Out of Africa, blessing us

In many Catholic minds, Africa is a place where the church in the United States sends missionaries to evangelize and spread the Gospel. While that remains true in some cases, the direction of the missionary tide between our continents has shifted in this generation. In fact, 10 priests serving in the Diocese of Peoria had a very personal reason to follow Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Africa last week.

They were born there.

Our diocese prominently reflects the growing numbers of African-born priests and sisters ministering in the United States. There are 1,400 now across the country and “each year we get more coming,” said Sister Joanna Okereke, a Nigerian-born member of the Handmaids of the Holy Child Jesus who serves as a program director in the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat of Cultural Diversity in the Church.

While some of our diocese’s priests from Africa are in parishes, their impact is most keenly felt in hospital ministry. Father John Ugobueze, born in Nigeria, has served in pastoral care at Provena United Samaritans Medical Center in Danville since 2006 and is now the vice president of spiritual care and mission integration for Provena’s Central Illinois Region.

In Galesburg, Father Deus-Dedit Byabato, born in Tanzania, has served as chaplain of OSF St. Mary’s Medical Center since 2004. Father Deo Gratias Kiwanuka, originally from Uganda, has served at OSF St. Joseph’s Medical Center in Bloomington since 2001 and is now director of pastoral care there.

Uganda is also the home country of Father Rogers Byambaasa, who for eight years has been assistant chaplain at OSF Saint Francis Medical Center, Peoria, which also has Kenya native Father Osward Murungi in the same role. And in Monmouth, Father Martin Mwongyera last year became chaplain of OSF Holy Family Medical Center. He also assists at churches in Monmouth, Alexis, and Oquawka.

Other priests from Africa in parish work are Msgr. Deogratias Rweyongeza, from Tanzania, parochial vicar at St. Patrick’s and St. Hyacinth’s parishes in LaSalle since 2003; Father Stanislaus Mutajwaha, also from Tanzania, who has assisted at a dozen parishes in the diocese since arriving here in 2004 and is now parochial vicar at St. Lawrence, Penfield, and St. Charles, Homer; and Father Charles Niwagaba, born in Uganda and now serving as parochial vicar at St. Mary’s, East Moline.

They are following a missionary trail blazed by the likes of Father Deogratias Mutefunya, who arrived here from Tanzania in 1976 and served parishes of our diocese for 26 years.

It cannot be easy for these men as they adapt to a new culture and new foods away from family. They bless our diocese with their presence and ministry. As Pope Benedict returns to Rome from Africa, we would do well to thank and welcome anew these gifts sent to us from that continent. Take the time to befriend them, and learn their fascinating stories. — Thomas J. Dermody, editor-in-chief, The Catholic Post

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