Priest was saved by uncle, old woman and God to serve the Church
By Laura K. Brestovansky
Special to The Catholic Times
DRYDEN — They say it takes a village to raise a child. In one case, that village benefited when the child brought the Catholic faith to his birthplace.
When Adem Okoh — now Fr. Philemon Okoh — was born Dec. 6, 197,1 in the village of Ogoli-Ipagbo in Ugboju, State of Benue, Nigeria, Catholicism was unknown in the area. A few Methodist missionaries were in the area, but neither his parents nor Adem’s 16 siblings were Christian.
“People could go to church if they wanted,” Fr. Okoh said. “Not a lot went to church.”
Life in Nigeria was hard and baby Adem was small and sickly, but there was nothing to be done. There was no hospital nearby and the family could not afford treatment if there was one. Neighbors and relatives advised Adem’s parents to forget about the child, to literally dump him in the garbage.
“My uncle saved my life,” Fr. Okoh said. “He had three coins and he said, ‘Let’s give him one last chance.’ So he wrapped me in a cloth and with my mother holding me, we walked to the hospital 30 miles away.”
At the hospital, the baby was given “Western” food like milk, eggs and rice and eventually began to thrive. He returned home but his uncle would save his life one more time a few years later.
“When I was 7 or 8, I was not going to school,” he said. “I was at home doing nothing. One day, my uncle came for a visit and asked, ‘Why is this child wasting away? Send him to me and he can go to school.’ My uncle lived two to four miles away and my parents said okay. So I grew up with my uncle’s family.”
Life with his uncle’s family gave Adem his first real taste of Christianity. Another of Adem’s uncles in the same village, retired from the military, was a Methodist who would teach his immediate family Bible verses. The village also had a Catholic Church but at the time little Adem didn’t know about the differences between Catholicism and Methodism.
“The first verse I learned was John: 3:16, (“For God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten Son that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life),” Adem said. “I learned it in the Idoma language of Nigeria.”
Life with his uncle also gave Adem his first taste of religious persecution.
“My uncle was not a Christian,” he said. “He didn’t want his family to be Christians. He warned me not to go back there (to learn more Bible verses from my other uncle).”
However, Adem’s curiosity was piqued and he would sneak out to learn more about Christ. But his uncle learned about his interest in Christianity and made an ultimatum.
“My uncle had sent me to school and he knew I was doing well in school,” Adem said. “My uncle told me to choose one of two things: Either continue to be Christian or continue to go to school.”
Adem’s choice was to stop going to school. It was a real hardship because he was the brightest boy in his class. But his teachers soon began to wonder what had happened to their prize pupil.
“I told him both ways are good,” Adem said. “My uncle had expected me to choose school. He began to run after me to beat me for my choice.”
Fortunately, Adem ran right into the arms of an old woman in the village who shielded the child.
“In the African culture, that means that my uncle could never hurt me again,” he said. “The woman said, ‘You never know what God has in store for this boy.’”
So Adem was able to go back to school. While his uncle wasn’t happy about it, he said no more about it. In fact, another relative, a Catholic, saw Adem’s interest in religion and took him to various prayer conferences and congresses. While Adem was not yet baptized, he made a commitment to Christianity.
Because Adem was so bright, always first in his class, his father arranged to have him sent to a government-run high school 25 miles away — a long distance for a young lad of 12 to 13 years. He was living with his grandmother when an aunt gave him a copy of the New Testament. On the hard cover of this first Bible was written, “The Greatest is Love.” With a lantern on the window near his bed, Adem would spend nights reading it page to page, growing ever more in love with its contents. His grandmother put the lantern off whenever Adem fell asleep while reading the Bible.
From his study, he chose a new name for himself to use when he was baptized on March 29, 1986: Philemon.
“I fell in love with this name,” he said. “I didn’t know what it meant at that time.” (Philemon is derived from a Greek word that means kiss, or loving. St. Paul’s letter to Philemon is the shortest book of the Bible. In it, St. Paul asks Philemon, a Christian convert, to forgive and take back a runaway slave Onesimus, who had robbed him. The letter encourages Christians in leadership positions to treat their subordinates fairly. It’s a letter encouraging us to love, to forgive and be reconciled with God and each other.)
