By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger
Four years ago, Father Denis Hatungimana arrived in the Diocese of Davenport from Tanzania to begin his academic journey at St. Ambrose University in Davenport. On Dec. 18, he completes the final leg of the journey as he accepts his diploma for a Master of Organizational Leadership degree during commencement ceremonies at the RiverCenter in Davenport.
Father Denis is the latest in a line of priests from the Diocese of Rulenge-Ngara in Tanzania to broaden his horizons at St. Ambrose University through a partnership of the university and the Tanzania and Davenport dioceses. He previously earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Theology from the Pontifical Urbaniana University in Rome and diplomas in theology and in philosophy and religious studies from Tanzanian seminaries before ordination to the priesthood in 2009.
“I came to study here because St. Ambrose University and the Diocese of Davenport help my diocese to train priests so as to develop a good staff that can best serve the people of God,” Father Denis said. “It is an act of missionary charity that has a tremendously positive impact on the people who are served by my diocese of Rulenge-Ngara and the Church of Tanzania in general.”
The 49-year-old priest had visited the United States in 2012 for a mission in Burlington, Vermont, which helped him to prepare for living in the nation that has become a second home. During the past four years, he bonded with the retired priests he has lived with at the Davenport Diocese’s St. Vincent Center.
“I love the retired priests, the chancery staff and others for their cooperation and their generous spirit that made me feel at home all the time,” Father Denis said. “The retired priests are so kind to me. They took care of me, guided me because we were together all the time. The diocese helped me with room and board and basic needs.”
At St. Ambrose, the diocesan university, Father Denis appreciated the teachers, students and the campus environment. “Altogether, it made me feel welcomed. It was both a life and an academic moment of learning.” He also appreciated the university’s promotion of cultural diversity and the pride that its faculty and staff express in seeing students succeed. “People are so kind and supportive when one is in need,” he said, referring to academic, language and cultural challenges.
His instructors collaborated with and guided him. That assistance and his love for learning led to his making the Dean’s List through completion of his Bachelor of Arts degree in Strategic Communications and his Master’s Degree in Organizational Leadership.
Among the challenges was dealing with Americans’ desire for privacy and individualism. “People are very private and keep to themselves. They’re not willing to open up too much until someone gets to know them. People are kind, once they get to know someone,” he observed. “In Africa, you don’t need to have a close relationship with someone to be able to talk to them.” Father Denis also discovered that he must choose his words carefully. “You can offend somebody without knowing it.”
The “American accent” was another challenge. “I needed to transform my British English to American English.” He worked his way through the language barrier with a computer app, keeping a diary of unfamiliar words, listening to other people speak and watching TV, including cartoons for children.
One obstacle he faced was less cerebral. “The weather was a big challenge,” he admitted. The first time he saw snow, “I didn’t know what to do.” Don’t get him started talking about winter driving.
“When you drive in snow, oh man, that is not good.”
For a time during the pandemic when classes went online, Father Denis completed training through the University of Iowa as a community facilitator to assist people dealing with mental health issues. He also took training to be a trainer of other community facilitators. “I can help people who are struggling with mental health issues. I enjoy that.” He said he had worked as a hospital administrator before becoming a priest. “I knew the importance of mental health. I was really interested in that.”
Father Denis, who grew up Catholic, aspired to be a priest beginning in elementary school. “We had what we called vocational training groups where you could learn about your vocation among other peers. You meet, you pray, you read about the life of the saints. I just started to feel like, ‘I could become a priest.’”
After realizing his dream for the priesthood, he served as a rector at Rulenge Propaedeutic Seminary in Tanzania (2009-2015); Vocations Director, Rulenge-Ngara Diocese, Tanzania (2010-2015); Youth Program Mentor, BDKJ Bamberg, Germany (2010-2015); teacher and formator at Katoke Minor Seminary (2015-2016).
For about six years, Father Denis worked as a coordinator and mentor of a German Youth Organization working in Tanzania called BDKJ Bamberg. He used that opportunity to initiate a South-North Program of sending young African boys and girls to Germany for a one-year program of volunteering, exposure and cultural exchange. He learned German and stayed with the volunteers in that country in 2015. That experience provided a better understanding of western culture, he said.
After graduation from St. Ambrose, Father Denis plans to begin a one-year Optional Practical Training experience before returning to Tanzania to share his insights and breadth of knowledge with his diocese. “We’re looking at more of a global ministry,” he said.