The priest was called by the hospital in the middle of the night. A patient was gravely ill. An anointment was needed. The Rev. Cajetan Ngozika Ihewulezi, a Nigerian-born Roman Catholic priest now serving in St. Louis, heeded the call and got dressed in his usual black pants and black shirt. After adjusting his white clerical collar, he headed to the hospital.
But before entering the patient’s room, Ihewulezi recalled being approached by a family member of the dying man, who told him, “Please, Father, do not be angry. I just want to explain something to you. My father is of the ‘old school.’ I don’t mind who comes to anoint him, but he doesn’t like seeing black priests. I don’t want him to embarrass you.”
After a white priest could not be found, Ihewulezi eventually blessed the patient, who died later that night. But for Ihewulezi, the hurt of the incident still lingers. “Does it mean my own priesthood is inferior?” he asked. Ihewulezi is a broad-shouldered man with a gentle smile who comes from Igboland, a region in southeastern Nigeria. “America is big, beautiful and blessed. But as far as racism is concerned, you have a lot of work to do.”
Sometimes the separation between the pulpit and pew is but a few feet. Other times it can feel endlessly long. Ihewulezi is one of approximately 200 Nigerian-born Catholic priests working in the United States, many of whom are byproducts of Christian evangelization in Africa. Like Ihewulezi, many of them feel disconnected from the churches they serve.
And rarely in the U.S. does a Nigerian priest find a Nigerian congregation. Of the roughly 135,000 Nigerian-born residents living in the United States, only the communities in large cities such as New York City, Houston and Los Angeles have Nigerian priests. That leaves the majority of Nigerian priests, including Ihewulezi, serving in Caucasian, African American or Hispanic parishes.
Throughout his ordeals, which have run the gamut from parishioners denying him the right to perform clerical services to being called a “nigger priest,” Ihewulezi has tried to focus on the meaningful relationships he’s made with fellow priests and other Catholics at his host parish, Saints Teresa and Bridget Roman Catholic Church in northern St. Louis. He vents some of his frustrations in his first book, Beyond the Color of Skin: Encounters with Religions and Racial Injustice in America.
But still he’s dismayed when Catholics look up from their deathbed and want a face they know, an accent they understand, a skin color similar to their own.
The twinkle in his eye has certainly faded.
Though Ihewulezi’s experiences of racism were overt, many Nigerian priests feel the distance in subtler ways. The first time the Rev. Christopher Okorie said Mass in his Queens parish, he wasn’t sure if the gathered faithful were listening. In response to his homily on Jesus Christ, the New Yorkers sat silently in their Sunday dress just staring at him.
The repose of the parishioners at Our Lady of Mercy Roman Catholic Church in Forest Hills, Queens, troubled Okorie, who was used to the raucous responsiveness of the faithful in his native Nigeria.
“You may feel that you are not saying it the right way, or maybe people are protesting by not responding,” said Okorie, who grew up in Obinagu, in southeastern Nigeria. “In our culture, it is affirmed that if you don’t join your voice in the congregation, you are not part of the congregation. So everybody joins. The roof echoes.”
Bending to his newfound, albeit temporary, home, Okorie chose to respect the solemnity of American Catholic Masses. But occasionally he adds some cultural flavor as well: during his homilies he often breaks into song, much to the surprise and enjoyment of the congregation.
“In Nigeria, in our culture, we are more vibrant, or more loud, in terms of expressing our emotions and our spirituality,” said Okorie, who will return to Nigeria once he completes his doctoral studies at St. John’s University. “In the church we dance. It’s normal. It’s just normal. It’s so participatory.”
The Rev. Peter Chidi Osuagwu, also a native of Nigeria, has had similar experiences serving at Church of the Ascension, a largely Caucasian and Hispanic parish, in Elmhurst, Queens.
Osuagwu said he is able to feel at home among non-Nigerian parishioners. Occasionally he scouts out Masses held in his native language of Igbo in order to remind himself of Africa. “I know that Igbo Mass you have to sing everything from ‘The Name of the Father’ to ‘Go in Peace,’” he said. “That makes you feel more at home, like you are still in Nigeria.”
When Osuagwu first started in Queens, the congregation struggled with his West African accent. He tried to improve his speech to be better understood, but refused to drop the accent altogether. “That is my identity,” he said. “I cannot deny my identity.”
Osuagwu said he has laid roots in his Queens parish, where he’s been for nearly 11 years, but like other Nigerian priests, he served with the knowledge that one day he will go back home. For him homecoming comes next year.
When asked whether he wanted to stay or go back, he answered noncommittally. “I have to go back,” he said, laughing. “I will not disappoint my bishop.”
The influx of Catholic priests from Nigeria is a national trend. Occasionally, for instance, in the New York City area where there are more than 70 Nigerian priests, they will have opportunities to meet fellow West African clergy and cook traditional Nigerian food. But in other instances, like Ihewulezi, who is the only Nigerian priest in the Archdiocese of St. Louis, there is no one else from the homeland.
The Diocese of Brooklyn, which encompasses Queens and Brooklyn, has taken steps toward quelling the culture shock that international priests may feel. They offer a host of services including orientation sessions and classes on accent reduction and conversational English. “We are taking great pains to recognize that international priests are our brothers,” said the Rev. Monsignor Ronald Marino, director of the diocese’s Catholic Migration Office.
But Marino said that international priests, because they serve in the United States for a fixed tenure, should not make connecting with their New York parishes the top priority. “They are not here to lay roots,” he said.
International priests are also bringing a global perspective to American Catholics during their weekly homilies. Ihewulezi, for example, often educates his St. Louis parish by telling stories of his upbringing and the poverty and hardship of his formative years.
“How many of you here have experienced severe starvation?” Ihewulezi asked his parish at a recent Mass. “I suffered severe starvation for three years.”
The Rev. Gary Meier, pastor of Saints Teresa and Bridget, said Ihewulezi’s homilies have enlightened the largely African American parish to experiences and hardships they will never endure themselves. “It just caused me to think about my own taking for granted what I have in abundance,” Meier said. “We don’t know the kind of experience he was talking about.”
Ihewulezi, who is a rare example of a Catholic priest speaking out against his own experiences of racism, doesn’t think of himself as merely a religious leader visiting the United States. He believes he has come to America to spread the Gospel.
“When you are trained as a missionary and you go to a new place,” Ihewulezi said, “one of the first things that attracts your attention is the culture. If the culture is not reconcilable with the Gospel or what you should preach, you are bound by conscience to speak out.”
With the number of priests from Africa, Vietnam, India, and elsewhere on the rise in American parishes, Ihewulezi’s cry from the dark may soon prove a thunderous echo.
John Soltes is a journalist who works in New Jersey. For the Rail, he has written pieces on Nigerian Catholic priests and the tug boat business.