In Isaiah 61:5-6, the Bible says, "Foreigners will be your servants. They will feed your flocks and plow your fields and tend your vineyards. You will be called priests of the Lord, ministers of our God.''
No truer words could be said of men who travel from distant lands to become priests in the United States and make a lifelong commitment to leave their homeland.
Four men have chosen to come to the Catholic Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown from other countries. They have pledged to serve the diocese as priests for as long as the bishop directs.
(Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski) Father Chinemere Onyeocha is a native of Nigeria and serves as parochial vicar at Our Lady of Victory Catholic Church in State College.
All of the men said they came for one reason: They had heard about the shortage of priests in the United States.
Tony DeGol, spokesman for the diocese, said that shortage continues to be a problem in its eight counties with few men expected be ordained over the next few years. But Bishop Mark L. Bartchak is hopeful that trend will reverse itself as he works with young adults and tries to increase the numbers of those choosing a religious vocation.
"Bishop Mark is very optimistic about what the future holds,'' DeGol said, adding that Bartchak has met with several dozen young men who have expressed an interest in the priesthood.
But on a local and national level, becoming a priest has fallen short on the list of desirable careers for young men in recent decades, according to Father Shawn McKnight, executive director of the Secretariat of Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Parents and grandparents, who at one time encouraged young people to enter vocations, began directing them toward other careers and also toward providing offspring, DeGol said.
"Unfortunately, what we saw was very timid encouragement [toward priesthood] by the parents,'' McKnight said.
With fewer men in America answering the call, many dioceses welcomed help from overseas.
The men who came from other countries were following the path paved by men years before, McKnight said. Contrary to popular belief, America has never really had a glut of priests, except in the 1950s. During those years, the Catholic church was able to send many priests abroad as missionaries, he said.
But before and after that time period, McKnight said, America never really exported a large number of priests to serve abroad. In fact, the opposite is true. Many more young men came here to serve from other countries, such as Ireland.
"We have always been a country that relies upon young men from other countries coming here to serve in our church,'' he said.
The young men who came to the diocese are similar in many ways.
Most of them grew up in a deeply religious home and just about all decided at a young age that they wanted to be a priest. Several started theological studies before coming to America. They carefully weighed their decisions before making the journey and have overcome obstacles, such as loneliness and language barriers.
The diocese provided coaches and classes to improve their English. And despite the fact that they still get lonely, they are committed to serving God as another foreign-born priest who came to this diocese - Prince Demetrius Gallitzin of Loretto - once did.
Among the priests are two from Nigeria and two from Slovakia. They have been priests for anywhere from 14 to four years.
One of them is Father Chinemere Onyeocha from Nigeria, who first went by Father Ralph because his grandfather's name was Raphael, and it seemed easier for people to say.
But Bishop Emeritus Joseph V. Adamec, who was responsible for bringing him and other international candidates to the diocese, asked him to adopt his baptismal name of Chinemere as his official name and he agreed.
Onyeocha was already in America when he was invited to attend the ordination of a fellow Nigerian - Father Charles Ugo. At the ceremony, Onyeocha met Adamec and talked to a priest about coming to the diocese.
To Onyeocha, coming from another country to spread the gospel is a natural fit.
"Being a traveling missionary is synonymous with the call of preaching the word of Christ,'' Onyeocha said. He pointed to the apostle Paul as a prime example of someone who spent years traveling the world to preach the word of God.
Onyeocha grew up surrounded by people who followed the Christian faith, especially his grandfather.
His younger brother is a priest as well as two of his uncles. One of his uncles witnessed Onyeocha's ordination in 2008.
Although he has returned to Nigeria several times to see his family, Onyeocha said he finds it difficult to be away from them at Christmas. His first holidays in the States were the hardest, he said. It's still difficult, because even though he accepts invitations to spend the day with people in his parish, it's not the same.
"The day becomes longer than usual,'' he said.
Father Lobomir Strecok, who came to the diocese from Slovakia, agreed.
In Slovakia, it is perhaps the most popular holiday of the year, Strecok said.
The celebration of the birth of Christ kicks off Dec. 6 and lasts for days. It involves the extended family, with the girls being the focus of Christmas Eve and the boys on Christ mas Day.
