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Arkansas Catholics have new buildings thanks to leadership of Nigerian priest
By Aprille Hanson

.- In only six years with the Diocese of Little Rock, Father John Obinna Agbakwuo has not only spread the word of God in his parishes, he’s helped build them.

Father Agbakwuo, who left the state Feb. 28 to visit family in his native Nigeria and then teach in Austria, has overseen the construction of new parishes for St. James Church in Searcy and St. Albert Church in Heber Springs and a parish hall for St. Richard Church in Bald Knob.

You come into a place and see what is needed and the needs of the community,” Father Agbakwuo said. “It is actually the people doing the work. You motivate them, you encourage them.”

First assignment

Father Agbakwuo, 47, came to the United States in 2005 as associate pastor at Our Lady of the Holy Souls Church in Little Rock. While there, he said he was involved in the hospital ministry, visiting area hospitals and nursing homes to administer the sacrament of the anointing of the sick or holy Communion.

Working with this ministry fueled a desire to explore clinical pastoral education, where he’d learn how the ministry approaches “counseling and how they apply it.”

“Anytime I get inquisitive, I try to explore into it,” Father Agbakwuo said. “I became inquisitive and wanted to explore what was going on in the ministry.”

Though then-diocesan administrator Msgr. J. Gaston Hebert approved of him joining the program, God had other plans.

Obedience

In 2007, Father Agbakwuo’s friend, Father Vincent “Udo” Ogbuji, pastor at St. James Church, was injured in a car wreck, leaving him unable to be the pastor.

At the time, the church was constructing Father Ogbuji’s vision of a larger parish, which broke ground in 2006. The previous parish had only 200 seats.

Msgr. Hebert then asked Father Agbakwuo to become administrator of St. James Church, St. Albert Church and St. Richard Church.

“As a priest you know you’ve submitted yourself to the Church and you go to where the Church needs you,” Father Agbakwuo said. “Your interests are secondary to the needs of the Church.”

Though he said coming into the middle of building a new parish is “not easy,” he helped the church move forward, adding a few of his own suggestions.

Originally, Father Agbakwuo said the ceiling was to be made out of synthetic material to save money.

However, he asked the church’s development committee if money wasn’t an issue, what type of ceiling they’d like to have.

“All of them voted for the wooden ceiling if we had the money and I said, ‘OK we’re going to do it,’” Father Agbakwuo said.

In March 2008, St. James had a new church with 400 seats and a wooden ceiling.

“They are incredible,” he said. “You have really dedicated people here.”

Building up church

Instead of sitting back after completing the new St. James Parish, Father Agbakwuo accepted the request from his other parish community that same year: a larger parish for St. Albert.

Construction began eight months later to create a church capable of seating 500 people, rather than the previous 225.

The dedication Mass took place on Dec. 19, 2009, with more than 300 people, including Bishop Anthony B. Taylor.

“It is a modern church and has many features,” he said. “I’m happy the people are happy with the church … and proud of their church.”

During construction of St. Albert, his other congregation at St. Richard called on him to help build a new parish hall.

Father Agbakwuo said he celebrates Mass for the roughly 40-member congregation at St. Richard every Saturday. However, no social activities could ever be held because it lacked a parish hall.

“Because it’s a small community, the next step was to get the people committed, not just financially,” he said. “We did everything and it was great.”

The building was completed in early 2010.

Joe Giezeman, who is St. James parish council chairman and chairman of the development committee, said the way Father Agbakwuo took on several building projects is an example of his commitment.

“That’s a handful for anybody,” Giezeman said. “He did a great job leading us forward. He did a very nice job in delegating the work.”

Intellectual, emotional

Father Agbakwuo was ordained in 1991 in Nigeria and worked as a parish priest before traveling to the University of Salzburg to earn his journalism diploma in 1994. He continued his studies in Austria and earned his doctorate in dogmatic theology in 1998. From 1993-1998 he worked part-time as an assistant parish priest at St. Martin Parish in the archdiocese.

After graduation in 1998, he returned to Nigeria and served as the editor of the archdiocesan newspaper, lectured at the local seminary and worked as a pastor.

Despite the progress and fond friends Father Agbakwuo has made in Arkansas, he said he’s excited to return to Austria to teach religion at the University of Salzburg.

“With work in the parish, you do use your intellectual ability, but it is more the emotional aspect of it,” Father Agbakwuo said. “The way you are challenged when you lecture in the university is different. It challenges me intellectually.”

Father Agbakwuo said he’ll always carry with him the lessons he’s learned as a priest while in the state.

“(I’ve learned) never to lose your sense of purpose. You get challenges, you get distractions, you encounter different situations,” he said. “It is very easy to lose sight of the goal.”

Father John Obinna Agbakwuo

- Born in 1963

- Ordained in 1991 in the Archdiocese of Owerri, Nigeria

- Educated at the University of Salzburg, Austria. Diploma in journalism and mass communication, 1994. Doctorate in dogmatic theology, 1998

- Editor of archdiocesan newspaper and director of communications in Nigeria, 2000-2004

- Lectured in Nigerian seminary 2002-2005

- Diocese of Little Rock, 2005-2011

- Returning to Austria to teach religion at the University of Salzburg, 2011

Printed with permission from Arkansas Catholic, newspaper for the Diocese of Little Rock, Arkansas.


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