TACOMA – After years of prayer and patience, Kennedy Bwanika soon will move his family into the first house they’ve owned.
Their Habitat for Humanity home has special significance. The family — Ugandan refugees who are members of Tacoma’s St. Leo the Great Parish — are buying the home built last year by the 25 parishes of the Archdiocese of Seattle’s Pierce Deanery, in honor of Pope Francis’ Jubilee Year of Mercy.
“Saints will be watching my house,” Bwanika said.
Bwanika moved to Tacoma in 2009, but couldn’t find affordable housing large enough for his nine-member family, who were still living in Uganda. “I was looking for a house. I have no money,” Bwanika said. “I was looking for someone to help me.”
He found that help at St. Leo’s. Parishioner Pat Coogan, a board member for Tacoma/Pierce County Habitat for Humanity, and his wife, Patty, befriended Bwanika. They connected him with Habitat and welcomed his wife Mary Namukwaya and their seven children when they finally were able to arrive from Uganda in 2012. (Their eighth child, born in Tacoma, is now 4 years old.)
“A lot of volunteers and staff came together to give a family a stable home,” Coogan said. “I think this is a really good example of, we all do better if we help people out who are at the margins of society.”
Gifts and blessings
Parishioners, neighbors, gifts and blessings welcomed the family to their new home Aug. 13.
Benedictine Father Andrew Schwenke, visiting from Oregon’s Mount Angel Abbey, sprinkled a mix of holy water and salt in every room of the house, praying: “Pour out your blessing on this house and the family that is going to live in this house.”
The family was presented with a log cabin quilt made by parishioners at Immaculate Conception Mission in Steilacoom. Habitat for Humanity provided a basket of gifts with meaning: a Bible representing hope and faith, bread so they’ll always have food, sugar for something sweet in their lives, salt to add a little flavor, a candle for warmth and Play-Doh for fun.
Purchased by parishioners at St. Rita of Cascia Parish in Tacoma, this plaque is affixed to the outside of the Habitat for Humanity House built by the parishes of the Pierce Deanery. Photo: Courtesy Tacoma/Pierce County Habitat for Humanity
An earlier gift, a bronze dedication plaque purchased by St. Rita of Cascia Parish in Tacoma, has been affixed to the home’s exterior.
Parishioners from St. Leo’s and St. Ann Parish in Tacoma attended the celebration, along with Dan Fannin, a member of Lakewood’s St. John Bosco Parish. Fannin originated the idea of the Pierce Deanery parishes sharing the costs and volunteer hours needed to erect the house.
“We had hoped to get a Catholic family in [the home] that would fully appreciate it was named in honor of Pope Francis,” Fannin said, pleased that Bwanika and his family are purchasing the house.
‘God wanted us to go into this house’
Bwanika started the Habitat application process in 2011, but several potential houses didn’t work out due to size, location or cost. Bwanika said he often asked God, “Have you forgotten me?”
After his family arrived in 2012, they lived with a St. Leo parishioner, later moving into Catholic Community Services housing. As time went on, the four older children went off to college, so the family didn’t need such a large house. But a walkable neighborhood, close to church, stores and public transportation, remained a priority.
When the Pope Francis House at The Woods at Golden Given became an option, Bwanika considered its location, in the Midland area outside Tacoma, less than ideal. He took a few days to think about it, but accepted when he realized this was his last chance for a Habitat house relatively close to Tacoma.
“God wanted us to go into this house,” Bwanika said. “Nothing can happen that is not in God’s plan.”
Meeting the requirements for Habitat home ownership wasn’t easy. Bwanika had to be able to afford the $165,000 mortgage, so he took on a part-time job as a dishwasher to supplement his full-time job as a Goodwill donation attendant. And the family had to be willing to complete 500 hours of “sweat equity” by volunteering for Habitat.
“Kennedy … has made the biggest impact on our volunteers,” said Jason Gauthier, operations director for Tacoma/Pierce County Habitat for Humanity. “He works six to seven days a week, working hard to make a better life for his family. His work ethic, determination and spirit shone through.”
Soon Bwanika and Namukwaya will move into the home with their four younger children, daughters ages 9, 11 and 13; and son, 4.
“This house brings so much warmth to my heart,” said Maureen Fife, Habitat’s local CEO/executive director and a member of Tacoma’s St. Charles Borromeo Parish. “This is a very tangible sign of the Catholic community celebrating together Pope Francis’ message of love, compassion and generosity.”
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