Chicago Catholics, have you noticed anything different about some of the newly ordained priests in Chicago? For starters, many of them aren’t from around here. In fact, many aren’t even from the United States! A few years ago, a report on 11 new priests in the Archdiocese of Chicago noted the surprising fact that not one of them was born in the United States. Of the new priests, five of them were from Poland, two from Mexico, one from Ecuador, one from Colombia, and two from Tanzania. Yet each of them will serve in the Archdiocese of Chicago and minister to local Catholics.
In 2013, little has changed, although the biggest country of origin of foreign-born priests might surprise you. A recent Catholic news article on immigrant priests, published Jan. 28, 2013, announced that the “Archdiocese [of Chicago] sees surge in international priests, with most coming from Nigeria.” Nigeria?! Yes, you read that right. Move over, Fr. Michael Pfleger, because there might be some black men coming soon to steal your show. As I’ve noted in past articles, Nigeria is currently home to the largest Catholic seminary in the world, although it receives little attention internationally. This might change in the near future, as the priest shortage in the United States has led the Archdiocese of Chicago to recruit priests from overseas. Catholicism has seen explosive growth in Africa, and as a result, they have a large supply of young new priests available for ministry that they can spare. According to Father Jeremiah Boland, Cardinal George’s delegate to external and international priests, there are current “about 160 international priests” in the Archdiocese of Chicago, with the largest single group coming from Nigeria.
When the Archdiocese speaks of “foreign born priests”, they’re not referring to those who are in religious orders overseas, or those who were born outside the United States but live here and undergo seminary training and formation here, before ordination. Rather, the Archdiocese of Chicago invites young men from other countries who are interested in the priesthood to serve in the United States. There are various houses of formation to serve such priests. Casa Jesus is for seminaries from Latin America, Tuite House welcomes young men from Africa, and the Bishop Abramowicz Seminary houses seminarians from Poland.
Because of Chicago’s large immigrant population, many of the foreign-born priests are recruited to serve immigrant communities. For example, given the huge numbers of immigrants from Poland and Latin America, having a priest from those countries makes it easier for the Catholic Church to minister to such people. In a parish made up predominantly of immigrants, an immigrant priest can be a “welcome sign.” Many international priests come to Chicago from countries in either Latin America or Eastern Europe. This allows them to minister to people in their own languages and using their own traditions, something that an American born priest may not be as effective at, even if they’re spent years studying the culture and languages of those countries. At the same time, having priests from all over the world serve in Chicago emphasizes the “global nature” of Catholicism.
Still, we shouldn’t presume that foreign-born priests’ only important function is to minister to people from their country of origin. In fact, foreign born priests are proving to be instrumental in many parishes, and they come from all over. One example is Father Peter Fernandes, the pastor of St. Timothy Parish, at 6326 N. Washtenaw Ave. in Chicago. St. Timothy Parish in the city’s Rogers Park neighborhood, and was originally built by German and Irish Catholics. It now serves a largely Filipino congregation, as well as some Americans of European, Hispanic, and African-American ancestry. But Fr. Fernandes doesn’t come from any of those backgrounds. He is originally from Goa, India, where he grew up in a small fishing village called Velsao. Ordained in his native India at age 27, his superiors sent him to the United States about 10 years ago. Fernandes ministered for about four years in Portland, Oregon, before coming to Chicago. Fr. Fernandes was thrust into a completely new situation but has worked tirelessly to revitalize St. Timothy’s parish. “In my wildest dreams I never thought I’d come to the United States”, he said. But he noted, “When Cardinal George invited our society to work in Chicago, he gave us St. Timothy Parish. It was struggling, with few people and a big debt. Since 2006 the parish is growing, from 16 kids in our CCD program today we have 70. We paid off the debt by cutting some things and using our resources carefully.”
A similar example is Father Benedykt Pazdan, who was named the new pastor of St. Bernadette’s at 9343 S. Francisco Ave. in Evergreen Park a few months ago. Fr. Pazdan was born in Poland, the child of Piotr and Zofia Pazdan. He completed his elementary and secondary education in his native Poland and began his seminary studies there at the major seminary in the diocese of Pzeszow before coming to the Unites States. He studied for one year in Bishop Abramowicz Preparatory Seminary before completing his studies at the University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary. After serving as assistant pastor of two other Chicago parishes, he was quickly named the new pastor of St. Bernadette’s, in southwest Cook County, on short term notice because a retired Monsignor, Wayne Prist, had been filling in as interim administrator of St. Bernadette’s. The parish, named after the French saint, is hardly a bastion of polish culture for the new pastor. But Fr. Pazdan has quickly immersed himself in the culture of the local south side Irish crowd, and has been a breath of fresh air to the parishioners of St. Bernadette’s. The new pastor greatly impressed and surprised the crowd at his first Christmas Mass when he showed off his guitar skills in an impromptu song number during the homily, and has changed the interior of the parish to be much more bright and vibrant, including new lights and murals inside the church.
Incidents like this show that sometimes third and fourth generation Americans are not aware of the gifts that foreign-born American priests are bringing to Chicago. We think of foreign-born priests as those who minister to people in their countries of origin, rather than all Catholics in Chicago. The number of foreign-born priests has risen in recent years, and those ordained in other countries but currently serving in the United States represents about 16% of priests in America. San Antonio Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller, who was born in Mexico, thinks more Americans need to familiarize themselves with foreign-born priests, just as foreign-born priests immerse themselves in Chicago culture to serve us. “The embracing goes both ways. That leads to a sense of connectedness… This is where the church becomes very rich. The Catholic Church is one, with so many faces, so many expressions.” I couldn’t agree more. With the shortage of newly ordained American priests, here’s to our international Catholic clergy!