MANNINGTON TOWNSHIP — Here and in Uganda, Bishop Sanctus Lino Wanok of Nebbi could see two communities’ enduring faith in the face of persecution.
He recalled St. Charles Lwanga and his 21 companions who were martyred for their faith in Uganda by King Mwanga in 1886 for keeping the faith of the French Missionaries who instructed them.
And on Aug. 31 here at a private home near the Salem River, he learned of the Catholic origins of South Jersey and the struggles to keep that seed of faith growing.
For almost a month, Bishop Sanctus visited the Diocese of Camden, meeting with Bishop Dennis Sullivan and fellow Ugandan priests ministering in Camden.
The visit to the old Matthias Geiger (Kiger) family house capped his first time in the United States. Touring the home with Ugandan priest, Father Robert Ngageno from St. Gabriel the Archangel Parish in Carneys Point, and parishioner Tom Pankok, Bishop Sanctus met with the home’s current owners, Suzanne and Michael Cooke, with their son Sam, and learned of its role in the spread of Catholicism’s roots in South Jersey.
Built around 1720, the house became a secret haven for the New World Catholic colonists of Salem County, who were not allowed to publicly practice their faith by order of Great Britain.
From St. Joseph’s Church on Willings Alley in Philadelphia, two Jesuit priests, first Father Theodore Schneider and later Father Ferdinand Farmer, came twice a year to the home to administer the sacraments to the small Catholic community. A small room with a large fireplace and two upper rooms remain today from the original structure, now with additional living quarters.
From ferry on water to horse-drawn wagon on land, under cover of woodlands and disguise, the priests risked their lives to cross from Philadelphia to the Kiger House (one historical account even mentions that they were shot at), so chosen because of its (still) remote location.
Historical records show that from 1759-70, 85 children were baptized in the home. The aftermath of the American Revolution brought liberty to the Catholics, and the growing number of churches meant the home would be left to history.
In 2006, the New Jersey Catholic Historical Records Commission recognized the Kiger house as a local landmark in Catholic history as the oldest surviving structure in the state where Catholic services were held.
The Cooks have lived in the home since 2000 but see themselves as just stewards of this historic property, rather than owners.
Bishop Sanctus remarked on the lasting power of the Catholic faith, here and in Uganda. After the death of the 22 Ugandan martyrs, 500 more Christians professed their own beliefs.
“There is resistance, but the Catholic faith always breaks through,” he said. “The mustard seed sprouted, and rose up.”