The Word Among Us

Easter 2023 Issue

A Grace That Conquers All

The Story of Cyprien and Daphrose Rugamba

By: Josh Danis

A Grace That Conquers All: The Story of Cyprien and Daphrose Rugamba by Josh Danis

If there’s one sure sign of the presence of the Holy Spirit, it’s unity. Whether it’s the enduring love between a husband and a wife or the rekindled love between two estranged friends, the sight of people living in unity is nothing less than a vision of God’s grace at work.

That’s what makes the story of Cyprien and Daphrose Rugamba of Rwanda such a beautiful example of the Spirit’s power. Theirs is a story of enduring love, of friendship betrayed and restored, and of what can happen when two people open their lives to the Spirit’s transforming power. This couple, who are now being considered for sainthood, are proof that the Holy Spirit can overcome any obstacle in anyone’s lives—even our own.

Cyprien was born in the early 1930s in the village of Cyanika in southern Rwanda. As a child, he exhibited a brilliant intellect and a deep commitment to his Catholic faith. He chose to enter minor seminary in 1948. However, after several years of preparation for the priesthood, the young Rwandan became disillusioned, both by various scandals among his fellow seminarians and by the writings of some anti-Catholic philosophers he had discovered. He ended up leaving the seminary and walking away from God for the next several years of his life.

Daphrose was born in 1944, also in the village of Cyanika, to a large loving Catholic family. As a child, she studied in a convent and had a deep longing to become a nun. Yet God’s plan for her would ultimately be fulfilled in a very different way. She became a schoolteacher and continued to grow in her love for the Lord.

An Uneasy Marriage. While away from the Church, Cyprien became a leading intellectual in Rwanda and took a job working for the government. He also became a popular poet, artist, and musician, which led to him helping to establish a national Rwandan cultural center. During that time, a beautiful young woman named Xaverine Mukahigiro caught his eye. He quickly fell in love. They became engaged, but their plans for marriage were destroyed when Xaverine was killed, along with several family members, in an ethnic massacre in 1963. The attack turned out to be a forewarning of horrific events to come. As was the custom, Cyprian honored his commitment to Xaverine’s family by asking her cousin, Daphrose Mukansanga, for her hand in marriage.

This arrangement did not go quite so poorly as it might sound. Cyprien and Daphrose took the time for a season of courtship, and a genuine love bloomed between them. They were married on January 23, 1965. Cyprien’s artistic endeavors made him even more famous, and the couple began to enjoy a significant level of comfort. From the outside, all seemed well.

However, Cyprien proved not to be an easy man to love. Though zealously committed to justice and honesty, he continued to reject his faith. He would often mock Daphrose’s rich relationship with the Lord and the Church. He even went so far as to break her crucifixes in two. Around this time, the couple’s first child died during labor. On top of all that, Cyprien’s sister, Martha, took to spreading false rumors about Daphrose, and Cyprien took his sister’s word against that of his wife. After a number of years of this mistrust and discord, he demanded that Daphrose return to her parents but leave the children with him.

A Radical Conversion. After almost a year, Cyprien came to realize how unfairly he had treated his wife and asked for her forgiveness. Through the healing power of prayer, she was able to forgive him and returned to their home. But Cyprien’s repentance did not last long. He became unfaithful to her and fathered a child with another woman. All the while, Daphrose continued to pray for her husband and for reconciliation and unity within their family. Not only did she pray, but she took action: she adopted Cyprien’s illegitimate daughter and raised her as her own.

Daphrose’s prayers were finally answered in 1982 as Cyprien was fighting a deadly illness. During his illness, he started to write a song about death, but suddenly the love and mercy of Jesus engulfed his heart. At that moment, Cyprien knew that God had been waiting patiently for him. Not only that, but his illness miraculously disappeared. As a result, Cyprien experienced a radical conversion that changed his entire life, including his marriage.

