Cardinal Maurice Otunga Biography

Cardinal Maurice Otunga was born in Chebukwa, Bungoma county on 31st January 1923 and died on 6th September 2003. He was a Roman Catholic cardinal and the Archbishop Emeritus of Nairobi who was also the Military Ordinary Emeritus for Kenya.

He was the son of Wasike Lusweti Sudi, Paramount Chief of the Bakhone clan of the Bukusus, and Namisi, a traditional diviner and one of the chief’s many wives.

On giving birth to him, Namisi named her son Simiyu, which signifies “one who is born during the hot and dry season.” On coming to see his infant son, however, Chief Sudi was impressed by his face and chose to call him instead Cardinal Maurice Otunga, which refers to a staff which supports the old or lame. It was a name that would prophetically point towards the infant’s future work.

Peter Nabangi, one of his half-brothers, remembers the Servant of God’s childhood: “Cardinal Maurice Otunga was not like us. When playing with other children, he never fought with any of them, but simply enjoyed being with his friends. Even if you beat or insulted him, he would never lay his hands on you.”


Like any other Bukusu boy, Otunga spent his early years at the homestead of his father. Namisi taught him the first tenets of their traditional religion and was content on educating him on her own. However, Chief Sudi, a man who saw the valued of formal education, had his eight-year-old son enrolled in a school at Kibabii in Kanduyi (Bungoma) in 1931. Two years later, he was transferred to a school in Sijei (Bungoma).

Both of these schools were supervised by the Mill Hill Missionaries who had been evangelizing the then-apostolic vicariate of Kisumu since the beginning of the 20th century. It was in this environment that Otunga was introduced to the Catholic faith. Having learned his catechism sufficiently, Otunga was deemed ready for baptism by the head catechist. At first, Chief Sudi refused his son’s request to become a Catholic. Thinking that the boy’s eagerness would later fade away, nonetheless, he later relented and allowed him to be baptized.

On 1 September 1935, Otunga, along with several women and men, were baptized at Kibabi by Fr. Leon Puylaert, MHM, and Fr. Ferdinand Fent, MHM. On that occasion, he was christened Maurice, in honor of the widely-venerated Egyptian martyr from the 3rd century. Many years later, Otunga would recall that “at baptism, I felt like a different person. I felt it.”

That same year, Otunga continued his studies at Kabaa High School in Mwala (Machakos), a school founded and administered by the Holy Ghost Fathers. In 1939, he and several students were moved to Mang’u (Gatundu North, Kiambu) where the secondary division of the school was transferred. That same year, however, he returned to Kabaa to receive confirmation from the hands of the Servant of God Bishop Joseph Shanahan, CSSp, on 29 September. In honor of the saint of that day, he was confirmed with the name Michael.


In the later-half of 1943, Otunga was in his father’s homestead for several months to undergo traditional initiation into manhood. During the actual ritual, Chief Sudi placed a special cloak of the finest gazelle skins on his son’s shoulders and placed his staff on his son’s hands. All gathered understood what it meant – the chief had chosen Otunga to succeed him after his death.

On returning back to Mang’u in October of that year, Otunga and his principal, Fr. John Joseph O’Meara, CSSp, began to make plans for him to read History and Education at Makarere College (now University) in Kampala (Uganda).  But something deep in his heart was growing intensely: “… that little thing in his heart told him to go to the seminary. He appreciated the opportunity to go to (Makarere), but in his heart of hearts he knew he was being called to the priesthood. Would going to (Makarere) interfere in some way with that call?…‘I had the vocation very strong,’ he says. ‘So strong that I felt, am I doing my own little will or God’s will?”

To clarify his conviction, he sought the counsel of two Mill Hill missionaries. He went first to Fr. Puylaert, the missionary who baptized him, who encouraged him to take the step. Otunga then sought the advice of Fr. (later Bishop) Jan de Reeper, MHM, rector of St. Peter’s Seminary in Mukumu (Shinyalu, Kakamega). “My son,” he told Otunga, “you are playing with your vocation, so come, otherwise you will lose that vocation.”

