Long before he was ordained a deacon a year ago, Idongesit Etim delivered his first homilies, at his home parish in Obio-Offot, Nigeria. Although English is Nigeria's official language, some parishioners at St. Mary's Church only understood Ibibio, one of the country's major languages, so young Idongesit was called on to interpret the words of the Irish missionary priests that staffed the parish. "I joke that I'm black Irish," Etim says.
The 31-year-old Etim spoke about his journey from Nigeria, a country with about 17 million Catholics, to Wilmington, where he will become the first black priest ordained for the diocese in its 141-year history when Bishop Malooly ordains him May 16 at the Cathedral of St. Peter. In the final days of his yearlong diaconate spent in ministry at Wilmington's Christ Our King
Parish, Etim said it was the missionary spirit at St. Mary's that first stirred his interest in the priesthood.
"I was always moved by the joy and the ability of missionaries to leave their country, learn another person's way of life and become a part of them," he said.
One of six children of the late Augustine Etim, a dentist, and Elizabeth, a seamstress, Etim said he enjoyed growing up in Obio-Offot, where many people were Catholic and much of his childhood revolved around the parish.
"You'd have the priest coming around in school - 'Good morning, Father.' He'd smile and would speak the language, though he didn't speak it well.
Despite years of Catholic education and catechetical classes, Etim's curiosity about church teachings was spurred in his teens by questions on religion that non-Catholics asked him. "I started questioning so many things I couldn't understand."
His oldest brother, Joseph, had become a priest for the Missionary Society of St. Paul. "So I read some of his philosophy books, because I really wanted to answer questions about my faith."
Priesthood was a consideration, Etim said, but he had his doubts. "I thought, 'Look, your brother's vocation is not your vocation; we are all called differently.'" But while Etim was studying to be an electrician his father died, and his resistance to the thought of priesthood died, too.
"My dad went to morning Mass every day before he went to the office. At his burial, the church was packed." Mourners told Etim how his father had paid their bills. "I realized the number of people whose lives he touched. It became a challenge to me to do something beyond thinking about myself."
The road to Dover
After considering the diocesan priesthood, he turned to the Josephite Fathers, the religious order that serves in African-American communities. He became a member of their first seminarian class in Nigeria. Following college there, the Josephites sent Etim to Dominican House of Studies in
Washington, D.C., for graduate work.
In Washington Etim again considered the diocesan priesthood; he was attracted by a desire to serve integrated parishes.
When he visited a friend in Dover, Delaware, he attended Holy Cross Church and became interested in the Diocese of Wilmington. Still a Josephite seminarian, he decided to leave the order and become a lay student. After he discussed his continuing interest in Wilmington with Father Dan Mc-Glynn, pastor of Holy Cross, Etim met with other diocesan priests, including vocations director
Father Joseph Cocucci.
Eventually he met Bishop Michael Saltarelli, who he remembers telling him, "If you open up for God, you will always want for nothing. God has a plan."
That plan included Etim's joining the diocese and attending St. Mary's Seminary in Baltimore, where he will graduate two days before his ordination. He will celebrate his first Mass at Christ Our King on ordination day and will celebrate Mass the next day at Holy Cross.
David Balcerak, grand knight of the Knights of Columbus's Dover Council 4182, recalls Etim working the concession stands at Dover Downs to raise money for the knights. He didn't know it, but the Dover knights were putting aside their tip money for the seminarian.
"He was very well liked throughout his time here," Balcerak said. "He needed a vehicle and one of our knights got him a used car."
Etim has cherished his time preparing for the priesthood and the people he has met along the way. “I love home visitations, where you take Communion to people. I met great people of faith. You give Christ to them and you leave with Christ. You could go and visit a sick person and leave sad. I never did. You meet them and hear their stories, you see God's hand in their life."
He said his time in Nigeria and America has taught him that Christianity takes the shape of each culture. Catholicism, he said, "does not condemn our culture, but it elevates it, raises it up to a different standard."
On the threshold of the priesthood, Etim said he's been raised to an understanding of his call. "Ministry is about recognizing Christ in other people and sharing that living Christ in you and the Christ in them. I truly believe that in giving you receive."
Printed with permission from the Dialog, newspaper for the Diocese of Wilmington, Delaware.