In Idaho, Priests Come From Other Nations to Fill Clergy Void
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News Story by Megan Guido | FāVS News
The number of Catholic priests in the world has been on the decline since World War II, while the number of Catholics has increased. During the years of 1980 to 2012, the ratio of Catholics per priest increased globally, with the number of Catholics per priest going from 1,895 to 3,126.
The western part of the United States, however, traditionally has fewer Catholic parishes, schools or people identifying as Catholic. This is mainly due to lower populations in western states, such as Idaho.
According to a report commissioned by the organization Vocation Ministry, from 2014 to 2021, there was a 9% decrease in active diocesan priests, a 14% decrease in active religious priests and a 24% decline in total priestly ordinations per year. Diocesan priests are ordained to minister in a specific diocese, whereas religious priests minister wherever their superiors assign them.
The shortage of priests is being dealt with in a variety of ways within the Catholic church. Two parishes may share the same priest but remain separate otherwise. Some parishes hire a lay administrator. In some places, Mass at the local church is celebrated only every other week.
And some countries are importing priests from other nations. One of these countries is the United States.
According to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Boise, there are 202,301 people out of 1.8 million in the state of Idaho who identify as Catholic. Towns throughout Idaho have small Catholic parishes with chapels or missions attached to them. A parish within a church has more parishioners attending than a chapel in a small town. These smaller communities may have an ordained priest or deacon who serves more than one parish or chapel.
The Diocese of Boise is itself considered a mission state and as such, the status affords them help from dioceses across the world in finding and placing ordained priests in towns with mission churches.
Moscow, Idaho, in the northern part of the state, is one such town. It is home to St. Mary’s Parish, a mission church with approximately 500 to 600 parishioners. The Rev. Benjamin Onyemachi, a religious order priest originally from Nigeria, is now serving as the priest in this picturesque college town of approximately 26,000 people.
Onyemachi has only been the priest at St. Mary’s in Moscow since July and only conducted a handful of Sunday Masses. Before that, he served six months at the St. Augustine Catholic Church on the University of Idaho campus. He served at Holy Apostles Catholic Church in Meridian, Idaho, prior to coming to Moscow.
Such is the life of a religious priest from a missionary religious order in Nigeria, called Congregation of Sons of Mary Mother of Mercy (SMMM).
“We were trained to live with the consciousness that we are always on the move and could find ourselves anywhere in the world,” he said.
Priests within the SMMM order know that their mission is to serve in different parts of the world like Africa, Europe and North America. The Diocese of Boise has several SMMM priests serving in Idaho.
Onyemachi welcomes the work and is enjoying the change of scenery from southern Idaho to northern Idaho.
“Moscow is a cool and calm community where anyone can find peace,” he said. “The missionary work here in Moscow is like an adventure, it has just begun.”
Priests typically serve about six years in one parish, according to Gene Fadness, communications director for the Diocese of Boise. Ordained priests may be placed in mission states and parishes by the Bishop of the Diocese. The Bishop of the Diocese of Boise, Peter Christenson, assigned Onyemachi to St. Mary’s after reaching out to other bishops in countries throughout the world, in this case Nigeria.
“One of the duties of the bishop is to find priests for his flock,” said Meri Price, administrative assistant with the Office of the Chancellor at the Diocese of Boise. “Bishop Peter prays for vocations and has all diocesan priests pray for priestly vocations in our diocese.”
Soon Onyemachi will have help in his duties when a second ordained priest, the Rev. Anthony Ujagbo, with the Archdiocese of Owerri Nigeria, will be joining him. Ujagbo’s presence will be a support in serving the Catholic station in Genesee, Idaho, a part of St. Mary’s parish.