The Rev. Bruno Nwachukwu grew up Catholic in northern Nigeria, thanks to the Irish missionaries who evangelized the region. Today he is spreading the faith among Twin Cities Catholics, working as a hospital chaplain and a weekend parish priest, in a role that underscores the American church’s ever-growing reliance on international priests.
“I see myself as a missionary, paying back for what the Irish missionaries did for us,” said Nwachukwu, taking a break one day last week from chaplain duties at North Memorial Health Hospital.
An estimated one in six Catholic priests in the United States now hail from other countries, including more than 50 of the 203 full-time priests active in the St. Paul and Minneapolis Archdiocese, according to the Official Catholic Directory. (Another 170 archdiocese priests are retired or ill, but some still perform clergy duties.)
Unlike international priests of the past, who arrived primarily from Europe and served Catholics from their homelands, today’s global ministers arrive mainly from Africa, Asia and Latin America — historically the domain of U.S. missionaries.
Sometimes referred to as “reverse missionaries,” they’ve brought a new face to U.S. Catholicism, including both strengths and challenges, as they adapt to their new ministries.
“We’ve always had foreign priests ... but since the 1990s it’s picked up again,” said the Rev. Thomas Gaunt, executive director of the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University. “Over a quarter of U.S. Catholics are foreign born, so it would be natural. And a number of bishops have made agreements for priests to come and serve their diocese.”
While many parts of the United States are experiencing a shortage of clerics, the priesthood is booming in the global south. The number of Catholic priests in Africa and Asia, for example, grew by more than 120% between 1980 and 2012, according to CARA. That compares with 2% in the Americas.
“Bishops look around and see the priest shortage,” said the Rev. Phillip Rask, pastor of St. Odilia Church in Shoreview, who works with new arrivals. “So they look to foreign countries with a surplus supply.”
Frozen lake: ‘Amazing’
On a recent Sunday morning, the Rev. Antony Skaria greeted parishioners in the lobby of St. John Vianney Church in South St. Paul. He chatted with a few parishioners before heading to the sanctuary to lead mass.
After the service, Skaria stepped in front of the altar and told the congregation he had an anniversary to report.
“I’ve now been here five years,” he said, eliciting a round of applause from the pews.
Skaria, who is from India, oversees a church not unlike many in Minnesota. St. John Vianney had to close its once busy grade school and its members skew older, but it is still a stable community. Church members say Skaria has done a good job overseeing the church.
Skaria’s route to South St. Paul reflects one way that international priests end up in Minnesota. Skaria belongs to a religious order called Sons of the Immaculate Conception. The late Archbishop Harry Flynn had invited the order to send several priests to the Twin Cities after a conversation with one of its superiors at a Catholic event.
Some dioceses also recruit individual priests abroad to fill ministry needs, in particular serving small churches not prepared to merge or shut their doors.
The three priests from Skaria’s religious order have filled a variety of gaps, including overseeing the Church of Saint Mary and the Church of the Blessed Sacrament in St. Paul, and St. John Vianney. They’ve worked as hospital chaplains, workhouse chaplains and more.
Skaria admits he knew little about Minnesota at first. Upon arriving with a fellow priest, he spent six months in an acculturation program at St. Odilia’s, where he learned about parish and Minnesota culture. He received “accent reduction” help, became certified as a hospital chaplain, and even drove on a frozen lake.
“Amazing,” he recalled with a smile.
But most go straight to work soon after their arrival. Typically, they are paired with a supervising pastor and get support from the Office of Parish and Clergy Services and the chancery, said Twin Cities Archbishop Bernard Hebda.
Hebda said the archdiocese isn’t actively recruiting internationally, in part because of finances. But in 2017, Hebda invited an Italy-based religious fraternity to oversee St. Peter’s Church in North St. Paul.
Skaria believes foreign visitors are a win-win for Catholics, noting, “I think we learn from each other.”
International priests often bring fresh energy and new ideas to their American work. But they can face challenges, said Rask. Their command of English may be weak. They may be unfamiliar with American parish structure, which has far more lay leaders — in particular women — than parishes in their homelands.
Many priests bring a traditional brand of Catholicism. That, combined with cultural differences, can lead to difficulties. Such was the case when a small Peruvian religious order assumed leadership of St. Mark’s Church in St. Paul in 2009.
The order, called Pro Ecclesia Sancta, was invited by former Archbishop John Nienstedt, according to the archdiocese’s Catholic Spirit newspaper. The lead pastor, the Rev. Humberto Palomino, was young, energetic and brought a new level of piety to the church.
But a group of school staff and church leaders soon contacted the archdiocese to report their unease over the direction of the parish and school, the priest’s decisionmaking and his treatment of school parents. They’ve continued to contact the archdiocese as recently as this year.
“I feel the need to vocalize how much I loved St. Mark’s and how hard it was for me to leave,” wrote one former parishioner in a January e-mail to Deacon Rip Riordon, clergy services director.
A former teacher reported that Palomino had electronically locked his office door while she met with him, and only he could let her out. Nothing happened, she said, but it was inappropriate and violated archdiocese safety protocols.
The archdiocese spoke with the priest, e-mails show, and determined that the office locking wasn’t a violation and it wasn’t a regular occurrence. However, another school leader wrote to say it was a regular occurrence. Palomino didn’t respond to requests for an interview.
“The archdiocese needs a way to evaluate what changes are successful, what aren’t successful, and to address that,” said Brigid Kostka, a former school staffer and longtime church member. “Parishioners and school parents need more of a voice, especially when a cultural and philosophical shift is brought by new leadership.”
That said, St. Mark’s now has attracted some new families that embrace the changes. At a recent state-of-the-church address, for example, parish trustee Drew Nowak told the congregation that St. Mark’s has become the center of his family’s life and “helped order our priorities and guide us on the path to holiness.”
Catholic leaders say that overall, the foreign priests are stepping in and doing good work. But critics say the practice masks the underlying causes of the priest shortage, namely the vow of celibacy and the impossibility of marriage. Until those are addressed, they say, the United States may have to continue to import priests.
That’s fine for clergy such as Nwachukwu, who says he will continue to spread his faith in any way he can. Now an archdiocesan priest, he said his goal has always been to help the poor “and the poor can also mean poor in spirit,” he said.
Said Nwachukwu: “I believe I’m meant to be here.”