Nigerian Fr. Akindele installed as a pastor in Davenport
(Editor’s note: This is the third story in a short series on the ministry of African expatriate priests serving in the Diocese of Davenport.)
By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger
DAVENPORT — Anglos and Africans, Hispanics and Vietnamese, a tapestry of Catholics celebrated the installation of Father Nicholas Akindele as pastor of Holy Family and St. Alphonsus parishes in Davenport. Father Akindele is the first African priest to serve as pastor of the two parishes in each one’s more than 100-year history.
Bishop Thomas Zinkula presided at the Mass of Installation on Aug. 14 at Holy Family Church, with a full house of the faithful, some dressed in brilliant-colored attire, and all demonstrating full, active and conscious participation in the liturgy. The African Choir from Christ the King Catholic Church in Moline, Illinois, energized the congregation with song, bongo drums, electric guitar and rhythmic movement. Young African women from Christ the King danced their way to the altar bearing the fruits of the earth ahead of a family, friends of Father Akindele, bearing the gifts of bread and wine.
“Last Sunday during my installation as the pastor of both Holy Family and St. Alphonsus parishes of Davenport, we felt a little bit of the universality of the Church here in our parish. The coming together of the people of God from all walks of life, with their different colors, talents, dresses, music and dances, participating in the (unending) ‘sacrifice of praise,’ which is the Holy Mass,” Father Akindele wrote in the Aug. 21 parish bulletin.
Like many other dioceses, the Diocese of Davenport has welcomed expatriate priests from Africa and elsewhere “to augment the number of local clergy” providing pastoral ministry and leadership. The number of foreign priests ministering in the U.S. has increased from 10% in 1990 to 25% in 2020. Those who are from Africa have increased from 2.8% in 1990 to 15% in 2020, the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate reported in 2020.
Father Francis Odoom, an African expatriate priest who recently served as a pastor in the Davenport Diocese, shared that information while defending his doctoral dissertation at St. Ambrose University in Davenport this past spring. His dissertation 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.
Guided by the Holy Spirit
Father Akindele thanked Bishop Zinkula and all who participated in the installation Mass. Now he wants to build on the momentum. In Holy Family’s Aug. 21 parish bulletin, he wrote, “The time to pray and work for our parishes has just begun. The task of building a community of faith that we will (love) to be a part of (has) just begun. The task of leading lives of faith that will shine for the world to see is here….” He pointed out that all Catholics must commit to participating fully, consciously and actively in the liturgy.
“The Holy Spirit is the driving force for Father (Akindele) and he’s willing to challenge the old way of doing things to allow the Holy Spirit to do something even more beautiful,” new parishioner Jared Wuerzburger said after the installation Mass.
Mother Susan Rueve of the Franciscan Sisters of Christ the Divine Teacher and a St. Alphonsus parishioner describes Father Akindele as “a priest who loves God and loves the family of God — ALL of us. His infectious enthusiasm of joy and love of God is a great blessing for St. Alphonsus Parish and indeed, the whole diocese.” She quotes Luke 12:49: ‘“I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!’ I think Father Nicholas is holding the match!”
The 50-year-old priest, ordained in 2000 for the Diocese of Lokoja in the Kogi State of Nigeria, arrived in the Diocese of Davenport for an internship in canon law, encouraged by a fellow African priest serving in the Davenport Diocese then. Father Akindele returned to the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium (KU Leuven) that same year to complete his master’s degree in canon law.
Father Akindele desired to pursue a doctorate in canon law, and his bishop consented, but said he would need to find a diocese willing to provide financial support for his studies. His internship with the Diocese of Davenport’s tribunal made that possibility a reality. The priest began work in November 2017 as the defender of the bond while pursuing his PhD.
A passion for pastoral ministry
His heart, however, was in pastoral ministry. “I was feeling a little discouraged, wondering what I was doing here,” he admitted. “The Diocese of Davenport gave me the opportunity to multitask to fulfill the dream to work with people, to be pastoral rather than (just) working behind a desk.” In March 2018, he began serving as a parochial vicar at St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Davenport.
