening,” she laughed.

The massive hole dug before Barnett’s eyes was destined to hold the foundation for a new dormitory at St. Jerome Primary School, which educates some of the poorest children in Uganda.

The parishioners of St. Charles Borromeo regularly support the school and its students with materials and donations. Over the last year and a half, however, the community gave an impressive $125,000 so that the approximately 220 children would have enough space to sleep.

“I told the people from the pulpit that they needed a dorm, and I was hoping people would come and help,” explained Father Tom Kovatch, St. Charles Borromeo’s pastor.

“I was going to give my salary until we raised the money, but one of the parishioners matched everything that I gave. Then I had a number of them, they gave $10,000 [each],” he said.

Most of the students at St. Jerome, who range in age from 6 to 16, live in the two dormitories currently on the campus. These buildings—which consist of long rooms filled with bunk beds—were bursting at the seams.

“The beds were double-bunked, side by side,” said Father Kovatch. “There was no space in between. Some of the girls were sleeping two to a bed.”

The new dormitory, which will measure 42 feet wide and 112 feet long, will allow each child to have a bed and additional space, adding comfort and helping to prevent the spread of illness.

“Everyone should have their own bed. They don’t have a lot to call their own,” said Barnett.

These children are some of the poorest in the country. All of the students have lost one or both parents, often from illness or disease such as AIDS. Some were raised by other family members in single-room huts. Others were forced to fend for themselves on the streets.

“A lot of these kids when they come to this school, they don’t know how to speak English even though English is the language of the country,” explained Father Kovatch.

Today, the students’ test scores rank among the best in Uganda. Many want to become doctors, engineers, teachers, priests and religious sisters, dreams that could help change the course of the country.

Much of Uganda is still reeling from the poverty and loss caused by decades of conflict. A brutal military dictatorship in the 1970s led to the death of an estimated 300,000 people, according to information compiled by the Library of Congress Federal Research Division. This was followed by a civil war in the 1980s, with death tolls estimated as high as 500,000. Millions of survivors were displaced or packed into internment camps subject to military control. The generation that grew up during the strife—now adults—had little or no opportunity for education.

In an effort to break the cycle of poverty, St. Jerome Primary School was founded in 2009 by Father Hilary Muheezangango, a Ugandan priest. He also created the U.S. nonprofit organization Children’s Outreach and Vocational Education, or COVE Alliance.

The organization matches U.S. donors to individual students at St. Jerome. The student attends for free while the donor pays for all of the child’s expenses, including materials, meals and health care. The expenses total about $960 per year. Parishioners of St. Charles Borromeo currently sponsor more than 40 children.

“St. Charles has really embraced this in a huge way,” said Father Kovatch.

Father Kovatch also takes yearly mission trips to the school with up to 20 parishioners. A fundraising drive before each trip raises the money for a new pair of shoes for every child in the school.

“I love being with the kids so much. I always get sad after we leave them,” explained Barnett, who attended seven of these mission trips as the youth minister for the parish.

“Ours is a relational ministry. Whether it’s playing games or playing sports or having Mass, it’s a relationship. Our mission is to love,” she said.

Father Kovatch, Barnett and six others flew to Uganda for the groundbreaking ceremony on July 4. Once the foundation was dug, Father Kovatch walked the perimeter and sprinkled holy water on the site. Dozens of children followed, repeating a refrain of joyful song.

“They start singing, ‘May the spirit of the Lord come down, may the spirit of the Lord come down, may the spirit of the Lord from heaven come down,’ ” recalled Barnett.

“It was really sweet,” she added.

In the past, the Bloomington parish has raised funds for a guest house and new classroom building on the St. Jerome campus. Father Kovatch is also working with a Bloomington-based engineer to design a new radio station for the Diocese of Kansana-Luweero, where the school is located.

“That’s their major form of communication, radio,” Father Kovatch said, “and most, even the poor [people] have a radio in their homes.”

Both Father Kovatch and Barnett said that the students and staff of St. Jerome are constantly expressing gratitude for all St. Charles Borromeo parishioners have provided to their school. Yet these Hoosiers argue that the people of Uganda have given them something far greater in return.

“I think it’s been really instrumental in helping me to find my vocation and discerning where God wants me,” Barnett said, speaking on the phone from St. Louis. Barnett is just days away from entering a convent of missionary sisters, largely because of her experiences in Uganda.

“They’ve given me so much, not a dorm, but my life, my vocation, so I’m really grateful for that,” she said.

“They stole my heart,” Father Kovatch said with a huge smile.

“I have had so many of these letters, and [they say], ‘Father, thank you for coming to visit us, thank you for the shoes, thank you for bringing all of your group here. I wish I could give you something back, but I don’t have anything to give you. But I’ll pray for you,’ ” he said.

“What we get back is far greater than what we give,” Father Kovatch summarized.

(Katie Rutter is a freelance writer and member of St. Charles Borromeo Parish in Bloomington. This fall, Father Thomas Kovatch will start gathering volunteers for a missionary trip in 2019. For more information, to donate or to sponsor a child, call the St. Charles Borromeo Parish office at 812-336-6846 or visit the COVE Alliance website at

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