Parishioners of St. Joseph the Worker and his former parishes turn out in full for the occasion
By Bill Brewer
Father Julius Abuh could feel the love July 16 as Bishop Richard F. Stika joined priests and parishioners present and past in celebrating a Mass marking the 30th anniversary of Father Abuh’s ordination to the priesthood.
It was a different feeling only two months earlier when Father Abuh returned to his native Nigeria to visit his family, something he makes a point of doing each year.
While his family and friends embraced him, violence in his birth country, especially toward Catholics and Catholic priests, forced him to keep a low profile during the month he was in Africa.
Attacks against Christians, most notably Catholics, have been on the rise in Nigeria. On June 5 and during his visit, gunmen entered St. Francis Xavier Church in Owo, killing at least 50 people and leaving dozens wounded.
Then on June 20, gunmen attacked churchgoers at St. Moses Church as well as a neighboring Baptist church in the northern state of Kaduna, killing three and kidnapping 40 people.
While being home for him was a welcome respite from the work of pastoring a parish, his time in Nigeria was unsettled.
“Going back home and spending time with family and friends is always exciting. But this time it was different. It was challenging because of insecurity,” Father Abuh said. “It has to do with attacks and kidnapping of citizens, of late so many Catholic priests by bandits. They kidnap and ask for unbelievable amounts of ransom. In situations where the ransoms are not met, they have killed their victims. Recently, the convoy of our president was even attacked. So, the situation at home is not good. Keep us in your prayers.”
While the risks didn’t outweigh the rewards of spending time with parents, family, and friends, Father Abuh still altered his itinerary.
“I tried to keep a very low profile while I was there. That means staying close to family and visiting more the orphanage that is a mile from my family home. There is not much attention on the orphanage,” he added.
But by July 16, that low profile was a thing of the past.
Back at his new home, parishioners at St. Joseph the Worker in Madisonville treated Father Abuh to a celebratory dinner following Mass that included a ceremony with gifts, a 30th-anniversary cake, and heartfelt testaments by current and former parishioners about his priesthood.
Father Abuh laughed about Bishop Stika joking that he thought he was attending the canonization of a saint, referring to the anniversary Mass and festivities.
“The presence of Bishop Stika and the priests of the Diocese of Knoxville means so much to me. This anniversary was a time for me to pause and look back and give thanks to God for the many blessings of the priesthood,” he said. “It brought back memories of excitement during my ordination. The arrival of families, the liturgy, the singing of Veni Creator Spiritus, the first blessing of my bishop, my family and my parents, and the traditional dances. All these memories came back.”
“I am very grateful to Bishop Stika for the opportunity to serve in the Diocese of Knoxville, to my brother priests in the Diocese of Knoxville, and the wonderful parishioners of St. Therese in Clinton and St. Joseph in Norris, and my present parishioners at St. Joseph the Worker,” he continued. “May God continue to bless you and your families.”
Bishop Stika attended the Mass in choir, with Father Abuh serving as the celebrant. Concelebrating priests were Monsignor Patrick Garrity; Father Michael Maples, associate pastor of St. John Neumann Parish in Farragut; Father Bede Aboh, chaplain of the Catholic Center at East Tennessee State University; Father Michael Woods, pastor of St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Fairfield Glade; Father David Carter, rector of the Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul in Chattanooga; Father Jerry Daniels, chaplain of Christ Prince of Peace Retreat Center in Benton; Father Pontian Kiyimba, associate pastor of St. Mary Parish in Oak Ridge; and Father Gerald Kamina of the Archdiocese of Dar-es-Salaam in Tanzania.
Deacon Peter Chiaro, who was ordained to the permanent diaconate on June 11, assisted in the Mass.
Father Aboh, who delivered the homily, is a fellow Nigerian who has known Father Abuh since 1997 when they were studying in Rome.
In his homily, Father Aboh thanked Bishop Stika for welcoming Father Abuh into the Diocese of Knoxville in 2011. He also thanked Monsignor Garrity for mentoring Father Abuh in Father Abuh’s first assignment at St. John Neumann, where Monsignor Garrity, now retired from active ministry, was pastor.
“Father Julius is a great gift to the Diocese of Knoxville as we would have noticed from his numerous parishioners. Father is a very friendly and jovial person. Sometimes he presents himself to an unsuspecting secretary of another parish, as he did once in my parish, in the form of a mendicant person in need of gas money or food. He would be so serious. When there are no gas cards, he would interject, ‘What of your credit cards?’ Alas, I came out and told them he was my fellow priest, and the secretary and others would be aghast and laughing,” Father Aboh said.
“This is Father Julius, who would leave you laughing and wondering,” Father Aboh noted. “Hospitality is the core of today’s reflection. . . . We can see that Father Julius is not only hospitable to others, but he is also generous. He singlehandedly supports his diocesan orphanage in Nigeria, pays tuition for a lot of poor children in his home parish. He helps in paying many medical bills of the priests of his diocese. Thus, Father Julius is totally a self-giving person.”
Father Aboh told the congregation that being a priest in Nigeria is “survival of the fittest” because of the significant demands.
“We do not trivialize the grace of God, because it is by cooperating with Him that His work is accomplished. So, we give thanks to God for everything He has done for you,” he told Father Abuh, crediting Father Abuh’s parents for being so important to his formation as a priest.
Continuing the theme of hospitality and generosity, Father Aboh spoke of the orphanage that Father Abuh helps care for near his home, providing much-needed support and funding.
