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'Extern' priests serving in Vermont

There was a time when the Diocese of Burlington sent priests to serve in missions in the developing world with groups including Maryknoll and The Missionary Society of St. James the Apostle.
But as the clergy shortage became more acute in Vermont, parishes here began to welcome more and more priests who were born outside the United States; in effect roles were reversed and Vermont became “mission territory.”
Of the 74 priests in full-time ministry in Vermont, there are currently 22 “extern” priests serving here with permission of their home bishop or religious order.
The extern priests serve at 41 churches and the University of Vermont Medical Center in Burlington.
“Without their assistance, we would not be able to provide pastoral coverage to a large number of churches,” said Msgr. John McDermott, vicar general for the Diocese of Burlington. “Their presence is essential at this time in the life of the Diocese.”
Father Romanus Igweonu was ordained for the Diocese of Abakaliki in his native Nigeria and served there as a parochial vicar, pastor, teacher, principal and chaplain before coming to the United States to study in 2004, earning advanced degrees in education. An educational specialist, he worked in special education in Pittsburg before then-Burlington Bishop Salvatore R. Matano invited him to serve in the Diocese of Burlington.
Though he also looked into educational positions, Father Igweonu chose to come to Vermont “because my first vocation is as a priest; I have to pay homage to the Church.” Education, he said, is his “second career.”
He arrived in Vermont in 2006 and served churches in Fairfax, Milton, Ludlow and Proctorsville before his current assignment as administrator of St. Bridget and St. Stanislaus Kostka churches in West Rutland and St. Dominic in Proctor. 
“When I came to Burlington, I met life. I met love. I met brotherliness and unity and acceptance,” he said. “I came as a missionary to Vermont, but I feel one with the presbyterate of Vermont,” which makes him feel more of a diocesan priest than a missionary. “As imperfect as I am, they treat me as a brother.”
The growing numbers of African-born clergy and religious ministering in the United States are at the vanguard of an important moment in both the U.S. and worldwide Catholic Church, said Jesuit Father Allan Deck, a teacher of theology and Latino studies at Loyola Maryknoll University in Los Angeles.
"The Church is growing in Asia, in Latin America and most especially in Africa," he said. "So at this moment in time and as we move into the future, the life of the universal Church, the leadership of the universal Church -- and all the hard work that we need to do to evangelize -- more and more has to be assumed by up-and-coming groups, and one of those groups is the Catholic faithful of the various countries of Africa.”
Father Deck served from 2008 to 2012 as the first executive director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Secretariat of Cultural Diversity in the Church.
The priest called the influx of foreign-born ministers "a globalized priesthood, a globalized religious."
Father Maria Lazar, pastor of St. Charles Parish in Bellows Falls, was ordained a priest of the Heralds of Good News order. In his native India he was a parochial vicar, pastor and Catholic school administrator.
“One fine morning my superior [in the religious order] called me and said to prepare to go to Vermont,” he recalled. “Vermont was not on the map according to me back then,” he added with a smile.
But he arrived in Vermont in 2009 with another member of his order. “I didn’t know anything of Vermont,” he said. “I had no idea about the climate, the culture or the people.”
And though he thought he could speak English, he realized he did not speak it fluently. In fact, at first “it was not distinguishable,” he said.
Acclimating to a new place can be a challenge for a missionary priest, but Father Lazar did not balk; the object of his order is to train and supply priests where they are needed. “I’m a minister to the people. I cannot be hiding in a room,” he said, noting that in seminary he was told he could be sent “anywhere” so he would have to “bloom where you are planted.”
He has served churches in St. Albans, Barre and Rutland.
Asked if there is a priest shortage in his home diocese, Father Igweonu said, “yes and no.” Many parishes still need pastors because of an expansion program, so though there are many young men going to the seminary, “there are not enough priests because of the expansion,” he said. “No amount of priests is enough because the Church is growing in Africa.”
His plans to stay depend on the wishes of his home bishop and the bishop of Burlington. “I see my life as a priest anywhere I’m called to serve,” he said.
Father Lazar is committed to the Diocese of Burlington for 10 years, and when that is complete, he would like to go home to India, but he will, in obedience, go where he is needed. “I said ‘yes’ to God when I entered the seminary and when I was ordained. I should continue to [say ‘yes’] until my last breath.”
Father Julian Asucan, pastor of St. Augustine Church in Montpelier at North American Martyrs Church in Marshfield, was ordained in 2000 for the Diocese of Talibon in the Philippines where he assisted the bishop and was a parochial vicar and pastor before coming to Vermont in 2008 after learning the Diocese of Burlington needed priests.
“I wanted the experience of knowing what was beyond the borders of my country and to know the universal Church,” he said. “What we do there is the same thing we do here – celebrate the sacraments.”
He has served parishes in Bradford, Hardwick, Fairfax, Milton and Colchester.
He never thought of the United States as “mission territory,” but he understands the need now because of fewer American-born priests.
“For the Church to continue to exist, you have to have your own priests in the Diocese,” he said. “What if other Dioceses [and religious orders] did not send their priests?”
Father Lazar hopes that he will inspire young Vermont men to heed the call to priesthood. “Mission priests cannot stay here forever,” he said. “Mission priests are coming and serving and then they go to different places. Promoting local vocations is the only solution [to the clergy shortage], something every [Catholic] should work on.”
--Catholic News Service contributed to this story.
--Originally published in the Fall 2017 issue of Vermont Catholic magazine.
  • Published in Diocesan

