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Mundelein welcomed him, that's more than Texas did

By Dolores Madlener | Staff Writer
Sunday, August 4, 2013

Father John Atoyebi, then-pastor at Holy Angels Parish, lights a candle at the beginning of a prayer meeting for young adults on Jan. 9, 2008 at his parish. (Karen Callaway / Catholic New World)

He is: Father John Atoyebi, pastor for St. Clotilde and St. Helena of the Cross parishes. In 1994 he became the first African priest ordained for the Archdiocese of Chicago. He was also the first African pastor in the archdiocese.

Family life: “I grew up in Lagos. It used to be the capital of Nigeria — it’s still the biggest city. I have two sisters, two step-sisters and one step-brother. My father had an import-export business. That’s the business I was in from the age of 7 until I went to the seminary. My mother was a business lady, too. She passed away when I was 7 years old. She was a strong woman with a gift for generosity. She took care of everybody, which I think I’ve picked up. I didn’t know that until I became a priest.

“I attended Catholic schools, from elementary to seminary college. My father didn’t support my priesthood; he wanted me to be a businessman. He liked the seminary’s educational training but he had a job for me to do -- not to be a priest. So I had to leave the seminary. I went to Rome supposedly for business studies, but instead got my bachelor’s  in philosophy at the Angelicum.”

‘Welcome to America:’ “Some priest friends I met from Amarillo, Texas, invited me to come and study for the United States. I was reluctant at first, but I came to a large seminary in Texas, in 1987. I was their first African priest.

“By that time my father had passed away. I was in first theology. It was my first encounter with racism. I didn’t know how to deal with it, and I was angry. Don’t forget, I’m coming from Lagos, not from the village. So I reacted. It didn’t go well. I was there 18 months. A priest friend in Texas said, ‘This isn’t fair. Write to some U.S. bishops.’ I sent a couple of letters; one was to Chicago.

“Cardinal Bernardin sat down with me in Chicago and actually apologized for what I went through in Texas. Believe it or not, when I was at Mundelein, the rector of the seminary in Texas came and apologized to me. One of the formation priests had called me ‘n*****.’ I didn’t even know what it meant. Eventually they removed him. I was welcomed in Chicago. I got my master’s in divinity and after ordination went to St. Benedict’s Parish in Blue Island.”

Parish life: “Being the first African ordained here puts a lot of weight on your shoulders — no family, priesthood itself is a different culture, I found myself in a parish where I didn’t know anyone — it wasn’t easy.”

Giving back: “Today the young African seminarians come to me and ask advice, so I guess I’m the elder. In our African culture the elder gets respect. I needed an elder badly when I came here, but there was nobody.

“Foreign priests arrive with their identity, with their culture. Sometimes it’s difficult to let go. But over time you realize if you’re going to be an American priest, you have to get to know the American way of life. You still keep your own identity, but for you to be happy and successful here, you have to learn how to live in this country.”

Prayer life: “Morning is my best strength. In the morning I read my Divine Office, and then again late in the evening.  I go on a yearly retreat – sometimes Stritch Retreat Center, sometime out of state.”

Downtime: “Right now I’m reading ‘What’s So Amazing About Grace?’ by Philip Yancey. I’m also a movie guy. I’m crazy for movies. They help me relax. The American priests in our cluster sometimes have dinners together. We eat and joke and I make them laugh.”

Scripture and saints: I have lived First Corinthians: ‘When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.’ I didn’t know the score in Texas. It’s different now. I have experience, I understand the culture. I’ve been in this country 26 years -- it’s different.

As a priest of Chicago I’ve been able to bring at least 14 priests here from Africa to go to school. I think that’s a St. John Bosco thing: education and helping people. He’s my favorite saint.”