African priest earns doctorate while building up parish life in rural Iowa

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Barb Arland-Fye
Father Francis Odoom talks with a couple before Mass at St. Patrick Catholic Church in Delmar May 22. The priest plans to return to his home diocese in Ghana, Africa, later this year.

By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger

DELMAR — Twenty minutes before the 10 a.m. Sunday Mass at St. Patrick Church, Father Francis Odoom walks from pew to pew warmly greeting parishioners who have arrived early. “He does this at every Mass at every parish he serves,” says Sister Margaret Kruse, OSF, former director of Our Lady of the Prairie in Wheatland, who is sitting in one of the pews with two of her sisters.

“Are you excited about going back home?” a parishioner asks Father Odoom, who plans to return to his home diocese in Ghana, Africa, later this year. He had just completed seven years of advanced studies at St. Ambrose University in Davenport where he received his Doctorate in Business Administration on May 21. Father Odoom told the parishioner he was not excited to leave and asked her to pray for him. “We become a part of people’s lives. That’s the reason it is painful to leave,” he told The Catholic Messenger after Mass.

Appropriately, his doctoral dissertation, which he successfully defended in the presence of colleagues, friends, the university’s president, Amy Novak, and Bishop Thomas Zinkula, examines the transitions of African expatriate priests to rural U.S. Catholic churches. An expatriate is someone living temporarily or permanently outside of his or her country of citizenship.

Father Odoom serves as pastor of five rural parishes in the Davenport Diocese, Our Lady of the Holy Rosary Parish, Lost Nation; Assumption & St. Patrick Parish, Charlotte; Immaculate Conception Parish, Petersville; Ss. Mary & Joseph Parish, Sugar Creek; and St. Patrick Parish, Delmar. His assignment ends June 30.
Ordained in 2005, Father Odoom arrived in Iowa in 2015, with permission from his bishop in the Archdiocese of Cape Coast, Ghana, to pursue graduate studies in leadership. “Priests as leaders are called to lead change,” Father Odoom said. “We require knowledge and skills to engage in the process of change that occurs in the life of the people, the faith communities and the communities in which we live.”

Leading change

He began serving at Sacred Heart Parish in Oxford Junction, which was part of a cluster with parishes in Grand Mound, Lost Nation and Toronto. Through his ministry, he met Dan Ebener, the Davenport Diocese’s director of Parish Planning and a professor in St. Ambrose University’s Department of Management. Ebener encouraged Father Odoom to enroll in the Master of Organizational Leadership program there. The priest, now 45, thrived in his master’s courses. “He is so articulate and thoughtful,” Ebener said. “We would be talking about servant leadership, the philosophy and theology of it and its application to business. He got it and could express it so clearly.”

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The priest’s experiences at Sacred Heart parishes in Oxford Junction and Lost Nation, St. James Parish in Toronto and Ss. Philip & James Parish in Grand Mound provided fertile ground to nurture his studies. His people skills helped facilitate the merger of St. James and Sacred Heart Parish-Lost Nation to form Our Lady of the Holy Rosary Parish.

“We did not know it when we first met Father Francis, but God sent him here to lead us on a journey of consolidating the Lost Nation and Toronto parishes,” said Chris Meyer of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary Parish and a founding member of the Toronto parish. “I do not believe anyone else could have accomplished the consolidation as competently or as gently as he did. He answered all questions and listened to all the fears of the merging of two churches into one parish with two worship centers.”

Meyer describes Father Odoom as “a leader who shares his beliefs with everyone he meets. He leads by example in the way he treats all people and speaks lessons from God’s word to help each of us in our daily challenges. He has a solution for everything — God is with us! Father Francis is intelligent, hardworking and a true servant of God. He has inspired all of us to be better, to learn more about our Catholic religion and to share that with others. He has shared his life, his love for God and his enthusiasm for each day with us for seven years. One parishioner said, ‘If you can’t get along with him, you’ve got a problem.’ He has blessed us with his presence, and he will be missed.”

“I think it was because of his leadership ability that they were so quickly able to make that change,” Ebener said. “He’s very thoughtful and pastoral in the best sense of that word. The people just love him. He is the epitome of the old saying, ‘Advice for pastors: love your people and they will love you back.’ That’s the essence of pastoral leadership.” Father Odoom demonstrates how effective pastors can be when they take the time to develop their leadership and management skills and the people skills that go with that, Ebener added.

‘I am really one of them’

Father Odoom’s graduate studies attuned him to the needs of the Church and of priests like himself. The genesis of his dissertation came from discussions between two St. Ambrose professors who asked if he would research the experiences of African priests in rural parishes in the U.S. and how to facilitate their ministry, he said.
“What he has learned in this process was so valuable in terms of understanding the challenges these priests are facing and realizing that things could be done to make the transition easier,” said Professor Monica Forret, director of the Doctor of Business Administration program. Examples include orientation, hospitality, cooking lessons from parishioners, developing patience between parishioners and priest in addressing language barriers, and creating a sense of community.

“More missionary priests from Africa are coming to the U.S. to serve as missionaries because of a shortage of native-born priests,” Father Odoom said. “It is ‘catholic’ to look for solutions elsewhere. But it’s also important to help priests to succeed.”

His experience points to one element of success. “I have had a great relationship with my parishioners to an extent that nearly all the families made me feel so welcomed and I was invited to their homes and I was made to feel like I am really one of them.”

Paula Lee, holding her 2-year-old daughter Amelia, chats with Father Odoom after Mass on this picture-perfect Sunday in Delmar. Father Odoom baptized Amelia when he served as pastor in Grand Mound. He made the parish feel like home for Paula and her husband, Adam Lee. “We will miss Father, but we’re happy he gets to go home.” The pastor told her, “We’ll keep in touch.”


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