Firmly convinced that he was following the will of God, Cardinal Maurice Otunga dropped his plans to go to Makarere. He returned home to reveal to his parents his desire to begin seminary studies. Chief Sudi remained silent for more than a day after hearing from his favored son.  As the hours went, relatives spoke more openly against Otunga’s decision. Chief Sudi then spoke, “Let him go and find out for himself. I’ve seen many go to… the minor seminary and later leave. Let him go.”

With his father’s permission – and in spite his father’s doubts – Otunga entered St. Peter’s Seminary in 1943. Two years later, he went to Uganda for philosophical studies at St. Mary’s National Major Seminary in Ggaba. During all this time, Chief Sudi was pressing him to end his seminary studies and take over his role of paramount chief. But Otunga did not give in.

In 1947, Otunga was sent to Rome to study theology at the Collegio Urbaniano. He came under the rectorship of Fr. (later Cardinal) James Knox who esteemed Cardinal Maurice Otunga in a unique way and with whom he would later work in Kenya.

On 3 October 1950, Cardinal Maurice Otunga was ordained a priest. In 1951 he was granted his Master’s Degree in Theology and returned home to Kenya.

Cardinal Maurice Otunga: From Kakamega to Kisumu

As a young priest, Cardinal Maurice Otunga had wanted to involve himself in the evangelization and pastoral care of the people. “Fr. Otunga saw himself as nothing more than a pastoral man. He had no greater ambition than to be in the thick of with God’s people. He lived what he believed. He believed that his life was a total donation to God and his people, and it was this that he dedicated all his energies.”

However, his superiors felt that it would be best for him to be assigned as a teacher at St. Peter’s Seminary in Kakamega. “Obedience prevented him from the fulfillment of his personal vision.” In

1953, he was sent to Mombasa to serve as the private secretary of Archbishop Knox, his former rector in Rome who had been appointed as Apostolic Delegate of the British East and West Africa, a zone that included 72 national jurisdictions. Archbishop Know used to send Fr. Otunga to many places, which gave him a wider insight into the condition of the faithful in East Africa.

On 17 November, 1956, Pope Pius XII appointed Fr. Otunga as Auxiliary Bishop of Kisumu. With his consecration, Cardinal Maurice Otunga became the first Kenyan to be elevated to the episcopacy.  He served in this office for about four years and en- countered some difficulties in the process. Archbishop Philip Sulumeti of Kakamega reflected on that period: “Our church is human and the acceptance of him as a black bishop was difficult in some quarters…. Kenya was (then) a colony and the settlers had the mentality that they were going to stay. There were a few missionaries with that mentality so they didn’t like the idea of an African bishop… I think what led him to succeed was that humility in him. He was a very humble person and very difficult to fight with and that I think has carried him along. He is humble in the real sense of the word. That doesn’t mean you can take him for granted. No, he can be very strong when he has to.”

Cardinal Maurice Otunga: Bishop of Kisii and Cardinal-Archibishop of Nairobi

Cardinal Maurice Otunga

In June 1960, the Holy See created the Diocese of Kisii and entrusted to the local clergy, under the leadership of Otunga as its first Bishop. He set himself immediately to delegating responsibilities in the diocese to the local clergy and laity. Bishop Otunga implemented staff changes in the Catholic schools of the diocese and prepared native priests to become headmasters. He laid a strong foundation for the diocese and developed it through a number of social and developmental programs, with the help of various religious congregations of brothers, sisters and lay people. Bishop Otunga ensured that each parish established self-help projects to cater for the needs of its poor members.

In 1969, Pope Paul VI appointed Bishop Otunga  as Coadjutor of the Archdiocese of Nairobi. At the retirement of Archbishop John Joseph McCarthy, CSSp, in 1971, Bishop Otunga was installed as Ordinary of Nairobi. Archbishop Otunga faced many challenges on taking office. The city of Nairobi was growing in size and, as the capital of Kenya, it occupied a special place in the nation. Worse, he found himself heading an archdiocese with only six diocesan priests and eight Holy Ghost Missionaries. He immediately began promoting and encouraging vocations to the diocesan priesthood. On the same time, he invited many religious congregations – for both women and men – to come to the Archdiocese and help him build the local church. The vast experiences of Archbishop Otunga, and the strength of his personal prayer life, kept the better of him. While being strong and firm, he remained warm and willing to take sacrifices for the Church. To the priests, laity, and religious in his fold, he exhibited an unforgettable and touching solicitude for their well-being and growth in faith. He aimed at evangelizing his people, teaching everyone that they should make the Church their own.

