Parish helps missionary priests adjust to life far from home

Miscellany/Terry Cregar: Father Emeka Emmanuel Ekwelum, left, from Nigeria, and Father Arokia Raj Mahimai Doss of India, lead three parishes in the Aiken Deanery.

GLOVERVILLE—In-person communication, even with family, can be a challenge these days. But, with plenty of love and support from their new flock, two priests whose family members are thousands of miles away, have found a way to make it work.

Last November, Bishop Robert E. Guglielmone assigned Father Emeka Emmanuel Ekwelum, from Nigeria, and Father Arokia Raj Mahimai Doss of India, to three parishes in the Aiken Deanery: Our Lady of the Valley in Gloverville, St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception in Edgefield, and St. William in Ward.

The priests also have been assigned to sacramental responsibilities at the Federal Correctional Institution, Edgefield.

For Father Raj, this is his third visit to America, while Father Emmanuel is here for the first time.  

“This is my first visit to the United States, and actually the first time I have left my country,” Father Emmanuel said.

Father Emmanuel is the first child in his family to enter the priesthood. He entered seminary at the Missionaries of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary in 2006 and was ordained a priest in the summer of 2015. Father Raj entered Missionaries of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary in 1990. He was ordained into the priesthood on Dec. 28, 2003.

Both men currently split their time between the three parishes, driving from one to the next to share God’s word at the five Sunday Masses: two at Our Lady of the Valley, one at St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception, and two, including a Spanish Mass, at St. William. Father Jose Rodolfo Lache Avila leads the Spanish Mass.

“We understand Spanish, but we’re not in a position to give a homily in Spanish,” Father Raj said.

Father Rodolfo is a former administrator at St. William. The priests also have Deacon Larry Deschaine, from St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception, to help them.

As of Sept. 2, they also began celebrating weekday Masses on Wednesdays and Fridays at Our Lady of the Valley. 

The two men arrived in Charleston via Linwood, N.J., home of one of seven formation houses formed by the Missionaries of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, a small congregation of priests and brothers who share the love of Jesus and Mary primarily with smaller congregations.  

Initially, Father Emmanuel was appointed parochial vicar at St. Ann in Kingstree. He served there for two months before being reassigned as parochial vicar at Our Lady of the Valley.

“It’s lovely to work here,” Father Emmanuel said. “Even though I’m from another country, I feel the warmth of friendship and the warmth of love. It’s something that is encouraging to me, as a priest.

“Here, I have a home outside of home,” he said. 

Father Raj, who is visiting South Carolina for the first time, said he is gradually adjusting to the culture surrounding his new ministry.

“I’m slowly getting all of it,” he said. “People here are loving and caring. They are easy to work under. People are very open here, very positive and encouraging.”

Both priests said they routinely visit remotely with their families in Nigeria and India, either by phone or the Internet. 

Father Emmanuel said he regularly visits with his family in Nigeria via the Internet. He has four siblings, one of whom lives in Japan, and a sister who has four children.  He also talks frequently with his parents, offering prayers for them, but especially for his father.

“My dad is not well. He had a stroke. I encourage him and pray for him, as well as for my mother who cares for him,” Father Emmanuel said.

He said the NCDC, Nigeria’s equivalent of the CDC here, has been effective in keeping his country ahead of the pandemic’s spread.

“So far, none of my family members have been affected. I hold them in my prayers,” he added.

Father Raj said the health of his family, who live in a state at the southern end of India, also has been unaffected by the virus.

“They’re all safe.”

Father Raj said he talks most days with his mother and his siblings in their home in the state of Tamil Nadu, India.  His father is deceased.

“We talk about how our day went and find out if they’re all OK,” Father Raj said. “Every time I call, I speak with my mother.”

Though both priests would welcome the opportunity to visit their families in person, they know the odds of that happening currently aren’t favorable.

“Even if we could get a flight, we would have to quarantine for two weeks, which would take up most of our vacation time,” Father Raj said. 

Barbara Thouin, administrative assistant at Our Lady of the Valley, said while she recognizes the sacrifices Father Raj and Father Emmanuel have made to serve here, both priests have been “a blessing” to the three congregations.

“People are coming to Mass more often,” Thouin said. 

In the last month, four new families have joined Our Lady of the Valley, she said, adding that they recently moved to the area and tried other parishes before ending their search at Our Lady.

“They tried this parish and that parish, then they watched (Father Raj and Father Emmanuel) say Mass,” Thouin said. Following one recent celebration, Thouin said a woman told her, “When they say Mass, I feel I can reach out and take God’s hand.”