Filled with the Holy Spirit, Cyprien asked Daphrose to forgive him for all of his mistreatment and infidelity. Daphrose once more forgave her husband unconditionally, and Cyprien became a faithful, loving husband. Together they began to pray and think about how they might serve the Lord together. To his dying day, Cyprien attributed his heartfelt turnaround to his wife’s unceasing prayers and faithfulness to God and their family.

The Grace of Community. In 1989, the couple participated in a pilgrimage to Paray-le-Monial, France, hosted by members of the Emmanuel Community, a lay charismatic group focused on Eucharistic Adoration, compassion, and evangelization. There they experienced a strong unity with other believers who wanted to evangelize by living and witnessing to a life centered on Jesus. Moved by their experience of living as “one heart and one mind” (Acts 4:32), they felt that the Spirit was leading them to join this community.

Returning to Rwanda, Cyprien and Daphrose committed themselves to establishing Emmanuel Community there. They reached out to friends and with them started weekly sharing groups called households. In September of 1990, the Emmanuel Community in Rwanda was born. They would spend the next several years building up the community, which grew quickly even as the political climate became increasingly tense.

In addition to their work in the community, in 1992 Cyprien and Daphrose opened a center to feed and care for homeless children. The Centre Cyprien & Daphrose Rugamba continues to this day, serving about one hundred children a day.

“We Have Only One Party.” All these events occurred against the backdrop of the years leading up to the great Rwandan genocide. Tensions were rising between the country’s two primary ethnic groups: the Hutus, who were in power and who made up about 85 percent of the population, and the minority Tutsis, who made up only about 14 percent. Throughout these years, Hutu extremists led the country, and the Tutsi minority suffered terrible discrimination and were the target of mass violence. In October 1990, just nine days after the official establishment of the Emmanuel Community in Rwanda, a civil war broke out in the north of the country between Hutu extremists and Hutu moderates allied with Tutsis.

As members of the Hutu tribe, Cyprien and Daphrose would have been expected to support the violence publicly. They were well-known throughout Rwanda due to Cyprien’s popularity and their joint ministry for children, so their voices could make a difference. So it was especially meaningful when they chose to do just the opposite of what was expected.

Instead of supporting partisanship and animosity amongst their fellow Rwandans, Cyprien called for peace and unity. He described the members of the Tutsi tribe not only as neighbors but as “brothers in Christ.” Reminding people of the growing Emmanuel Community, a place that brought members of different ethnic groups together in Christ, Cyprien repeatedly spoke out against the division, stating, “We have only one party, that of Jesus.”

On April 6, 1994, all the tension and violence finally boiled over, and for the next one hundred days, Hutu soldiers, police, and ordinary citizens slaughtered an estimated eight hundred thousand of their Tutsi neighbors.

On the same evening, April 6, aware that their country was like a tinderbox, Cyprien, Daphrose, and their children spent the night praying before the Blessed Sacrament. On the morning of April 7, 1994, the first day of the killings, Cyprien and Daphrose were targeted and assassinated along with six of their children. Their calls for peace and reconciliation had placed them at the top of the list of those intent on ethnic cleansing.

Tragedy and Triumph. In the eyes of the world, the story of Cyprien and Daphrose Rugamba is a senseless tragedy. But looking at it through the eyes of faith, it becomes a story of triumph. It is the story of how a series of personal defeats—infidelity, mistrust, unbelief, and division—gradually became victories in Christ. This couple is proof that through God’s grace, faith once lost can be restored. Broken marriages and hearts can be healed. Heartfelt prayers can be answered. And differences can be overcome—all because of the Holy Spirit’s power to heal wounds and bring reconciliation.

Each one of us can find ourselves in their story because whatever messy twists and turns our lives take, God is still present, always offering us the transforming power of his grace. Cyprien and Daphrose, pray for us!

Josh Danis is the National Director for Catholic Context at Alpha USA and the author of Living the Fruit of the Spirit, available from [email protected].