In America, Strecok gets together with fellow Slovakians, including Father Jozef Kovacik, pastor of St. Matthew's Catholic Church in Tyrone. But it doesn't replace the feelings of being with his family, he said.
When you go to parishioners' homes for a holiday dinner, "[you feel] like the fifth wheel on the car because it's not your family,'' Strecok said.
The story of how Strecok and Kovacik got to the diocese is different than what the priests from Nigerian experienced.
Slovakia was a Communist country. Although churches were allowed, open displays of religion were not permitted. People could go to church but they could not speak about their faith in public, and anyone who wanted to hold public office could not belong to a church, Strecok said.
Adamec's parents came from Slovakia, so he had a strong connection to the country, but he was prevented from reaching out to the men there until the Communist leaders were ousted, Strecok said. When that happened, Strecok heard that Adamec was looking for men interested in coming to America to possibly study here and hopefully become priests.
"I couldn't get it out of my head,'' Strecok said. "It was always bugging me that maybe this was what God wants me to do, so I thought, 'let's give it a try.'"
When he arrived, Strecok's English was limited, but he could say the "Our Father'' prayer and sing "Silent Night.''
The diocese provided a tutor plus classes in English. Watching TV, attending classes at St. Vincent College, Latrobe, and mixing with other students helped. In 1998, he was ordained at the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament.
Fellow Slovakian Kovacik said it was the shortage of priests that prompted him to answer Adamec's call.
"I knew there were enough priests in Slovakia and that there was probably more of a need in the United States,'' he said.
Kovacik was a seminarian in Slovakia, when he first considered moving. It took him about a year to decide.
"I always trusted God that I would see signs if I was not in the right place,'' he said.
Kovacik, who finished his studies at St. Vincent College with Strecok, also had challenges with the language, especially slang.
"For me it was a little frustrating,'' he said. "I knew what I wanted to say, but I couldn't always find the right words.''
But for him and the others, the rewards outweigh the difficulties.
"I've never regretted my decision,'' Kovacik said. "On the contrary, I'm very thankful.''
Serving farther to the north is Ugo, a priest who could have landed in Europe.
He was in Nigeria waiting on visas to Germany and the United States when the one for America arrived first.
When he approached the Archdiocese of Philadelphia about serving there, he was told it would be at least six months before he could have an audience with the archbishop to discuss his plans. He decided to come to the Altoona-Johnstown diocese instead.
Ugo would say that it's no coincidence that his circumstances led him to the diocese.
"I believe truly that God is leading me,'' he said.
Pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Renovo, Ugo said he knew since childhood that he either wanted to be a medical doctor or a priest.
He decided on the priesthood in high school, and he said he doesn't think it's a bad idea to decide on a religious vocation at a young age because a person can always change his mind.
"I don't see anything wrong with that,'' he said. "It's a question of looking at individual cases. ... We make it sound like God only calls on us as adults, but God calls people at different times. We can't put God in a box.''
In Nigeria, he had been involved with a German-based seminary called Schoenstatt, but decided it was not the right place for him.
He then saw a vocations director in Lagos, Nigeria, who told him about priest shortages in Europe and America.
After stays in Florida and Philadelphia, Ugo talked to a priest he knew who referred him to Monsignor Michael Becker, then director of vocations for the diocese.
Becker invited him to Altoona in October 2001 and by December, Ugo was at a parish. He studied at St. Vincent's Seminary and was ordained in 2006.
Ugo said he's only returned to Nigeria a few times. Like the other priests, once he made the decision to come here, he realized it was probably for keeps.
When he first arrived, homesickness was a big issue but now not as much, he said.
"I have come to see this place as home, even though most of my family is back home in Nigeria,'' Ugo said.
The diocese stopped recruiting young men from overseas during Adamec's term as bishop because people in the diocese, as McKnight described, began feeling that the men from other countries could serve as priests and young men in the diocese didn't have to take up vocations, DeGol said.
"I think a lot of parents put up roadblocks,'' DeGol said. "They would try to discourage sons and grandsons from considering vocations.''
However, Adamec believes parishioners should look to their own to find priests, DeGol said. And Bartchak is committed to continuing that legacy.
"He is very focused on that,'' DeGol said.