The Diocese of Buffalo welcomed its first transitional deacon from Africa on Sept. 27. The ordination of Daniel Ogbeifun marks a milestone for the diocese, but just another step on one man's faith journey.
Deacon Ogbeifun, 39, grew up in a strong Catholic family in Edo State, in southern Nigeria. About half the population of Nigeria is Christian, with nearly 14 percent Catholic. Deacon Ogbeifun credits his family and friends with helping him discern his pastoral calling.
Since his childhood, when he learned about God, Deacon Ogbeifun wanted to serve Him and His people. During what would be his junior high years, Deacon Ogbeifun served his parish as an altar server and "parish boy," living in the rectory and doing the household chores. The living arrangement made him think deeply about joining the priesthood.
"(My pastor) was my mentor. I saw the wonderful things that the priests do," he said. "My engagement in Church activity drew me more closely to the beautiful hope and desire I have in serving God."
His spiritual journey involved a physical trek away from his family. He studied philosophy at St. Joseph Major Seminary, located in Akwa Ibom, southeast of his home. Then he received a scholarship to the Lumen Vitae International Institute in Belgium to study pastoral theology and catechesis. From there he planned to return home, but just as Portuguese missionaries brought Catholicism to Nigeria, this Nigerian decided he wanted to become a missionary and bring the Word of God to foreign lands, foreign to him at least. He applied to seminaries in many cities across Europe and the United States. Buffalo accepted.
"Father Walter (Szczesny), who is the vocation director, was one of those who really encouraged me. He was calling me all the time and emailing me. 'We have beautiful people here. You'll be happy when you come here.' I said, 'OK, let's see how it goes.'"
The community at Christ the King Seminary in East Aurora, where Deacon Ogbeifun has resided and been educated since 2011, has welcomed him and made him feel at home, even though he is quite some distance from his family and one of only six Africans attending CKS.
"It doesn't make you feel as if you are isolated from the community," he said. "They help you. That's what they did for me. I remember when I came, I was by myself here. I think it's that gift that I have. I quickly adapt to situations or to culture or to meeting people, and fit in immediately. That really helped me. I had people to teach me. I asked questions a lot. 'What do I need to do?' 'How do we do this?'"
He has served in a different parish each of the summers he has been in Buffalo. Each of those assignments offered a unique learning experience.
During the summer of 2012, while still trying to understand the culture, Deacon Ogbeifun served at St. Mary Parish in Lancaster. There, Father Paul Stellar helped him with his diction and verbal skills. England colonized Nigeria, so Deacon Ogbeifun's native tongue is British English spoken with an African accent. He calls Father Stellar a "good man."
In 2013, he served at Mary Immaculate Parish in East Bethany, then led by Father Richard Cilano, once an English teacher. "I was very happy to work with him. He was always teasing me (about my diction). He really helped me to grow more."
That summer Deacon Ogbeifun lost his father, but, as a follower of God's plan, he found himself in the right place at the right time. Father Cilano, who raised three children with his late wife, provided a comfort that another priest could not.
"It was really traumatic for me at that time," Deacon Ogbeifun said. "He was really there for me. He supported me. He encouraged me. He was with me. I learned a lot from him as a priest and also as a father. He really took me as his son. Today you see the parishioners who took the same attitude."
Father Cilano retired in June and moved to Illinois to live with one of his children.
"Since he left, these people have been a good community to me that really supports me in every aspect of my formation," Deacon Ogbeifun said. "It's an encouragement seeing people who you never expected. Well here they are. They don't know me. I only came there. So, when I lost my dad, they were the people who really helped me."
Deacon Ogbeifun currently serves at St. Benedict Parish in Eggertsville, and will remain there until his ordination to the priesthood this spring.
"I would say it was a long journey for me when I began from Nigeria to Belgium and now to this place. I felt it was really God's plan for me to pass through those journeys."