Newly baptized Philemon was becoming a leader, creating and leading a Catholic student group, leading prayers services in the absence of a priest and volunteering for many projects. His interest in religion was evident to many.
People began calling me pastor,” he said. “I never knew I would be a priest. I wanted to be a medical doctor. My father wanted me to be a sanitary inspector or a lawyer.”
Philemon excelled in school, especially in the sciences. However, the faith had an increasing pull in his life. When he graduated from high school, he enrolled in the seminary.
“I was always first in my class,” Fr. Okoh said. “No one else could be first. I did well in science but some kind of spiritual influence made me decide to be a priest.”
In addition to spiritual influence, Fr. Okoh also credits Fr. Urban, a parish priest in his native Nigeria, with his vocation. Fr. Urban saw his interest and potential and invited him to many Catholic activities. The paths of the two men would cross often in subsequent years: The day Fr. Okoh left to become an aspirant to the priesthood, Fr. Urban became the seminary’s director. Later, Fr. Urban became the provincial superior, the church official who signed the permission for Fr. Okoh to be ordained. Fr. Urban currently serves in the diocese of Belleville, Ill., and attended Fr. Okoh’s 10th anniversary celebration.
The road to the priesthood is never easy and Fr. Okoh’s studies were particularly challenging: four years of philosophy and of theology. He first studied at St. Joseph Major Seminary at the University of Uyo, Nigeria, and then obtained his master’s of divinity degree from the Pontifical Urban University in Rome. He was ordained on Friday, June 30, 2000, the day the Sacred Heart of Jesus was celebrated that year.
His parents were at his ordination, he said, crying “tears of joy,” His uncle was not. He had died in 1988. “I wish my uncle was alive to see who I am today,” he said.
Fr. Okoh was the first priest in his district of Nigeria and he played a big role in bringing the Catholic faith there. Twenty-three small villages were brought together and made a parish by the bishop who ordained Fr. Okoh.
At his first Mass, a dove, long recognized as a symbol of the Holy Spirit, came and hovered over the proceedings until the end. The dove’s flight was filmed by a nun in attendance.
Since his ordination, life has changed dramatically for his family. His parents both publicly accepted the faith. And Fr. Okoh helped start the effort to get a Catholic church built in his birthplace. When it was finished, he made the 13-hour drive to attend the first Mass there. He was in for a surprise.
“(The new church) was going to be named for Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal,” he said. “When I arrived, I found out that it was to be called St. Philemon.”
Fr. Okoh has served in parishes, prisons, schools and hospitals in the Archdioceses of Lagos and Ibadan, Nigeria. In 2005, he began studies in pastoral ministries and counseling at Detroit Medical Center and later in the clinical pastoral education department at Beaumont Medical Center in Troy so he can take that knowledge back to Nigeria as a supervisor. That has meant adjusting to American culture .
“It is hard to learn to be in a new environment and different culture,” Fr. Okoh said. “It is not easy. But I am learning to relate to people in difficult circumstances.”
Because of his own precarious beginnings, Fr. Okoh is very active in pro-life causes. He spoke at the recent 40 Days for Life kickoff aired on Ave Maria Radio.
He is a co-founder of the Mobile Visitors Outreach, a multi-faith international ministry for broken hearts. He also served various parishes in the Archdiocese of Detroit, including Immaculate Conception Church in Lapeer and SS. Cyril and Methodius in Sterling Heights. He is the chaplain of the Chapel of the Sacred Heart in Metamora and the U.S. director of missions for his home diocese.
His people in Nigeria are not forgotten in all of this. Unprompted by him, Michigan friends have collected Lenten offerings over the years so the church in his native village could have plaster walls, a new roof and pews.
“On Jan. 1, one of the main elders called me and said, ‘All our wives and our children, all of us in the village, we will now go to that church,” Fr. Okoh said.
Fr. Okoh finds time for adoration and prayer every day. He has a deep prayer life and believes Jesus is calling people to Himself through the sacraments. He believes that in the Eucharist Jesus says:
“I am here in this place. I am in you, with you, for you and for them. Gaze on My Holy Face always. Can you see Me? Here I am.”
For more information about Mobile Visitors Outreach, call (810) 796-4431, visit www.mobilevisitorsoutreach.org or e-mail to email@example.com. You may also reach Fr. Philemon Okoh at firstname.lastname@example.org.