It all began with an unexpected phone call. Fr. Kenneth Augustine was at home when the church secretary called. A priest from Nigeria was there, she said, and wondered if he could preside at the Mass for the Assumption, celebrated on that day, Aug. 15, 2016.

Unusual request, for sure, but Fr. Augustine, pastor of St. Luke Catholic Church in Brookfield, was willing to assist as best he could. This would normally be a holy day, but St. Luke had been provided an exemption; no Mass was celebrated that day. Several phone calls later, St. Luke’s chapel was made available so Fr. Kenneth

Onyema Amadi, associate pastor at St. Pius X parish in Gbagalape, could preside over Eucharist with his friends.

Frs. Amadi and Augustine

What Fr. Augustine didn’t realize was this encounter — what he likes to call a “God incident” — would eventually take him a half a world away and forever change him has a person and a priest.

Over the next few days, the two priests attended Mass, went vestment shopping for Fr. Amadi, and even spent a day at the Dells with Fr. Amadi’s friends. “It seemed like we knew one another for years,” Fr. Augustine said.

Eager assistance from St. Luke’s parishioners

Gbagalape (“BAH guh LAH pay”) is a small village in the central part of Nigeria, near the capital of Abuja (“uh BOO zhah”). St. Pius X serves approximately 2,000 parishioners from Gbagalape and surrounding communities.

The seeds for Fr. Augustine’s trip were planted soon after the two priests met. Within days, Fr. Amadi had invited Fr. Augustine to Nigeria. However, at age 65, packing up and traveling some 6,000 miles was the furthest from his mind. Perhaps St. Luke church could still help out. Fr. Augustine learned of the reconstruction project going on at St. Pius X. The church was replacing the open-air, pavilion-style building (called a batcher) currently in use. This project resonated with Fr. Augustine, because St. Luke had recently completed restoration of its worship space.

“I just decided I was going to ask the people to help them build a church,” Fr. Augustine said. “Without much pressure, we wired $11,000 over.”

His reason for going

Located along the west coast of Africa, Nigeria is home to approximately 174 million people. The population is split almost evenly among Muslims in the north and Protestants in the south. Roughly 25 percent of those are Roman Catholic.

St. Pius X’s roots date to 1996, when it started as a mission of SS. Peter and Paul Catholic Church in nearby Nyanya; it became a parish in October 2009. For Fr. Augustine, this trip was about broadening his experiences and perspectives. “Travel of any kind,” he said, “changes us, hopefully, for the better.” A big part of his interest lies is the concept of enculturation. This refers to how the Catholic faith is influenced by, adapts to, and is celebrated in individual cultures. Another big proponent of enculturation is Cardinal John Onaiyekan, Archbishop of Abuja, whom Fr. Augustine has studied and had the chance to meet.

This being his first trip to Nigeria, Fr. Augustine knew there was a lot to learn. His two-week mission began on Jan. 31, as he arrived in Abuja. One stop was the new church being built for St. Pius X, where he stayed throughout his two weeks in Nigeria. Fr. Amadi was eager to show him around, so they visited Lagos, Abuja (the federal capital), and Owerri. While there, Fr. Augustine got to meet Fr. Amadi’s parents and extended family, a high point in the trip.

Fr. Augustine didn’t work on the new church, but he did review its progress. Due to lack of land, the plan is to build a new structure around the old, then removing most of the old building. Exterior walls and a second level floor had been laid at the time of his arrival. The $11,000 St. Luke parishioners raised went toward the second level and other parts of the building.

Fr. Kenneth Augustine blesses members of the St. Pius X Parish in Nigeria.

Life in Nigeria

Fr. Augustine was moved by the gracious hospitality and warm welcome extended to this missionary from afar. He was also struck by the parishioners’ deep faith in God. “They’re not afraid to talk about their belief. And to pray publicly,” he said. “Here, it seems, like either we don’t have the need for God, or God gets the time that’s left over.”

