Catholic Priests Bring Diversity to Abilene
By LORETTA FULTON
Everywhere Rev. Albert Ezeanya has served in the Diocese of San Angelo, church members have given him a cowboy hat–a reminder that he’s no longer in his native Nigeria.
Oh, and they give him another gift, too. He proudly wears his cowboy hats “all the time,” but perhaps the second gift is even more endearing.
“They say, ‘thank you for being here,” Ezeanya said.
That pretty well describes the reception that foreign-born Catholic priests in Abilene have received. As of July, that applies to all four Catholic churches in Abilene and the Catholic community at Dyess Air Force Base.
Ezeanya has been at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Abilene since 2019. On July 1 of this year, the Very Rev. Santiago Udayar, a native of India, assumed duties as pastor of Holy Family Catholic Church, making him the latest priest assigned to an Abilene church and completing the picture of diversity in the local congregations.
To Bishop Michael Sis, who appoints priests to churches in the Diocese of San Angelo, that diversity creates a beautiful mosaic. Catholicism is a worldwide faith, practiced by people in practically every culture.
“The first members of our church were Aramaic speakers in Israel in the first century,” Sis said. “Our last three popes were born in Poland, Germany, and Argentina.”
The Catholic priests in Abilene are:
- Very Rev. Santiago Udayar, India, serving Holy Family since July 1, 2021
- Rev. Albert Ezeanya, Nigeria, serving Sacred Heart since July 1, 2019
- Rev. Isidore Ochiabuto, Nigeria, serving St. Francis of Assisi, since July 1, 2017
- Rev. Emilio Sosa, Mexico, serving St. Vincent Pallotti since July 1, 2019
- Rev. Bhaskar Morugudi, India, serving Our Lady of Grace Catholic Community at Dyess AFB.
Rev. Ochiabuto has been here the longest, serving since July 2017. He arrived in the United States, and in the diocese, in 2007 and began his ministry at Big Lake. Since then, he has made a number of stops in the diocese, serving congregations in Odessa, Fort Stockton, Garden City, and now Abilene. When Ochiabuto arrived in the diocese, he immediately noticed something different.
“I spoke very good English before my arrival,” he said, “but my accent was different because I learned English with a British accent.”
English spoken with a British accent may sound like a foreign language to West Texans, but Ochiabuto and the other priests have managed to fit in and have found a welcoming environment here. Abilene is home to an office of the International Rescue Committee and, since 2004, hundreds of refugees have been resettled here. Many attend Catholic churches in town.
Priests from other cultures bring a variety of gifts to local congregations. Ochiabuto said he brought joyous ways of celebrating the liturgy of the church from his native culture and introduced them locally.
Rev. Ezeanya came to Sacred Heart in 2019 after serving other congregations in the diocese. He joked that he still is puzzled by Texas weather.
“In Nigeria, you can know what is coming,” he said. “In Texas, you cannot know what’s coming.”
Otherwise, the jovial priest is happy to be in Abilene. He has added a lesson for children and youth after the Mass, which has been well received.
“It’s super great,” he said, “and they love it.”
Udayar was installed at Holy Family in an Aug 1 ceremony, with Bishop Sis presiding. Udayar seemed pleased with his latest assignment in the diocese, and he was greeted warmly during the ceremony and afterward at a reception.
““I thank the Lord for sending me here to serve you as pastor of this beautiful parish,” Udayar said. “You are beautiful people.”
The presence of so many priests born in other countries may be unusual here, but it certainly isn’t uncommon in the Diocese of San Angelo or across the country. The diocese has 71 priests. Of those, 39 were born in other countries. In other words, 55 percent of the priests in the diocese were born outside the United States as follows:
Bishop Sis said currently there aren’t enough local priests to meet the needs of the people in the sprawling diocese. On the flip side, some countries produce more priests than they need.
“Ours is a worldwide church, so it is common for priests to go where there is a need for their services,” Sis said.
There was a time, he said, when countries like Ireland, France, Spain, Germany, and the Netherlands sent priests all over the world. Now those countries receive priests from other countries.
For many years most of the priests in Africa were from Europe, Sis noted. Now, Africa has an abundance of clergy, and priests are sent to serve in Europe. For hundreds of years, priests from Spain served in Latin America, and now there are many priests from Latin America who serve in Spain.
That cultural exchange brings “a mutually beneficial exchange of spiritual insights, experiences, and perspectives,” Sis said. “Jesus Christ is bigger than any one culture or language.”
The Body of Christ is diverse, Sis noted, and each member brings a unique set of gifts and talents. That experience brings enrichment and awareness to local congregations.
“When our only contacts are with people who are just like us, our vision can become myopic,” Sis said, “and we can fail to grasp what our brothers and sisters in other circumstances are going through.”
Sis said the presence of so many refugees in Abilene has brought good, hard-working people to the city and also has enriched the lives of long-time residents.
“I believe their presence in our community, our schools, our workplaces, and our churches has enriched the city with a beautiful tapestry of humanity,” Sis said.
Rev. Ochiabuto, who has been in Abilene since 2017 and numerous other places in the diocese, said it is an honor to serve the people of God, wherever that might be and whoever they may be.
“We are all children of God, irrespective of our gender, race, status, etc.,” he said.
Rev. Ezeanya, who has been at Sacred Heart since 2019, expressed similar views. He, too, has served in a number of communities, parishes, and missions in the diocese. Everywhere he’s assigned, he knows he’s there for a purpose.
“Wherever you are,” he said, “that’s where God wants you to be.”
Loretta Fulton is creator and editor of Spirit of Abilene
Top photo: Participants in the July 2019 installation of Rev. Albert Ezeanya as priest at Sacred Heart Catholic Church. Left to right are Deacon Dwain Hennessey, Rev. Isidore Ochiabuto, Bishop Michael Sis, Ezeanya, and Deacon Ron Stegenga. Photo by Loretta Fulton