Within 20 years of Belgian Jesuits bringing Christianity to the Oraon Tribal people in what is now Father Alex Ekka’s home diocese of Jashpur, India, boys in that area began wondering if they were being called to Priesthood.
“The missionaries originally said these Tribals can never become priests until there have been at least 100 years of Christianity in this place,” Fr. Ekka said of the period that began in the early 1900s.
That first generation of Oraon Catholics and their immediate descendants proved the missionaries wrong.
“Many Tribal girls and boys did become nuns and priests,” said Fr. Ekka. “And now, Bishop (Emmanuel) Kerketta (of Jashpur) ordains at least 15 boys to the Priesthood each year.”
Some of those priests also become missionaries, including Fr. Ekka.
“My bishop is very mission-minded,” stated Fr. Ekka, who has been serving in this diocese since 2010 and is now pastor of Sacred Heart Parish in Eldon and Our Lady of Snows Parish in Mary’s Home.
He is one of 18 missionary priests from 11 overseas dioceses who are now working with Bishop W. Shawn McKnight and the local priests to meet the needs of the people in this diocese.
“As a young diocese founded in 1956, we have always been dependent upon missionary priests serving us from the very beginning,” Bishop McKnight noted. “And we continue to be dependent upon them today. So we are very grateful.”
He pointed out that much of the money from this year’s Diocesan Mission Collection, which will be taken in parishes the weekend of July 16-17, will be used to help support the work of the Church in dioceses that have missionary priests serving here.
The collection helps sustain various ministries, including the building of churches and chapels and helping prepare catechists to teach the faith, in addition to providing for material needs for the people in their local communities.
“So we’re not only providing material assistance with our mission collection,” said Bishop McKnight. “We are also helping the preaching of the Gospel in missionary territory.
“I can’t think of a better way and a more efficient way for us to help those who are in need elsewhere than to support the local churches there that we know are doing a very good job of ministering to the poor,” he said.
Through the Mission Office, the Jefferson City diocese has helped carry out projects large and small in an array of overseas dioceses.
This included helping pay for the needed renovation of Holy Family Church in the village of Gothgaon in Father Alexander Gabriel’s home diocese of Daltonganj, India.
The Mission Office previously helped purchase a tractor and farm machinery to help young people learn how to do different types of sustainable farming in the Daltonganj diocese.
Fr. Gabriel is pastor of Holy Family Parish in Hannibal and St. Joseph Parish in Palmyra.
In the Archdiocese of Kampala, Uganda, home diocese to Father Leonard Mukiibi and Father Boniface Kasiita Nzabonimpa, the Mission Office helped build a school and dig a well for fresh water in the village of Sentema.
“This will provide children more time in school, rather than having to travel great lengths in the morning or evening to gather water for themselves and their families,” stated Jake Seifert, diocesan director of development and of the Mission Office.
Fr. Mukiibi is pastor of St. Thomas the Apostle Parish in St. Thomas and St. Cecilia Parish in Meta.
Fr. Nzabonimpa is pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Salisbury, St. Boniface Parish in Brunswick and St. Mary of the Angels Parish in Wien.
“There is such an abundance of grace, and God is allowing us to share it with each other in amazing ways,” Mr. Seifert stated.
A bit of leaven
In the Diocese of Jashpur, the Mission Office helped pay to dig a well that provides clean drinking water in the village of Semartal.
The Mission Office helped purchase new televisions for the St. Ann Nuns in the Diocese of Jashpur. Many of the sisters are studying nursing or are nurses working in various hospitals, and the TVs help them with distance learning.
The Mission Office helped complete a second floor for the St. Joseph School building in the village of Sarodih in Fr. Ekka’s home diocese.
Schools in the diocese help boys and girls prepare for well-paying jobs and escape a multigenerational cycle of poverty.
The school’s new floor will be dedicated to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, Patroness of the Jefferson City diocese.
Donors to the Mission Office also paid to build St. Ann Church in Masrighat, Fr. Ekka’s ancestral village.
Before the church’s completion and dedication last December, priests offered Mass in local homes.
Fr. Ekka noted that such projects are tremendously effective in improving people’s spiritual and physical well-being and promoting trust among Christians and non-Christians in his home diocese.
“The majority of the Indian people living in the rural areas and the villages cannot send their children to schools in the big cities, which are very expensive,” he said.
“They cannot take people who are sick to the hospitals in big cities, which are also very expensive,” he added. “The Church operates schools and hospitals in rural areas to help the poor and does so for the bare-minimum expenses.”
He noted that the St. Ann Nuns recently started a hospital in a deeply rural village with no roads to the closest city.
“People often come to the hospital carrying a person on a cart, because they cannot afford to have a vehicle,” he said.
By recognizing the Tribal peoples’ inherent dignity and giving them access to healthcare and a good education, the Church has helped thousands of people improve their lives.
“People who are poor and marginalized have been able to get good jobs and slowly, their life is getting better,” he said.
Upon moving to work in large cities such as Delhi and Mumbai, they often invigorate the Catholic parishes in their neighborhoods.
“Many city parishes are thriving on these newly arrived Catholics who have very strong faith,” Fr. Ekka noted.
Fr. Ekka is confident that God will continue calling sufficient numbers of young men in his diocese to Priesthood “for a half-century, maybe longer — as long as the rural village system remains in place.”
Like the founding bishop of this diocese observed some 60 years ago, rural areas tend to be fertile ground for raising young Catholics in the faith.
“That is certainly true in India,” said Fr. Ekka.
Bishop Kerketta has asked Fr. Ekka to continue serving in this diocese until he is old enough to retire in about five years.
Then, he will head back to India to assist at a parish or convent and minister to people who are elderly — a skill he’s been honing since arriving in this diocese.
“These experiences I’ve been learning here will be very valuable, perhaps even to some of the younger priests I will be associating with,” he said.