Father Boniface Kasiita Nzabonimpa raised his right hand and pledged to defend and abide by the Constitution and laws of the United States of America.
With that, the Uganda native became a U.S. citizen, allowing him to travel freely between his homeland and his mission field.
“It started with the people of America and their goodness,” said Fr. Nzabonimpa, a priest of the Archdiocese of Kampala, Uganda, who has been ministering in the Diocese of Jefferson City since 2011.
“After 10 years of service to the American people, I said, ‘I have to be one of them!’” he stated.
Ordained to the Priesthood in 2002, he is currently pastor of St. Boniface Parish in Brunswick, St. Joseph Parish in Salisbury and St. Mary of the Angels Parish in Wien.
He previously served at St. Peter Parish in Jefferson City and in local hospital ministry; at Visitation Parish in Vienna, Holy Guardian Angels in Brinktown and St. Aloysius Parish in Argyle, which includes St. Boniface Chapel in Koeltztown; at St. Michael Parish in Kahoka, Shrine of St. Patrick Parish in St. Patrick, the former Mission of Notre Dame in LaGrange and the former Mission of St. Martha in Wayland; and at St. Joseph Parish in Hurricane Branch and the Mission of St. Raphael in Indian Grove.
“I love Missouri,” he said. “The years that I’ve been here — it’s just been unbelievable.”
Prior to coming to this diocese, he ministered part-time at parishes in Chula Vista and El Centro, California.
Almost 12 years ago, he visited Monsignor Gregory L. Higley, who was vicar general of the Jefferson City diocese at that time.
“He was very welcoming and encouraged me,” Fr. Nzabonimpa recalled. “Bishop (John R.) Gaydos contacted my bishop, who allowed me to come here. That’s how it started.”
When Fr. Nzabonimpa arrived in Jefferson City, a place where temperatures dip lower than in his homeland, Msgr. Higley presented him with a winter coat and hat.
“I still have them!” said Fr. Nzabonimpa.
Along the way
The missionary priest started by applying for permanent resident status, often referred to as a “green card.”
That process took about two years.
After maintaining permanent-resident status for five years, he became eligible to apply for citizenship.
“I knew it would help me to serve the people better,” he said. “Going back and forth to visit my family and my diocese, you have to get a visa, and things can get mixed up in the shuffle.”
“Being a U.S. citizen helps me to always be available for the people and serve them the way I should,” he said. “Now, nothing can hold me back.”
Alan Garrison, a member of St. Boniface Parish in Brunswick, helped him work through the preparations and get to and from St. Louis.
“Alan has tremendous love for this country and has served it for many years,” Fr. Nzabonimpa noted. “And he has a tremendous love for the Church, and I am grateful to him.”
The priest studied the answers to 100 possible questions pertaining to U.S. citizenship, including history and civics.
His examiner asked him six questions when he went for an interview in October.
“I answered them, and that was it,” the priest recalled. “After that, they schedule you for a swearing-in ceremony.”
He traveled to the Thomas F. Eagleton Federal Courthouse in St. Louis on Nov. 8 to take the oath.
One thing that stood out to him was being asked if he would be willing to take up arms to defend the United States if called upon to do so.
“I said yes, that I’m ready to do that,” he said. “That’s part of what makes the United States of America a great nation, that we’re ready to fight for each other and protect each other.”
The children of St. Joseph School in Salisbury celebrated his newly-acquired citizenship later that day, and his parishioners did so the following weekend.
“It makes me feel proud for our country and for our people that I can do this,” he said.
“I feel a sense of belonging, like the rest of Americans. And I’m proud of that.”
Blood of the martyrs
As pleased and honored as Fr. Nzabonimpa feels to be a U.S. citizen, he is also proud of Uganda and its people.
“They are who made me who I am today,” he said. “And they helped me prepare to serve in this great country.”
He is one of four missionary priests from Uganda currently ministering in this diocese.
The growth of Catholicism in that East-central African nation dates back to the arrival of French missionaries in the 1800s.
Twenty-two Catholics and as many Protestants were killed for their faith in 1885.
Pope St. Paul VI declared several of them saints in 1964.
“We have more Christians in Uganda than any other kind of people,” Fr. Nzabonimpa noted. “And of those, Catholics are the most numerous.”
He said celebrating the Mass and the other sacraments is mostly the same in Uganda and the United States.
“But in Uganda, there are many more young people in the parishes,” he noted. “Here, there are more old people and not as many young people.”
Some in Uganda travel to Sunday Mass by car, others walk a mile or two to get there.
“Either way, they respect the Sunday obligations,” the priest noted.
Catholics and other Christians work well together and occasionally unite for worship on special occasions, “which is good,” he said.
Fr. Nzabonimpa grew up enjoying going to Mass and praying with his family.
“I think that made me open to whatever vocation God had in mind for me, and that’s something I want to share with the people here,” he said.
“Excited and grateful”
Fr. Nzabonimpa said Archbishop Paul Ssemogerere of his home Archdiocese of Kampala was pleased with the priest’s decision to pursue U.S. citizenship.
“My archbishop knows the needs here,” Fr. Nzabonimpa stated. “And this puts me in a better position to continue ministering here in this diocese.”
His parents and siblings are also proud of the achievement.
“They’re excited and grateful that I’m able to serve Uganda as their country and also the country of the U.S.,” he said.
Now in his 21st year of Priesthood, Fr. Nzabonimpa is accompanying Bishop W. Shawn McKnight on a pastoral visit to Uganda to meet with Archbishop Ssemogerere and the people.
“It’s exciting to go back to Uganda for the first time as a U.S. citizen,” the priest said.
Peace and unity
U.S. Rep. Sam Graves recently sent Fr. Nzabonimpa a U.S. flag that was flown above the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.
“I’m going to plant it in my yard so everyone can see it,” the priest said.
Will he bless it first?
“Yes, yes, of course!”
Fr. Nzabonimpa asked for prayers for the people of the United States and Uganda — “for peace and unity for all the people.”
“We want our countries to have peace and unity, to be protected by our God,” he said.
“Sometimes,” he noted, “politicians try to tell us how divided we are. But Americans should confess that our unity is very important.
“We can disagree, but we should always be united as a country,” he said.
For others hoping to apply for U.S. citizenship, he advised patience and diligence.
“You have to be committed,” he stated. “It involves a lot of paperwork.”
“And you must continue to be a good person,” he said. “Be of good service to others and avoid bad things.”