KINGSTREE — Father Michael C. Okere represents the new breed of priest serving the rural parishes of South Carolina. He is young, well educated, dynamic, dedicated to his ministry and he rides the circuit among parishes. He is also foreign-born.
Father Okere is a priest of the Archdiocese of Owerri in Nigeria, on loan to the Diocese of Charleston. He is the administrator of St. Ann in Kings-tree, St. Philip the Apostle in Lake City and St. Patrick in Johnsonville. In addition to weekend Masses at the federal penitentiary in Williamsburg County, the 40-year-old priest celebrates English-language liturgies at all three parishes plus another liturgy in Spanish. Further, he is on the road or on his cell phone all the time during the week, often both at once. It’s all part of his vocation.
“A priest’s job is his life,” Father Okere said. “I love my people here, and a priest’s presence means everything to them. That’s what keeps me working: you see people who need you and need Jesus Christ. You can’t deny them.”
James C. McKnight, a St. Ann parishioner, says that need is fulfilled by the pastor’s drive.
“Father’s a take-charge person. He sees the future that we seek. When he got here, we had a vision and were in the talking stage. He stopped talking and started doing,” McKnight said.
The parish raised $100,000 and purchased a former Jewish temple for a new church and a nearby house for a rectory and office. The congregation can now fit into the worship space for Sunday Mass and the aisle is wide enough for funerals. Even though the three small parishes are not growing much in terms of total numbers, Father Okere considers the growth rate in active participation in the life of the parish to be considerable.
“In 2003, we had eight children in CCD. This year we had 41. That’s how I count our growth,” Father Okere said.
At St. Philip Church in Lake City, the parishioners provide food for 80 to 100 migrant Hispanics and their families every week during the farming season. More Latinos become permanent residents every year, so that part of the parish rolls is expanding appreciably.
St. Patrick Church in Johnsonville is a mission of St. Philip’s. Father Okere celebrates a vigil Mass there on Saturday evening. On Sunday, he says the nine o’clock in Kingstree, the eleven in Lake City and a Spanish-language Mass at one p.m. in the Florence County church. He travels about 120 miles on his circuit. He drives those same miles on weekdays as well, administering his two parishes and visiting the mission church once more during the week. He feels the obligation to represent the Catholic Church wherever he goes. On July 9, he drove to Greenville to speak to the Black Heritage Celebration there. An African himself, he works to evangelize Americans of his race.
“The challenge is to reach all of your people, especially the African-Americans,” he said.
Both parishes he serves are multicultural. In Kingstree, the parish and its St. Ann Catholic Outreach Center (run by two Felician Sisters) are the sole Catholic presence in all of Williamsburg County.
“We are making a statement,” Father Okere said.
The diocesan priest also makes a statement from the pulpit. Betty F. Gerose, who converted to Catholicism in 1993, loves his homilies.
“He’s a wonderful preacher,” Gerose said. “Not only are his sermons inspiring, but he has a great sense of humor.”
Father Okere’s accent is pleasing to the ear and easy to understand. In his sojourns in the Northeast, Midwest and now the Southeast of this country, he has encountered different regional dialects and claims he has more trouble comprehending the meaning of some phrases and words than the people have comprehending his more standardized English.
Father Okere learned the language in Nigeria, where he was ordained on July 17, 1991, following priestly formation at an affiliate institution of Urban University of Rome. He polished his delivery during master’s degree programs at two universities in the United States. He has a master’s in religion and religious education from Fordham, a Jesuit school in New York, and one in social work from the University of Nebraska in Omaha. He also taught theology and was the Catholic chaplain at Caldwell College in New Jersey before coming to the Diocese of Charleston.
In his home diocese, Father Okere did pastoral work and became the aide to the archbishop there. He hasn’t been home since his father died in 2001. He is the third of seven siblings and admits to missing his mother and relatives in Nigeria. Still, he loves his ministry in the Pee Dee and firmly believes in his oath of obedience. “I am a humble servant, dependent on the wishes of my bishop,” Father Okere said. “All one can do is wait and watch on the Lord.”