“For me, it was like coming home. My local village, the local parish where I was baptized, was St. Paul’s,” Father Akindele said. “I felt a connection to my baptismal calling.” He also connected with the families and students of the parish and school. “Oh, I love these kids,” he said, recalling with fondness celebrating Mass on Wednesdays and Fridays with the students.
Father Akindele’s next assignment, as parochial vicar of St. John Vianney Parish in Bettendorf, began in 2019. In 2020, he was assigned to Holy Family, St. Alphonsus and St. Peter Parish in Buffalo as a parochial vicar. As he became more involved in parish ministry and interacting with people, he began to wonder, ‘“Why do I need a PhD?’ I felt I had mild depression. It was difficult to get up in the morning.” Around the same time, he was seeing news reports about youths feeling suicidal.
The priest began praying a novena to Our Lady of Perpetual Help. He prayed, ‘“Mother, take away from me all of my skills, my talents, certificates, everything I am’ — that was the prayer because I felt nothing.’’ At one point during his novena, he heard a message: “They have no wine.” He didn’t know what it meant but he persisted in prayer and then created a video to promote consecration to the Blessed Mother, which he said drew a half-million people from the U.S., Africa and beyond. He wondered if he should return to Africa. He discerned an answer to prayer from Mary: “You can be here and in Nigeria. You can be where you are right now” to minister to others. He believed that the reference to “no wine” was a call to him to replenish the wine of faith. He spoke with Bishop Zinkula about the situation and both agreed that his pastoral ministry would benefit the diocese as it continues to deal with a declining number of priests.
Teachable moments in faith
“Father Nicholas is a well-seasoned priest with considerable pastoral experience. He has been in the U.S. for many years now, so he has developed a good sense of our culture,” Bishop Zinkula said. “Father Nicholas has a great deal of energy, devotion and joy, which will bode well for him in his parish ministry.”
Bishop Zinkula said the experience of serving as an African expatriate priest is enriching for the priest and the people he serves. “Father Nicholas probably could and would tell you the kinds of things he has learned, and the ways he has grown, during his time in the diocese. Also, getting to know and having a good experience of a priest from Africa can help break down prejudices.”
“On the challenging side of things, some people sometimes have difficulty with an expatriate’s accent, and sometimes there are cultural issues. But on the plus side of the cultural matter, it is enriching for our people to be exposed to someone from another culture. Having African expatriate priests in the diocese helps people develop a better sense of the universal Church.”
While serving as parochial vicar at Holy Family, St. Alphonsus and St. Peter, Father Akindele introduced “Bible Breakfast” for youths, which meets once a month on Saturdays at Holy Family. “Sometimes we have as many as 20 to 30,” the priest said. Youths from various parishes, some accompanied by their parents, participate. “It creates wine for them, the knowledge of God, and faith in God.” Bible Breakfast is spiritually uplifting for Father Akindele, as well.
“People are drawn to him,” says Roberta Pegorick, Holy Family’s business administrator. “He gives everybody his time, and his counsel. He’s constantly meeting with people. I don’t know anyone who interacts with people the way he does.” Every moment “is a teachable moment for him. I’m just soaking it up.”
Mary Ann Hagemann, religious education director for St. Alphonsus Parish-Davenport, describes Father Akindele as “a very spiritual person.” He wants people serving in the parish to know that it’s not a job, it’s a ministry, she said.
Father Akindele relishes his new role as pastor but knows that one day he will return to his homeland, which he believes will benefit from his experiences here. He refers to a Scripture passage from Jeremiah (18:1-6) that describes how he sees himself and all of God’s people:
“I went down to the potter’s house and there he was, working at the wheel.
Whenever the object of clay which he was making turned out badly in his hand, he tried again, making of the clay another object of whatever sort he pleased.
Then the word of the LORD came to me: Can I not do to you, house of Israel, as this potter has done? says the LORD. Indeed, like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, house of Israel.”