Bishop Stika, priests, parishioners join together for Mass at St. Jude to celebrate the milestone
By Claire Collins
Father Augustine Idra, the regional superior for the Apostles of Jesus religious order and a former missionary to the Diocese of Knoxville, celebrated his 25th anniversary of ordination to the priesthood on Dec. 6 at St. Jude Church in Chattanooga.
A priest known for his infectious joy, Father Idra was joined by Bishop Richard F. Stika, priests from the Diocese of Knoxville and his religious community, past students and parishioners, and many friends from throughout the country, including his former classmate, Father Barnabas Shayo, AJ, and friends from his home village in South Sudan, Africa, living in Nashville.
He was also joined in the liturgical celebration by fellow Apostles of Jesus priests Father Pontian Kiyimba, associate pastor of St. Mary Parish in Oak Ridge, and Father Emmanuel Massawe, associate pastor of St. Dominic Parish in Kingsport.
“It is fitting that we gather together this day on the feast of St. Nicholas,” Bishop Stika said. “A person who was loved for his joy and service to the community. And if you even have a glimpse of Father Augustine’s life, you know that’s what he is.”
“I am so humbled, and I have no words to express my gratitude to God for the many blessings for making me His priest 25 years ago today,” Father Idra said. “I don’t think that I do merit to this call and the priesthood that He has given me, but He chose me out of so many boys in my home village. That’s why I’m so humbled.”
Father Idra was born in Uganda to Sudanese refugees. He was given the opportunity in his youth to pursue the priesthood through the Apostles of Jesus, the first indigenous religious missionary order to ever be founded on African soil.
He served for five years in Pakwach Parish in Nebbi, Uganda, and served as chaplain for the Uganda College of Commerce. In 2004, he was sent to the United States as a missionary priest. His first assignment was St. Jude Parish in Chattanooga.
Father David Carter humorously recounted Father Idra’s experience during his new assignment.
“St. Jude is known as the patron of impossible cases. Father Augustine must have wondered whether the parish was the impossible case or was it him?” Father Carter asked.
“There were of course the impossible cultural norms to be learned on a steep curve. For example, homilies are to be 10 minutes long and no more! This is a hard lesson to be learned, even for me, but especially so for one used to preaching for an hour at a go. With the aid of concerned parishioners, timing devices, and a humble heart, he was able to adapt to the different expectations. He came to realize that even in 10 minutes he could convince us all that God truly does love us with an infinite love. We felt that love personally through him. ‘With God, nothing is impossible’ (Matthew 19:26),” Father Carter continued.
It didn’t take long for Father Idra’s parishioners to come to love their priest, and many were sad to see him transferred to All Saints Parish in Knoxville. Then, in 2009, he was reassigned to Chattanooga as chaplain for Notre Dame High School.
Former student Tony Tortora, who is the music and band teacher at St. Jude School, proudly attended Father Idra’s silver jubilee Mass and remembered fondly the time he had with Father Idra as his chaplain.
“I was very active in ministry—singing in choir, reading when I could, and most importantly, altar serving. When we got the chance to serve with Father Augustine, we always had the best time.”
Having Father Idra was a defining part of Mr. Tortora’s high school years.
“His leadership and guidance were ever present during our high school experience. I am so grateful to have known this holy priest. He is such a kind, loving, enthusiastic, and joyful person. I still carry lessons I learned from him to this very day. Now that I am a teacher in the diocese, I am even more grateful for the training and mentorship I received from Father Augustine,” Mr. Tortora said.
Not long after his move to Notre Dame High School in 2012, Father Idra was asked to serve his religious community as the regional superior, overseeing all of the priests of the Apostles of Jesus in the United States.
He humbly accepted with the blessing of Bishop Stika and moved from East Tennessee to Pennsylvania.
“My priestly ministry in Knoxville meant a world to me,” recounted Father Idra. “Despite my cultural shock, I was warmly welcomed by the bishop, the clergy, and laity quickly, which made my adjustments easy to the new environment. I truly enjoyed my stay in Knoxville up to the point that I never wanted to move away, but then as a missionary I have no choice but to accept the will of God and move to serve my community as a leader in the present position.”
Upon his approaching silver jubilee, members of St. Jude parish knew they wanted to invite their beloved priest back to his first assignment in the United States to celebrate. With a little convincing, Father Idra humbly accepted the invitation.
“I want to express my gratitude to Father Charlie and the parishioners of St. Jude who allowed me to come home and say thank you to God and to all of you for taking good care of me so many years ago. Eighteen years is too long,” Father Idra said, referring to Father Charlie Burton, pastor of St. Jude.
Many memories were shared by the beloved friends and priests at his homecoming.
“God is good all the time. And all the time, God is good,” was recited by Father Carter during his homily, a common phrase coming from Father Idra at the pulpit.
Father Carter compared Father Idra to the great saints from whom he finds inspiration and whose lives he imitates. Mentioned were the faithful discipleship of St. Augustine; jolly and generous St. Nicholas; St. Jude, the patron of impossible causes; and the holy and grace-filled Mother Mary.
Father Carter also remembered Father Idra’s deep love of soccer, specifically Manchester United in England, and Father Idra’s unique style choices, especially wearing scarves and jackets in the heat of summer.
“He’s the first person I ever met who wore a scarf in the summer,” Father Carter said. “In fact, even in the summertime here in the U.S., some have speculated that he wears more layers than you can see. During the winter, it would be no surprise if he had on even more layers than an onion.”
As a token of gratitude, Deacon Gaspar DeGaetano, who serves at the Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul, presented Father Idra with two chalices on behalf of members of the Knights of Columbus to be used by the Apostles of Jesus.
“My anniversary celebration was a typical lovely and genuine support of the people of the Knoxville Diocese for me,” Father Idra said. “I was overwhelmed and humbled. I don’t deserve it but, again, I humbly accept God’s will for me.”
Father Idra’s fellow priests and the parishioners he served shared a common sentiment: beloved and missed, Father Augustine Idra always has a home in the Diocese of Knoxville.