An American Priest in Togo

Father William Ryan is optimistic for the future of the Church in Togo, which is now sending priests to serve as missionaries in France, the country’s former colonial ruler.

Parishioners of Our Lady of Guadalupe Mission Parish in Togo process with the Blessed Sacrament on the Solemnity of Christ the King, Nov. 21, 2021.
Parishioners of Our Lady of Guadalupe Mission Parish in Togo process with the Blessed Sacrament on the Solemnity of Christ the King, Nov. 21, 2021. (photo: Our Lady of Guadalupe Mission Parish / YouTube)

Father William Ryan is a priest of the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., who has been working as a missionary priest in Togo, a country in West Africa, since 2006. A Georgetown University alumnus, Father Ryan joined the Peace Corps after graduating in 1972. The Peace Corps sent him to Togo, an experience that set him on the path to priesthood. Archbishop Philippe Kpodzro — a local priest who later became the archbishop of Lomé, the country’s capital — kept in touch, and the rest is history.

Togo Locator Map
Togo is bordered by the West Africa nations of Ghana, Burkina Faso and Benin.

Father Ryan visited St. James in Falls Church, my local parish in northern Virginia, for his annual “begging tour” this summer, and discussed his work as a missionary. His parish, Our Lady of Guadalupe, covers 36 villages in rural Togo. He and his Togolese assistant pastor cover the parish — usually on long trips along bad roads — to celebrate four Masses every Sunday. Daily Mass at the parish center occurs in the evening because parishioners, who are mostly subsistence farmers, head into the fields as soon as the sun comes up.

Catholic parishes in the United States used to have parochial schools. Father Ryan still does: six primary schools, one middle school and one high school. The parish also runs a boys’ and a girls’ dormitory so that students from its far-off villages can continue their Catholic education at the mission after graduating from its grade schools. Fourteen of 36 villages also have trained lay catechists and three Togolese nuns staff the parish.

Apart from school, mornings are spent in usual pastoral duties, ranging from Communion calls to counseling or formation of catechists to review work with students. Everything tends to shut down from noon until about 3pm because of the heat: Togo is only 500 miles north of the equator, and 28% of the population is Catholic.

One-way mission work has changed is the internet. Where missionaries were once reliant on slow mail, the internet has made the world a global village. Father Ryan says he has a “decent” online connection, which enables him to cast his net wider for the equipment needed for development projects as well as the donors to make them possible. It also gives Catholics a window into the realities of mission life. Father Ryan has a YouTube channel (Our Lady of Guadalupe Mission Parish — Togo) featuring videos of parish life, including local joy at drilling a well for clean drinking water, catechist commitments and the visit of Archbishop Nicodème Barrigah-Bennisan of Lomé.

In addition to education, Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish tries to address local health needs through a medical clinic with trained staff. Father Ryan is emphatic, however, that trying to meet the temporal and spiritual needs of parishioners must go hand-in-hand, according to the “strategy of Jesus.” Jesus “called people to repentance and proclaimed the good news of the Kingdom, but he paved the way for that with miracles of mercy that met their human needs. We’ve done wells, but want to lead people to the ‘living water’ of the Holy Spirit. We serve the sick, but want people to enjoy perfect health in the glory of heaven.”

One challenge for every foreign missionary is the “inculturation” of the local Church: Parishes must eventually be taken over by home-grown clergy and religious. Father Ryan is lucky to have a Togolese parochial vicar and local religious sisters, and reckons with the fact that his own successor will most likely be from native clergy. So why does this septuagenarian hang on?

“I have so many irons in the fire with all our projects,” he said, “which at least for now depend on help from back home, that it seems clear I should stay for as long as my health holds up and that I should do my best to pave the way for a Togolese successor as pastor.” And there’s no doubt his has been a nearly 50-year love affair with Togo.

Father Ryan is optimistic for the future of the Church in Togo. Ordination classes are growing and there are even Togolese priests serving as “missionaries” in France, the country’s former colonial ruler.

Why “Our Lady of Guadalupe?” Father Ryan cited four reasons for the choice:

First, Our Lady of Guadalupe unleashed an explosion of evangelization in the Americas: More than 9 million people were baptized in the decade after her appearance in 1531.

Second, she is the patron of the pro-life movement.

Third, the Archbishop of Lomé, who says Father Ryan is the only American priest who’s ever served in Togo, asked him to bring the best of America, which he says Our Lady of Guadalupe represents.

Finally, when Father Ryan served in Hispanic ministry as a priest of the Archdiocese of Washington, he says “she became my mother, and I knew I needed her with me in Togo. She has never let me down!”

I asked Father Ryan what might most surprise a Catholic from the United States if he came to the Togo Mission. His answer: “Perhaps the joy the villagers show in welcoming visitors and showing them hospitality. Above all the joy of the children who love to run up and take their hand. The children in our village are uncountable!”

So how can Americans help? Father Ryan asks for three things, in this order: (1) prayer, (2) spiritual sacrifice for the people of Togo and (3) financial support. “One nice thing is that there are no administrative costs; I personally see to it that all contributions go to those who most need help.”