“He is a very kind person. There are many children in his home diocese that he has taken care of their tuition, helping them to go to school,” Father Aboh said, also mentioning that Father Abuh helped pay for the medical bills of a former bishop in Nigeria. “This is the type of person you work with. For these reasons, I thank Bishop Stika for allowing Father Julius to come to the Diocese of Knoxville, so different parishes can benefit from his hospitality, generosity, and knowledge.”
Bishop Stika picked up on the credit-card theme, joking with the Madisonville congregation that Cardinal Justin Rigali hosted Father Abuh and Father Aboh’s archbishop from Nigeria in Knoxville several years ago.
“Later that day, I was talking to the Cardinal, and I asked him how the visit went. He said, ‘It was good, but something strange happened. He asked me for my credit card,’” the bishop said, prompting a hearty laugh from the congregation. “I said, ‘Well, did you give it to him?’ And he said, ‘No, I gave him yours!’”
The bishop continued, saying he and Cardinal Rigali a few years ago saw Father Abuh in Rome from across St. Peter’s Square. Pope Francis was giving a general audience, and Father Abuh was on the front row personally greeting Pope Francis.
“When I finally greeted Pope Francis, I said, ‘Holy Father, have you met Father Julius yet?’ And he said, ‘You know, he asked me for my credit card,’” Bishop Stika quipped.
But on a more serious note, Bishop Stika said he and Cardinal Rigali visited Nigeria and were embraced by the Catholics in the country, which has had a profound impact on him.
“The Church in Nigeria is suffering greatly. The majority of religion is not Catholic,” Bishop Stika said, noting that the region has a history of unrest and violations of human rights. “Even in our day and age right now, you often hear about priests being kidnapped, and Christians and Catholics being kidnapped. Priests are killed. And the Church is very much persecuted. We complain here in the United States about having our religious freedom stepped on, but I don’t see a lot of people dying for their faith. We must pray for the people in Nigeria.”
Father Abuh pointed out that Bishop Stika was gracious with his time to help celebrate the anniversary Mass and prompted another memory from not so long ago. He said a friend of his called and said, “Hi Julius. How are you doing? Are you nervous?” To which Father Abuh responded, “Not quite.”
“He said, ‘Why? What has changed?’” Father Abuh recalled.
“Five years ago, when I celebrated my 25th anniversary, Bishop Stika was there. Before the Mass, I had said I was very nervous because celebrating Mass before the bishop was like cooking before Grandma. That got me in trouble. After the Mass, Bishop said, ‘Julius, that is the first time anyone ever referred to me as a grandma,’” Father Abuh shared, drawing more laughs.
But Bishop Stika told him he would be happy to attend the 30th-anniversary Mass.
“I want to thank Bishop for taking time to come. I also want to thank the priests who were here, and those who could not come. I am grateful to all the priests and members of my former parishes who were here from Norris and Clinton. And I am so thankful for the parishioners and choir here at St. Joseph the Worker,” Father Abuh said.
Among the many memories triggered by the 30th anniversary of his priesthood, Father Abuh recalled meeting with Deacon Sean Smith, Diocese of Knoxville chancellor, and Father David Boettner, rector of the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, in late summer/early fall of 2011 to discuss officially joining the diocese. Then, Father Abuh met with Bishop Stika, who welcomed him into the diocese, appointing him to serve as a priest at St. John Neumann on Dec. 15, 2011. He was appointed parochial administrator of St. Therese Parish in Clinton on March 15, 2012. He then became pastor of that parish and of St. Joseph in Norris. Bishop Stika appointed him pastor of St. Joseph the Worker on July 1, 2018.
Olivia Kuhens attended St. Therese while Father Abuh was in Clinton, where she worked with him on parish Masses and events. She wanted to be part of his 30th-anniversary celebration and was asked to say a few words during the post-Mass ceremony for him, where she shared both heartfelt and humorous anecdotes of his assimilation into East Tennessee.
In an interview for The East Tennessee Catholic, she shared some thoughts of Father Abuh.
“A large part of what makes Father Julius a wonderful priest is his understanding of human nature. A person doesn’t come from Nigeria, study in Rome, visit dioceses throughout Europe, and then land in the Diocese of Knoxville without learning something about different cultures, different people, and different ways of running a parish. His 30 years in the priesthood and his many travels have given him such a kind, generous heart. People are drawn to that and inspired by it,” Mrs. Kuhens said.
“He is loved by so many from his previous parishes of St. Joseph in Norris and St. Therese in Clinton, and the number of attendees from those former parishes at the celebration in Madisonville is a testament to the many bonds and relationships he has made prior to arriving there. There are still so many families he continues to keep in contact with from St. Joseph and St. Therese,” she continued. “It’s always an honor to have Father Julius at a birthday, baptism, quinceañera, wedding—even a funeral. He becomes such a part of people’s lives that these important events don’t seem complete without him there, and I’m sure members of St. Joseph the Worker feel that way, too.”
While it wasn’t a canonization of a saint, Bishop Stika led a well-attended celebration for a well-liked priest who is entering the next 30 years of his ministry.
“Thank you for your service. And thank you for saying, ‘Yes (to the priesthood),’” Bishop Stika told Father Abuh. “Continue to do a good and holy job as every priest is called to be.”
“The greatest vocation director is any priest. Any priest who lives a happy, holy, wholesome priesthood is the greatest witness to what it means to be a priest to His Church. I think Father Julius does just that, so continue to pray for him.
“We continue to be blessed with wonderful vocations, whether they come from outside the territory like Father Julius, who is from a land far, far away. Happy anniversary, Father,” the bishop concluded.