On 5 March 1973, two years after taking over the see of Nairobi, Archbishop Otunga was made a Cardinal of the Holy Roman Church. Regarding that occasion, Cardinal Otunga would later reminisce: “The Holy Father placed the biretta on my head saying: ‘This biretta is to give you testimony that you must be ready to defend the Catholic Tradition even to the shedding of your blood.’ I will never forget that. When I stood up, I felt a different man.”

As the years passed, Cardinal Maurice Otunga found himself dealing not only with the religious affairs of the Church (the number of parishes doubled during his ministry in Nairobi), but also with the civil, political, economic and justice situations of the country.  Although known for his humility, he never hesitated to come at the defense of the country’s poor and marginalized. In all trying circumstances, he responded under the inspiration of the Gospels and the teachings of the Church. He never allowed himself to be muddled in tribal politics, always reminding everyone that he was the bishop for all the members of his flock.

Cardinal Maurice Otunga never tired in showing his fatherly care for the priests of his archdiocese. He always found time to write to them in a very personal way, manifesting his concern that they should be models of Christian discipleship to the faithful in their parishes. He always practiced what he recommended to his priests: “You must be very good, very holy. Because you are at the pinnacle, anybody can throw anything at you, anytime. You must get good advisers who can give you a good advice without bias. You have to pray, remember always that you are doing God’s work. Never be vengeful, remember you are a father. You can weep, but remain close to God.”

Cardinal Maurice Otunga Last Years

In 1991, Cardinal Otunga became ill, and asked Pope John Paul II to resign. The Pope did not accept his proposal, but gave him a Coadjutor in 1996, in the person of Bishop Raphael S. Ndingi Mwana’a Nzeki of Nakuru, who would succeed him automatically at the time of retirement or death.The following year, he suffered a stroke which prevented him from further exercising his office as Archbishop of Nairobi. His Vicar General wrote on his behalf a second letter of resignation to the Pope, who this time accepted his resignation.

With a great sense of dignity and humility, Cardinal Maurice Otunga spent his final years at Nyumba ya Wazee, a home for the elderly in Kasarani (Nairobi) operated by the Little Sisters of the Poor, asking to live like any other patient in it.  There were those who objected to his choice and counseled that he should retire in a mansion or in the Vatican. The Servant of God explained his choice in this manner: “I do not wish to be a burden to anyone, nor to appear to have any other home or family apart from the Archdiocese.”

Cardinal Otunga continued to welcome with authentic hospitality anyone who visited him in Kasarani. When possible, he would come to Holy Family Basilica to celebrate the sacraments with the faithful. Abundant are the testimonies of lay persons who remembered how Cardinal Otunga, despite his failing health, consistently showed his sincere interest in personally knowing more about them and his concern for the well-being of their spouses and children.

As his health declined further in the middle of 2003, he was transferred from Nyumba ya Wazee to Mater Hospital in Nairobi. It was there that on 6 September 2003, consoled by the sacraments and the company of his brother-bishops and members of the faithful, Cardinal Otunga began his journey into life everlasting. On 19 September, thousands of mourners attended the funeral service for Cardinal Otunga at the Nyayo National Stadium. In observance of his will, Cardinal Otunga was laid to rest at St. Austin Church cemetery in Lavington (Nairobi).


O God, you granted your Servant Maurice Micheal Cardinal Otunga the Grace to be an exemplary pastor at the service of the church, making him a symbol of humility and love for the poor and less fortunate in the society, while denying and detaching himself from the pleasures of the world. Grant, we beseech thee, that we may also learn to respond faithfully to the demands of the Christian vocation, converting all moments and circumstances of our life into opportunities of loving you and our neighbours with joy and kindness, and of serving the kingdom of God with humility. We humbly request you to grant your servant Cardinal Maurice Otunga a share in the Glory of Heaven which is promised to those who have served you well. Through his intercession Bless the Church, our country, Our Families and Children, and grant us the favours we humbly request.. Through Christ Our Lord. Amen.