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His road to priesthood was rocky but worth it

By Dolores Madlener | Staff writer
Sunday, May 6, 2012

Missionary Society of St Paul of Nigeria Father Raphael Ezeh, pastor of Corpus Christi Parish, 4920 S. King Drive. (Karen Callaway / Catholic New World)

He is: Missionary Society of St Paul of Nigeria Father Raphael Ezeh (pronounced EH-zeh). Ordained in Nigeria in 1996. Arrived in USA 1999. Installed as pastor at Corpus Christi Parish in Bronzeville by Bishop Joseph Perry April 29, 2007.

Youth: My father died of an illness before I was born. I have three sisters and a brother. I was born in 1966, just before the Nigerian Civil War. Fortunately the war ended before we had to evacuate. I was a baby, but from the stories I heard, it was rough -- a lot of poverty and starvation.  Most of us had to go and live with relatives. I lived with Mom until I was 9. She cared for the family the best she could, a loving and resilient woman. There was a whole lot of living here and there. In Nigerian society, living with relatives is common and comfortable due to our extended family system. I lived with my maternal grandma too, and my uncle put me through school.”

School: “Our family was Catholic. The priests who laid the groundwork were the Holy Ghost Fathers. I attended a government-run Catholic school at the cathedral. I served Mass. Secondary school was public. I’d go to school, come home, go to the market, take care of chores, and then go play soccer. I think I was pretty good at soccer. In the beginning we mostly played barefoot, but going away for school games we got to wear something.”

Vocation: “The Nigerians’ spirituality is very deep. But when I wanted to go to the seminary my mother refused for many years. When I finally decided to go ahead, it was without her permission. Everybody in my family and extended family was against it, except my uncle. It’s a big deal in the tribe about getting married and having children, and there were just two boys in our family. I wanted to be a missionary, to share the Good News, and grow closer to God. Those things were paramount. By the time I got to the diaconate my Mom accepted it. At the time of my first Mass my elder sister still wished I’d come home.”

Priesthood: The Holy Spirit carried me through. The vocation director from the Society of St. Paul came to our school and talked to us. I didn’t know the difference between diocesan and missionary priests. When he explained it, I realized the apostolic life of St. Paul was what I was looking for. Seminary training was hard. We started with 25 and only 12 made it to ordination.

“My first assignments were in Nigeria, then after a couple years the superior called me and said he was sending me to the United States.” His order’s first house in the USA is in Houston, Texas. After some time there learning Spanish and working in their Mission Office, he became pastor at Our Lady of Lourdes in New Orleans. When Hurricane Katrina struck, he was out of the country. Later he joined the massive clean-up. When the archdiocese closed his parish, he was sent to Chicago to relieve another MSP priest at Corpus Christi Parish.

Chicago: “I think it’s beautiful. I love snow, so I’m good. Bishop Perry has encouraged us to start Eucharistic adoration in the parish. It’s widespread in Nigeria -- all day in most parishes. We have it here after Mass on First and third Fridays and Saturdays, until 7:30 p.m. in the chapel. When I came I asked people to invite me to their homes to know where they’re coming from. Many invited me and the rest didn’t want me to come! I know them better now and their stories. If I don’t see them at Mass I try to call. It’s an elderly parish. It’s small but very active. I’d say 80 per cent of the parish is involved.”

Leisure: “I had a knee injury so I can’t play soccer now – but I play tennis. I love movies. My favorite is “The Passion of the Christ.” I love that movie! This year we watched it in the rectory during Holy Week with four persons who were going to be received into the church. One of my favorite books is John Powell’s “Happiness is an Inside Job.” I enjoy the intersection between spirituality and human nature – they combine to make us a better and more fulfilled person.”

Scripture: “John 10:10 – ‘I have come that you may have life, and have it abundantly.’”