Kewanee pastor will mark 25 years of serving God as a priest on Aug. 13

Father Johndamaseni Zilimu

KEWANEE — As a young boy growing up in Tanzania, Father Johndamaseni Zilimu enjoyed going to church with his mother and 11 siblings. As he watched the priest celebrate Mass, he knew that’s what he wanted to do, too.

Now the pastor of Saint John Paul II Parish and providing spiritual care at OSF Saint Luke Medical Center, both in Kewanee, Father John will mark 25 years of serving God as a priest on Aug. 13. While a local celebration is not possible at this time due to COVID-19 restrictions, he will travel to Tanzania to be with his family and friends for a jubilee gathering on Jan. 8, 2021.

“My family has been the biggest influence on my vocation. All my siblings are very supportive of what I am doing.”

The son of Anacleti Kumbaleba and Christina Nyamichu, Father John was born Jan. 31, 1965, into a “very Catholic family” in Nyakatuntu village, Karagwe district, in the northwestern part of Tanzania, East Africa. He is the fourth oldest of 12 children and has six brothers (three are now deceased) and five sisters.

His large extended family includes 32 nieces and 17 nephews, one of whom is a priest and another who is a seminarian for the Diocese of Kayanga in Tanzania.

JOY IN HELPING OTHERS

“When I was 13 years old, I felt the call to priesthood,” Father John said. “My parents were very supportive when I told them that I wanted to serve God as a priest. My family has been the biggest influence on my vocation. All my siblings are very supportive of what I am doing.”

Father John applied to the high school seminary and was accepted when he was 16. He studied philosophy for two years at Kibosho Major Seminary, and theology for five years at Kipalapala Seminary. He earned a bachelor of arts in sacred theology through the Pontifical Urbanian University in Rome in 1995 and was ordained for the Diocese of Kayanga on Aug. 13 of that year.

After ordination, he served as parochial vicar at Isingiro Parish and was a math teacher and academic dean at Katoke High School Seminary in Tanzania.

Father Johndamaseni Zilimu is pictured celebrating Mass at the centennial celebration of OSF Saint Luke Medical Center in Kewanee. Assisting is Deacon Marty Van Meltebeck,. (The Catholic Post/Tom Dermody)

He continued his own education after coming to the Diocese of Peoria in August 2000 to do campus ministry through St. John’s Catholic Newman Center at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Father John received an associate degree in mathematics from Parkland Community College in Champaign in 2002, and a bachelor’s degree in mathematics in 2004, a master’s degree in mathematics in 2006, and a doctorate in mathematics education in 2014, all from the University of Illinois.

What has given him the greatest joy in his priesthood is helping people who are most in need. One way he has done that is through Children of Hope and Faith, a not-for-profit organization he cofounded in 2003.

“Children of Hope and Faith assists orphans and needy children through sponsorship at excellent Catholic schools in Tanzania, East Africa,” Father John said. “Through COHF we support orphanages and schools with specific projects. Good education gives hope to a child for a promising future.”

The organization also does fundraising to help Catholic health centers in the Kayanga Diocese.

MEMORABLE MOMENTS

Among the moments that stand out in Father John’s memory are when the students and teachers at Visitation Catholic School in Kewanee surprised him with a birthday celebration when he turned 50. They all “dressed like a priest” and then called him to the school gym.

Last November, some of the Saint John Paul II parishioners organized a trip to the Holy Land as a gift for his 25th anniversary. It was the first time he had visited Israel.

Father Johndamaseni Zilimu waves to parishioner Kenny Gutschlag, who drove his antique fire engine as one of 115 vehicles in a surprise “Parade of Parishioners” that greeted the pastor on April 19. (Provided photo)

Members of Saint John Paul II also put together a “Parade of Parishioners” one Sunday evening during the coronavirus lockdown.

“I was surprised to see cars full of people. They drove by me and I waved with some tears of happiness,” Father John said.

“It is always nice to know that you are loved,” he explained. “This was a great lesson for me in my priestly ministry. Nothing is greater than love!”

In addition to campus ministry, Father John was a teaching assistant at the University of Illinois from 2007 to 2008, parochial vicar and director of youth ministry at Epiphany in Normal in 2009, and parochial vicar at St. Matthew in Champaign in 2010, adding St. Boniface in Seymour in 2012. He was named administrator at St. Mary in Kewanee in 2013, and pastor of Saint John Paul II in 2014, the same year he started at OSF Saint Luke.

For more information on Children of Hope and Faith, visit childrenofhopeandfaith.org.

To wish Father John well on his anniversary, write to Saint John Paul II Church, 410 W. Central Blvd., Kewanee, IL 61443.

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