A 'puzzling' celebration

The July celebration for the 25th anniversary of ordination for Father Romanus Igweonu definitely was puzzling.
That’s because guests at his reception were busy putting together puzzles.
It was a way to bring together the people of the three churches he serves as pastor: St. Bridget and St. Stanislaus Kostka in West Rutland and St. Dominic in Proctor.
“The love of the people of God inspires their pastor,” Father Igweonu commented as he watched a few people put finishing touches on the puzzles in the parish center of St. Bridget Church.
Eight puzzles were made for the celebration, and they featured individual pictures of St. Dominic Church, St. Bridget Church, St. Stanislaus Church and Father Igweonu. Another version included pictures of each church, Pope Francis, Burlington Bishop Christopher J. Coyne and Father Igweonu.
Guests at the reception for the pastor’s silver jubilee included parishioners of the three churches as well as churches he served before his current assignment.
“When you put the pieces of the puzzle together, you have something special,” he said. “And when you put together our three churches, you have something special.”
Marguerite Sadowski of St. Bridget Parish said the puzzle project brought together the people of the churches. “We worked together, and that was a symbol to make the congregations more closely united.”
The three churches once had their own pastors but are now united with one pastor.
“It was brilliant to do the puzzles because people worked together and had a common goal,” said Barbara Fischer, a parishioner of Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary Parish in Ludlow, one of the parishes Father Igweonu served before his current assignment. “The puzzles symbolize unity and diversity.”
Ray Sevigny of St. Bridget Parish said that like the parishes, the pieces of the puzzle “make something beautiful when they come together.”
“The puzzles were a beautiful idea,” said Nancy Basile of St. Bridget’s. “People are building something together, which makes unity.”
“The project symbolizes togetherness,” said fellow parishioner Peg Harvey.
“We are following the injunction of the bishop to worship together, witness together and walk together to build unity,” Father Igweonu said. “By doing so, we can change the way people react to the Church when they see us walking together, collaborating and supporting each other. We are looking to build the Church.”
  • Published in Parish

Clean, safe water is a 'luxury'

