Nigerian Missionaries Buoy African-American Parishes Stateside

A GROUP OF young missionary priests from Nigeria is giving a lift to a U.S.-based religious order that dedicates itself to the needs of African-American Catholics.

The Society of St. Joseph, known more popularly as the Josephites, has teamed with the Missionaries of St. Paul from Nigeria to provide pastoral care to Catholics. Ten of the missionary priests work in Josephite parishes in the Dioceses of Beaumont and Galveston-Houston, Texas, Lafayette, La., and in the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., according to Father Cosmas Okechukwu Nwosuh MSP, who came to the United States in 1991.

The 110 Missionary of St. Paul priests serve in 10 African countries, but one of their biggest challenges to date occurred in 1986, a year after the society celebrated its first priestly ordinations. That year the Josephites invited them to work in the United States.

Not unlike most religious orders in the country, the Josephites have seen their numbers decrease during the past 30 years, while the needs of their apostolate have grown. There are 120 Josephite brothers and priests, according to Father Edward Hogan, archivist at the order's headquarters in Baltimore. Father Hogan said the Josephites began in 1882-83 and had as many as 260 priests, 90 seminarians and 20 novices during the early 1960s. But with the Josephites diminished numbers, the Missionaries of St. Paul are a boon.

“They are young and dynamic African priests,” Auxiliary Bishop Curtis Guillory of Galveston-Houston said of the missionaries. “They give people a sense of hope.” Bishop Guillory, who is vicar of African-American Catholics in the diocese, said that the six missionaries in his diocese share important cultural and spiritual ties with the people in their four parishes.

Two of the churches are in Houston's inner city, and the other two are in towns outside the city. “They can relate to both young and old people,” Bishop Guillory told the Register. The first Nigerian priests arrived in Houston eight years ago; one year after the bishop was appointed. He said a couple of diocesan seminarians in recent years have come from Josephite parishes, and he thinks that more young African-American men will consider priestly vocations because of the missionaries'example.

Father Nwosuh said he and his brother priests try to share their African identity and show people that they can be African and Catholic. “In the United States, Catholicism is seen as a white man's religion” by many African-Americans, he said. This even though there are more than two million Catholics in the United States of African descent.

The extension of the Nigerians' mission to the country was not inconsistent with the society's objectives, said Father Nwosuh. “The globe is our goal,” said the 35-year-old priest, who plans to return to Nigeria in September to teach at the society's seminary after he receives a doctoral degree in Church history from Catholic University of America in Washington.

The late Cardinal Dominic Ekandem of Nigeria founded the Missionaries of St. Paul in response to Pope Paul VI's 1969 challenge to Africans, made during his visit to Uganda, to serve as missionaries on their continent, according to Father Nwosuh. In 1964, Cardinal Ekandem became the first bishop of West Africa, and later the first Nigerian cardinal before he died in 1995. In 1977, the prelate founded the society and with the Nigerian conference of bishops established the National Missionary Seminary of St. Paul in Abuja, Nigeria.

Father Nwosuh said the Missionaries of St. Paul began in Nigeria but hope to get vocations from outside the country and to keep growing. Bishops in Asia and Latin America have invited the missionaries to begin their work in those continents, he said.

In addition to their pastoral work, the missionaries engage in the “apostolate of the pen,” according to Father Nwosuh. In Nigeria, they print The Catholic Ambassador, a publication with 20,000 subscribers. “In Nigeria, that's a big deal,” added the priest. They also publish a calendar, a Catholic directory and about half-a-dozen books each year.

Ten percent of the 300 different ethnic groups in Nigeria are represented in the missionary seminary, according to Father Nwosuh, and the missionaries try to learn to transcend ethnic divisions during their formation. The southern part of Nigeria is more Christian, while there are more Muslims in the countries northern region, where Christians sometimes are persecuted.

In the United States, the missionaries make it a point to provide Catholics with a sense of the Church's universal mission. “People sometimes get caught up in their own parish,” and identify that as the Church, Bishop Guillory said.

Father Nwosuh said that he has observed a “new paganism,” in the West. “It's a much more subtle form and hard to combat.” He also noted that Nigerian culture seems to promote respect for life more adamantly than American culture.

Father Hogan, the Josephite archivist who taught in 1985 at the Abuja seminary, said he came to admire the Nigerians for their hard work and rigorous life. “Having to deal with only a few hour's electricity each day and eating goat's meat was difficult,” he said. He remembers having to run into the showers in the afternoon before the seminarians to have a chance to take a hot shower—because the sunshine heated the water—and then having to watch for scorpions on the shower floor.

In Nigeria, the former British colony that is the most populous country in Africa, the Catholic Church is young, said Father Nwosuh, noting that there are many adult converts.

He said that people in towns and villages take great pride when one of their own becomes a priest, and towns and villages try to promote priestly vocations. Father Nwosuh is one of 11 children, and he said that large families are more the norm than the exception.

Nevertheless, Father Nwosuh said that some in Nigeria may come to the priest-hood with mixed motives. “Some may be trying to get a good education and gain a higher social standing,” he said, but their motives can become refined with time. The disciples James and John had mixed motives in following Jesus, the priest noted, but they both became saints.

Father Nwosuh said the priesthood can be “a very lonely journey,” in the United States, and he admires young seminarians for disregarding the dominant social mores. He thinks of U.S. society as being “very anti-celibacy and anti-religion” and said that in Nigeria, people encourage you and pray,” for priests.

According to Father Nwosuh, Nigeria has the highest number of priestly vocations, apart from Poland. India, Philippines and Zaire also have many priestly vocations, he added. There are hundreds of diocesan seminarians in Nigeria, and he said his missionary society's biggest problem is providing the means for training seminarians. Each year, 200 young men apply to become seminarians, he said.

William Murray is based in Kensington, Md.

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