Father Christopher Onyeneke, MSSCC
Hometown: Owerri, Nigeria
Current Assignment: Parochial Vicar, Saint Rita Parish in Blue Ridge Summit and Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary Parish, Fairfield
Tell me a little bit about your childhood.
I had a difficult childhood. I lost my father when I was four years old. Thanks be to God for my uncle, who stepped in. He was my father’s younger brother, and he took charge of the whole family: raising us, paying our school fees. Even today, he is still the one taking responsibilities for both families: his family and my family.
Even though it was challenging, we survived. I am the second son of four children. I have one sister and two brothers.
I grew up in a little town in eastern Nigeria, called Owerri. It was a Christian community. We lived together, people supported each other. It was a lovely community, where everybody knows everybody.
There was farming, but as development came, people began to look for better opportunities in the cities. Mostly we did farming and fishing. Today, it is developed. People now tend to go to what we call a white-collar job. No one farms there anymore.
What was your education like?
I began my proper education in 1989. Then in 1994, I moved into high school, which I finished in 2000, but I had to stay two years. I wanted to go to seminary, but I didn’t pass my English language classes, so I had to pass my exam the next year. Thanks be to God, I got the required grades to join the seminary in 2002.
When did you first think about becoming a priest?
When I was a little kid. I was an altar server, and we used to imitate the priest when we’d go home. We would pretend to celebrate Mass at home. When we acted that out, I would be the one who acted as the priest. I remember one time, I had to sit on the priest’s chair. I went to sit down, and felt something hard on my back, and I jumped up! (laughing). We decided we wouldn’t use that chair anymore.
I came from a Christian family. We went to Mass, we went to different prayer groups. So even when I was five, I could see that the priest was being so good to the kids. I wanted to be like Father.
In my home country, we had nothing but God and the church. The church was the epicenter of everything: spiritual gatherings, social gatherings, where you could get help and social aid. If you needed something, you went to the church. When you looked at the priests and saw how they handled challenges with passion, with commitment and with love, you wanted to be like them. When I was 19, I desired to become a priest on my own.
How did you become involved with the Missionaries of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary?
I applied to a religious order in Nigeria, but the Missionaries had come just two years before my application. The religious order was in charge of recruiting seminarians for the Missionaries, so when I applied to them, they told me they would place me with the Missionaries. That was in 2002. It was the will of God.
In the program, we did philosophy first. Then after four years, we went into the novitiate for a year and then into Theology for four years. All my studies were in Nigeria.
I was ordained August 13, 2011.
Where have you served as a priest?
The Missionaries will tell you that you’re not going to stay in your hometown. After ordination, I had an assignment in a local parish because the priest was on vacation. I was there for a month and got an assignment to get pastoral experience, which I had for three years. It was in a big city, and it helped in my formation. We had 20,000 parishioners, with 11 Masses on a Sunday, and six priests in the rectory. With Confessions, we offered them for six hours a day. It’s a good thing, but you don’t get to stretch your legs (laughing).
I came to the United States in August of 2014. My primary responsibility was hospital chaplain and in the nursing home. Then after a year, I had an appointment with St. Joseph Church and was hospital chaplain. I did that for two and a half years, and then I came here to Fairfield three years ago.
What is your ministry in Fairfield?
Your work as a priest requires personal commitment with God first. Then you assist the people, as servants of the people. My ministry here is helping the pastor, Father Peter DiTomasso, in the parish. I offer daily Mass, Confessions, sometimes weddings and funerals.
It is a challenge to do things now in the pandemic. When we were doing online Mass at first, it was fun for me because you can see people’s comments and feedback. But then, you don’t get to see people after Mass, you don’t get the greetings.
Is there an aspect of your ministry you enjoy the most?
Yes, the Sacrament of Reconciliation. You see yourself being there to help people. I am a priest to bring people back to Christ. That is one sacrament that helps people come into one-on-one contact with Jesus. They say what they have done wrong, and then you, as a priest, give them the love that Jesus wants them to feel.
When people come back to Confession after a very long time and see your composure, the way you react to them, the way you comfort them, the way you encourage them, they are relieved. They see the Church is not here to condemn them. That sacrament is one of my favorite sacraments because it gives me contact with people to bring them back to Jesus.
They come back after 12 or 15 years, and I see their reaction. They think we are going to be judging them or calling them out, and they just feel love and mercy.
What do you enjoy in your free time?
I like to play soccer, but unfortunately I have no one to play with. I watch it on television, and I follow the Premier League. I support Manchester United. I also play ping pong.
In the seminary, we had soccer teams. When I was in the seminary in Nigeria, we had about 70 seminarians in our community alone. We played a lot of games, and manual labor like cutting the grass.
I also enjoy reading. I like spiritual books, anything. You can’t stop reading. You must keep yourself abreast of what is happening around you.
I like to listen to good music. I love music, the sound. I like to listen to good rhythms. I play the drums and a little bit of keyboard and piano. I’ve been playing from the time I was growing up in Nigeria.
Do you have a favorite saint?
My favorite is St. Anthony of Padua, because of how he helps me find things. When I was in my final year of philosophy, after the exams, we had to write a paper. It was handwritten. I wrote chapter one and two, and gave it to a priest and he lost it. He came to me and said, “Chris, I can’t find your project. Go and do it again.” I didn’t have an extra copy, so I had to go back to the library and get the books again and begin to study. I was upset. I talked to a friend of mine and said, “I can’t believe he lost my papers. I have to write it again and time is not on my side.” My friend said, “Pray to St. Anthony that he will find the papers.” I went to the chapel to pray. I was doing a nine-day Novena and on the third day, the priest called me and said he found them. I was like, “Are you kidding me? This is real!” Since then, I’ve been so devoted to St. Anthony.
Three years ago, when I arrived here, I sent a package to my uncle in Jamaica and he couldn’t find it. It was undelivered, and it was not returned. Money was inside it. I thought, “Someone has opened the envelope, taken the money and destroyed the package.” I thought, “Let me pray to St. Anthony and see what will happen.” I prayed a novena, and the package came back! St. Anthony is the best. He does wonderful miracles. I also pray to Saint Gaetano Errico because he liked to listen to Confessions, and he did it all day long.
You’re in a small parish in south central Pennsylvania. When you were in seminary, would you have seen yourself here?
I knew I was coming to the United States, but you never know where you will find yourself. Wherever you find yourself, you try to make things better. Tomorrow, I might be in Charleston or Kentucky, because we have missions there also. Wherever you find yourself, you do the best you can and give it to God.
Is there anything else you would like to share?
Last year, I had to take a program in clinical pastoral education to help me in my ministry in case I find myself in hospital ministry in the future. I’m in that program and hope to continue in it so that I can be prepared for where I might be called in the future.
I also want to thank my family. They gave me the foundation, especially my uncle, mom and my late grandmom. They are the pillars of my becoming a priest. Without their support, I wouldn’t be here. I also want to thank my brother Missionaries in Nigeria because they are lovely people. Their love, and that of my brothers here, are what is supporting me. I thank everyone who has helped me in one way or another to become a priest and to continue my ministry.
(Interview conducted by Chris Heisey, The Catholic Witness.)