There is a flood of concern about water today.
That concern is related to the environment, to human rights, to politics, to security.
Think of the water crisis in Flint, Mich., where cost-cutting measures led to tainted drinking water that contained lead and other toxins.
Many water delivery systems throughout the United States use lead pipes, and lead breaks down over time, especially when exposed to corrosive water.
According to the American Water Works Association, there are 6 million lead lines in American water systems today.
And according to the Centers for Disease Control, at least 2.5 percent of children in the United States have elevated levels of lead in their blood, a direct result of drinking contaminated water.
Water privatization – when private corporations buy or operate public water utilities – is often suggested as a solution to municipal budget problems and aging water systems. This often backfires, leaving communities with higher rates, worse service and job losses, notes foodandwaterwatch.org.
Some consider water scarcity a major threat to national security.
But government and private agencies are helping to make clean water more accessible. According to the World Heath Organization, in 2015, 91 percent of the world’s population had access to an improved drinking-water source, compared to 76 percent in 1990; 2.6 billion people had gained access to an improved drinking-water source.
Contaminated water and poor sanitation are linked to transmission of diseases such including cholera, diarrhea, dysentery, hepatitis A, typhoid and polio.
“It’s a human right to have access to clean, safe water,” emphasized Carolyn Crowley Meub, executive director of the Rutland-based Pure Water for the World, adding that provisions must be made to pay for the infrastructure. “In developing countries [those who] go in and build a system need funds for [future] maintenance and repairs. You need the money to keep the infrastructure going.”
Pure Water for the World is a non-profit organization with a mission to improve the health and livelihood of children and families, living in underserved communities in Central America and the Caribbean, by providing effective tools and education to establish sustainable safe water, hygiene and sanitation solutions.
It receives support from a variety of sources including Catholic parishes, schools and religious.
But water issues revolve around more than potability; for some, water is non-accessible or it is non-existent.
Imagine if everyone in France spent every working hour collecting water. The United Nations estimates that Sub-Saharan Africa alone loses 40 billion hours per year collecting water. That's the same as an entire year of labor in all of France. That's time that children could be spending in school and parents could be conducting income-generating activities.
In 2015, 319 million people in sub-Saharan Africa did not have access to an improved, reliable drinking water source.
Father Romanus Igweonu, pastor of St. Bridget and St. Stanislaus Kostka churches in West Rutland and St. Dominic Church in Proctor, grew up in eastern Nigeria where he experienced what he called three categories of water users: those in rural areas, suburban areas and cities.
He recalled growing up in a rural area in the 1970s and 1980s, riding his bicycle over rough terrain for 15 miles to get 20 liters of drinking water in jerry cans for his family of seven. Though the water was potable, his father – a teacher – insisted the family set an example and boil and filter the water before drinking it to prevent diseases like Guinea worm.
At other times, Father Igweonu walked about three miles to fetch water in pottery jars from a pond. The water had to be purified and filtered and was used for cooking and bathing.
But fetching the water was not a chore; it was recreation. “We chatted and walked together with other families,” he recalled. It was a way to build community.
The family moved to a suburban area when he was in high school. The government had built dams to create ponds as a water source. The distance to walk for that water was about a mile, and it had to be boiled.
When the pond dried in the dry season, people dug holes to reach the water about five feet below the surface. “When you dug it, it became your spot,” Father Igweonu said.
If that water source dried up, the nearest spring was about 15 miles away, and there people had to stand in line to get their water, an endeavor that could take a whole day.
It was a “noble trip” to get drinking water for the family during water scarcity, he said.
Later The United Nations International Children's Fund built a bore hole so people could access water with a hand pump, water that did not have to be boiled. But there was not enough water: Father Igweonu likened it to all of West Rutland having one water source. And sometimes people were impatient and tried to cut in line or fought while waiting in line.
When he lived in an urban area, water was available in homes, but the water delivery was unreliable because the electricity needed to power it was unreliable; some people kept a bucket of water for use during a power outage.
As a priest in Nigeria, he had to have someone get his water so he could be available for his priestly work in a parish with 12 churches. “Here [in the United States] it is easy to get water. It is a luxury for me.”
But he cautioned that the developed world must have a plan so that water resources are sustainable.
“Clean drinking water, safe hygiene practices and proper sanitation are essential to thriving communities. They are prerequisites to human health and wellbeing and play a fundamental role in economic stability,” Meub said. “There is no one-size-fits-all solution to every community’s water problems. Instead, we partner with communities, working together to develop customized, sustainable solutions that meet their needs and eliminate waterborne illnesses.”
It’s easy to take water for granted and get “cranky” if water doesn’t come out of the faucet as it should, she said.
She encourages vigilance about water practices even in Vermont.  “Just because we have it now doesn’t mean we always will.”
  • Published in Diocesan
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