COLUMBIA—Father Michael Okere thrives on getting to know the people in the pews.
After Palm Sunday Mass at St. Martin de Porres Church, he spent time greeting newcomers and acknowledging milestone birthdays. He stood in the narthex for more than 30 minutes talking with parishioners and visitors: a group of students and a family from Africa, a new family visiting from across town, and a 94-year-old woman rejoicing in the fact that all of her children and grandchildren now attend Mass with her.
“This is what it is all about,” the priest said after the crowd dissipated. “It is about the people. They are what is important.”
Vibrant love for those he serves and a commitment to work in the mission field has driven Father Okere during 25 years in the priesthood.
“My motto has always been to go where you are asked to go and do what you are asked to do because you know you are working for God,” he said. “From the beginning I knew God wanted me to be a missionary.”
He was the third of seven children in a strong Catholic family, and remembers wanting to be a priest by age 11. One of his brothers had expressed interest in the priesthood, but their mother didn’t think it was the right choice for him. She later gave her blessing for her son Michael to go to seminary, and many years later gave a memorable testimonial at his ordination on Aug. 7, 1991.
“It was a huge event in front of about 3,000 people and she got up and told everyone that she had been called to promise me to God, that I would be her child that would be given to God,” Father Okere said. “She said she prayed very hard that I would be the one to become a priest, and I did.”
Father Okere completed his formation for the priesthood at Bigard Memorial Seminary in Nigeria, an affiliate of Urban University in Rome. He was ordained for the Archdiocese of Owerri. He originally did pastoral work there, but eventually received permission from his bishop to seek mission work in the United States. He first came here to study, receiving a master’s degree in religion and religious education from Fordham University in New York and a master’s in social work from the University of Nebraska in Omaha.
He worked briefly teaching theology and served as a chaplain at Caldwell College in New Jersey before he applied to work in the Diocese of Charleston. In 2003, he received his first assignment as administrator of St. Ann Church in Kingstree, St. Philip the Apostle Church in Lake City, and St. Patrick Mission in Johnsonville.
It was an entirely new experience, serving as a “circuit-riding” priest in the mostly rural Pee Dee, routinely traveling more than 100 miles to celebrate Mass.
He embraced the new challenges with zeal. While in Kingstree, he led the effort for the parish to purchase a former Jewish synagogue for its new worship space and a house for a new rectory.
In 2006, Father Okere moved to Holy Trinity Church in Orangeburg, where he focused on building a sense of community in the varied population and establishing a robust campus ministry at South Carolina State University and Claflin University. He also is proud of the way youth ministry at the parish grew during his time there.
He arrived in Columbia in 2011 to serve as administrator at St. Martin de Porres, a parish that was originally established as a place of worship for the black community.
“I felt a special bond here and that I was getting back to the calling I felt to serve African-Americans,” Father Okere said. “The culture and the environment felt like home to me, and people made me feel welcome here.”
His ministry found a new focus in early 2014, when Bishop Robert E. Guglielmone appointed him Vicar for Black Catholics for the Diocese of Charleston. Since then, Father Okere said he has tried to increase outreach and evangelization not only to African-Americans, but to immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean drawn to the state for work and study.
St. Martin de Porres, meanwhile, has become increasingly diverse since his arrival, including a growing number of Hispanic and Vietnamese families who worship there. As he did in Orangeburg, Father Okere is working to increase campus ministry at Allen University and Benedict College, two historically black schools with campuses just across the street from the church. He said that outreach has already resulted in weekly meetings that include immigrant students from Cameroon, Kenya, Honduras and other nations.
“This church is growing and it’s a great thing,” Father Okere said. “The people are warm and friendly to each other, and it’s easy to tap into that warmth and grow from there. There is so much fertile ground here. We have a good community here. The key is to get the people to be active and to own their faith.”
All of his work has made 25 years as a priest fly by.
“The anniversary has crept on me, but that’s all right,” he said. “I’m still very joyful and happy for every moment that I have.”
Photos by Christina Lee Knauss/The Miscellany
Top photo: Father Okere chats with students from the campus ministry program at St. Martin de Porres Church in Columbia.