Friday, March 14th, 2008
By Shelley Grieshop
From Africa to St. Henry: Tanzania priest joins parish
ST. HENRY - Glancing out the rectory window at last week's glistening snow brought a shiver to the Rev. Benedict Magabe, the new associate priest in St. Henry who arrived in Ohio on Feb. 15.
Father Benedict, as he is known to his new congregation, is having trouble getting used to the local winter weather. No one, including him, is surprised. Highs in his homeland of Tanzania are about 80 degrees year-round.
"When we arrived (at Dayton International Airport) we didn't have the right clothes," he says. "It was good they brought us heavy coats."
Magabe, 36, and fellow African priest, the Rev. Alfons Minja, 46, were tapped by church officials to participate in an exchange program between the Cincinnati Province here and the Tanzanian Vicariate of their country - both units of the Missionaries of the Precious Blood.
Minja recently began his assignment as associate pastor at Sts. Peter and Paul Catholic Church in Ottawa. The priests will stay in their new parishes for at least four years.
"Rome has encouraged the exchange of our membership for about the last 10 years," says the Rev. Ken Schnipke, personnel director at the Cincinnati Province.
The Precious Blood organization is an international community and exchanging priests overseas is meant to be mutually beneficial, Schnipke explains. The main objective locally is to lessen the impact of the priest shortage while giving the Tanzanian priests experiences and skills they can use when they return home, Schnipke says.
"St. Henry was chosen because we wanted to bring them to a place where there was a good environment to nurture them," he adds.
Magabe, who is fluent in several languages, is in the U.S. for the very first time and knows he has a lot to learn. For instance, learning to drive the American way has been a struggle. In East Africa, cars are driven in the left lane and steering wheels are on the right.
The soft-spoken young man learned English at the age of 16. He hopes to share his customs and experiences with the tight-knit St. Henry cluster of parishes. The stories he tells about his three-year mission helping Rwandan and Burundi refugees in the mid-'90s are sad and heartbreaking, yet show the true meaning of fellowship among Christians, he says.
His experience as a missionary opened his eyes to the world and led him to his ordination as a priest in June of 2006, he says.
"The suffering life of the refugees has molded my life to remain at the service of the people of God," says Magabe. "I see the suffering of the people as the cry of blood. This is the blood of peace and reconciliation, which I give to people every day at the Eucharistic celebration."
Magabe was fresh out of high school when he was asked to help at the Benaco refugee camp where a "mega city" of tents, grass huts and a "mass of people" were attempting to survive, he explains. The war between the country's two major ethnic groups - the Hutu and the Tutsi - left a million people dead and many more homeless and suffering from malnutrition and disease.
One day in June 1994, he witnessed a violent mob chase down a suspected spy and kill him on the spot. Incidents like that were unfortunately common in the camps, he adds.
Prior to his arrival in the U.S., Magabe worked with the youth of Itigi parish in the Manyoni District of Tanzania. His assignment in America was a definite shock, he admits. So far, he's not homesick for his parents and 10 siblings back home.
He shares a lot of the local community interests, he says.
"I do play basketball," Magabe says with a grin, adding he's been to several Redskin games since his arrival.
Despite the fact that he might very well be the only black man living in the St. Henry area, he feels at home, he says. He's been heartily welcomed into the community, he adds.
Both Tanzania priests are being eased into their new positions with a lot of help from the Cincinnati Province and local church officials.
"All in all, I'm very happy to be here," he says. "I hope I be doing very well here."
Magabe will officially begin his assignment in July when the Rev. Larry Wyen, senior pastor of the St. Henry cluster, retires. Current Ottawa priest, the Rev. Thomas Hemm, will take Wyen's place.
The St. Henry cluster includes the parishes of St. Henry, St. Aloysius in Carthagena, St. Bernard in Burkettsville, St. Francis in Cranberry Prairie and St. Wendelin.
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