Of special honor was the time he was “chiefed” by two tribal chiefs who dressed him in tribal clothing.

Arriving during the dry season, Fr. Augustine encountered daytime temperatures that ranged from the 60s to the 90s. Though, he said, it’s usually over 100 degrees. Red sand blows constantly in the area. Fr. Augustine likes to joke that even days after returning he still found sand in the crevices of his shoes.
Homes varied from simple tent-like dwellings to cement block construction. Many had dirt floors. “Means — wealth — and poverty are next door neighbors,” he said.

The parish’s priest house in Gbagalape included a living room, small dining room and a kitchen. Decor was very simple, but the building had running water and electricity. The well at the parish house was dug just a few years ago.

The structure of Mass is the same in Nigeria, Fr. Augustine said. They use the same Roman Missal used in other English-speaking nations. (English being the official language of Nigeria.) Mass is said predominantly in English, but the Kyrie (Penitential Act) is often sung in Greek, with the Sanctus (Holy, Holy, Holy) sung in Latin.

Also included are various songs in the native languages. “It all came together,” he said.

A Mass might include three tribal choirs and as many processions — dramatic ones, too. Parishioners dance their way to the altar as they brought the gifts. Parishioners also danced to the altar to make an offering. To celebrate a birth, the newborn was brought up to the altar after Communion for a blessing.

The next steps in his journey

His mission trip has opened Fr. Augustine’s eyes to the vast differences in cultures — ours and theirs. Especially noticeable is the gap between rich and poor living so close to each other. He is now more cognizant of life in America. “I and so many of us have so much,” he said. “I saw firsthand that a lot of people don’t have much.”

He notes that people in the Milwaukee area are in similar straights. “This is not foreign to us by any means.”

One thing he observed is that those who seemingly have very little are quite happy. Yet we Americans with the “complications and expectations” of life are not necessarily a happy or joyful people. Fr. Augustine is quick to point out that he is not passing judgement or generalizing but merely making observations.

Although he’d like to go back someday, Fr. Augustine has no current plans. He’s not sure what he and his parish could do in terms of assistance, but the interest is there. As soon as he mentioned he was going to Nigeria, parishioners asked when they could go on a missionary trip. They, too, felt drawn to Fr. Amadi.

“Right from that first week when Fr. Kenneth [Amadi] and his family were here,” Fr. Augustine said, “St. Luke people had the same kind of experience that I did in terms of being feeling close to the family and Fr. Kenneth.”

Fr. Amadi echoes those sentiments. “For me,” he said in an email, “Fr. Augustine’s visit meant everything that it meant for my parishioners. But deeper than that, it was the most eloquent proof of God’s presence, power and love in the Catholic priesthood.”

Fr. Augustine’s visit was in many ways unique and historic. “It was the first time an American entered the parish community and for the majority of the parishioners, their first close encounter/contact with a Caucasian,” he said. Fr. Amadi praised Fr. Augustine for reaching out to the poor and sick in the communities, and for celebrating with those experiencing joyful moments. “Everyone wanted his touch, children and adults alike,” Fr. Amadi said. “Others praised his courage and adventure for coming to Nigeria in this perilous time of terrorism. Others described him as a real missionary.” (Nigeria has been wracked with violence and kidnappings by the militant Islamist group Boko Haram. Fr. Augustine said that no precautions were necessary during his trip.)

Fr. Amadi is optimistic about the future of the relationships formed — both personally and between the churches. He noted the “natural collaboration of faith and love” between the parishes, and hopes St. Luke can continue to support St. Pius X’s rebuilding project.

Fr. Augustine will celebrate 40 years in the ministry on June 4 of this year. In those 40 years he has served at several parishes — including Cathedral of St. John in downtown Milwaukee — and traveled to Rome, Israel and other countries. But this mission trip to Nigeria stands out for him, and always will. “This has certainly been a time of renewal,” he said, “in terms of that bigger perspective in our world. So definitely I call it a life-changing experience. My life won’t be the same — it isn’t.”