In coastal Maine, a youthful priest from Nigeria now tends to parishes long comprising millworker and fishing families, a stark reflection of how the Catholic Church is changing both here and across the globe.
The Rev. Olusola Adewole, 41, is a Dominican priest from Nigeria. He is the parochial vicar at Stella Maris Parish, which is made up of churches in Bucksport, Stonington and Castine, and one of seven foreign-born priests serving in Maine.
“The reception I’ve had has been very warm, very kind,” he said recently in Bucksport, where the parish office is located on the first floor of the rectory, next door to the church. “People sense that you’ve come to be with them, that we are there for them. We’ve come to walk with them to benefit the whole community.”
Adewola, who is called Father Sola — pronounced Shola — by his parishioners, grew up in Ibadan, a city of about 3 million in southwestern Nigeria. He was born into a Catholic family. His mother was a teacher, then principal at a Catholic school, and his father worked in publishing. Some of his earliest memories are of playing at Mass.
“I remember vividly as a very young child I would go to Mass and the children would sit in front of the altar to see what the priest was doing,” Adewola said. “I was always fascinated by what was on the altar. I remember that when we would get back home after Sunday Mass, when I was not even old enough to be receiving Holy Communion, my friends and I would gather together — both Catholics and non-Catholics — and we would do a mock Mass.
“Somebody would serve as priest and we would get a cup and some small biscuits [cookies in the U.S.] and we would do Communion.”
When he was in high school, Adewole considered becoming a doctor, but he joined a youth group run by the Dominicans instead. It was during this time that he felt called to the priesthood.
“The basic thing that I always believed is that the life of a priest is a life of service,” he said.
Adewole began his studies in the order in April 1993 and was ordained a decade later. He first served a parish in Mafoloku, a suburb of Nigeria’s largest city, Lagos. In 2006, he was sent to a parish in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Harrisburg. Four years later, Adewole moved to Washington, D.C., where he was a hospital chaplain for three years.
His biggest adjustment to life in the U.S. has been the dramatic change of seasons in the Northeast. Adewole said he loves the vibrant colors of fall and has adjusted to the cold but he misses the evening light. Because Nigeria is so near the equator, the sun sets and rises about the same time every day. The short days of winter were a big adjustment, he said.
In most of the places Adewole has worked, he has been one of the few, if not the only, African.
“That I’ve been the only black person is not something that sticks with me,” he said. “My own heritage has not been a hindrance in any way. Sometimes people want to know who are you, where do you come from? As a priest and a person, you have your own distinctness, but you are part and parcel of the people.”
It takes a few weeks for parishioners’ ears to adjust to his accent. The most frequent complaint he gets is: “Slow down. You talk too fast.”
Chapter III: Beyond ‘Generation Me’
When home-grown priests were plentiful, they left Maine as missionaries in foreign lands. Today, priests are being recruited internationally to serve here. Meanwhile, a young priest now has been charged with guiding young Mainers into the faith.
Maine is not alone in seeking out foreign-born priests. American dioceses are turning to countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America, where a greater percentage of Catholic men are joining the priesthood than in the U.S., for priests to celebrate Mass, according to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington, D.C.
In 2012, there were more than 6,000 foreign-born priests from 124 countries serving in 188 dioceses around the country, according to the “Guidelines for Receiving Pastoral Ministers in the United States,” published by the bishops.
Foreign-born priests in 2012 made up about 25 percent of all diocesan priests, according to Mark Gray of the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. In 1999, there were about 3,500 foreign-born priests, or 11 percent of diocesan priests, in the U.S.
To serve its needs and to deal with the shortage of home-grown priests, the diocese in Maine will need to continue to rely on priests from abroad to minister to Catholics, according to Monsignor Andrew Dubois, moderator of the Curia for the diocese.
Dubois works as an administrator in the chancery in Portland, with duties similar to those of a chief executive officer. The native Maine priest will attend a national workshop about how dioceses can welcome foreign-born priests later this year.
“We have moved into this area slowly and worked with established groups,” he said. “As priests, they must be able to minister not just to a particular cultural group but to all the people in the cluster and the local hospitals.”
The effort to recruit new priests to the faith doesn’t just involve international recruitment, but work closer to home. Last summer, the diocese gave this critical, important job to an affable, youthful 36-year-old priest, the Rev. Seamus Griesbach.
As director of vocations for the diocese, Griesbach is tasked with helping young people who want to make the “radical gift of themselves” to the church. In this role, he must put the service to the church in a context understandable and relevant in this age.
He does this through social media — Griesbach is an active blogger and social media user — and with dry humor to contextualize the sacrifices asked by the church. Griesbach often cites his sister, who has children ages 9, 7, 5 and 2.
“I think she lives a more sacrificial life than I do in many respects,” he said. “I get to sleep through the nights. Most nights, she doesn’t.”
Griesbach also has led camping and other outdoor excursions for young people determining whether they want to devote their lives to serving the church. He believes being in nature among others going through the discernment process can help the group focus on difficult questions and help individuals look within themselves.
The process for choosing service is known as discernment, which is usually a group activity among people asking themselves the same questions about their futures, whether to serve the community and church in a different way. The last thing the church wants is for someone to make a decision about service they later regret, Griesbach said.
Surprisingly, the diocese says it doesn’t need many new priests, just 20 men to be ordained during the next 10 years to meet the state’s demand. That’s just two priests per year, but the church has averaged less than that over the past two decades.
Griesbach believes the priests and sisters are there, sitting in the pews, they just need support and guidance.
“I have a sense that we’re starting to move a little bit beyond ‘Generation Me.’ I believe a lot of young people are looking for ways to find meaning and they don’t want to just live for themselves,” Griesbach said. “They’re looking for ways to give their lives to something greater. If that’s the perspective, I think [service to the church] is very appealing.”
Coming Friday: Through the church, three young Mainers of differing backgrounds are finding a new calling. Meanwhile, the rhetoric of a new pontiff is causing Catholics long lapsed to take another look.