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Deacon Charles Onyeneke ’17 has the kind of smile that you can hear.

Charles Onyeneke

You can easily visualize his beaming face and cheerful eyes. His laughter decorates conversation like confetti at a party and unmistakably emanates from a place of joy. For Onyeneke, his joy is in attending to God’s calling.

Onyeneke, who graduated from Saint Leo with a Master of Arts degree in theology in 2017, began his journey to Catholic religious life at his childhood home in Imo State, Nigeria. He recalled his interest began when he was an 8-year-old altar server.

“I fell in love with what priests do in the Eucharistic celebration, changing wine and bread into the blood and body of Christ,” Onyeneke said.

The youngest in a Catholic family of eight children (four sisters and three brothers), Onyeneke said he learned from his parents how the presence of Christ in the Eucharist can help resolve life’s difficulties.

Today, that zeal Onyeneke felt for the celebration of the Eucharist—and to serve people—has translated into years of study that will culminate in his ordination as a priest in the U.S. Catholic Church later this year.

“The Eucharist is the center of my life,” Onyeneke said.

It is no small coincidence then, that Onyeneke was assigned to Corpus Christi Church in the small town of Round Lake, NY, to complete his pastoral year for seminary. The church’s website states its mission as one clearly aligned with Onyeneke’s own: becoming the body of Christ by worshiping God and serving others.

Charles Onyeneke
Deacon Charles Onyeneke at Corpus Christi Church in Round Lake, NY

“He jumped right in without hesitation—into a church with a large congregation and a lot of moving parts,” said Reverend Rick Lesser, pastor of Corpus Christi Church. 

“I love to watch our community when Deacon Charles preaches,” Lesser said. “They become so engaged and are smiling back. He has this ability to elicit in others the joy he feels.”

Onyeneke quickly embraced the entire community, conducting half of the church’s daily Masses and a quarter of the weekend liturgies, developing adult education programs, and becoming involved in children’s faith formation. He also began regular visits to members of the congregation, many of whom are homebound.

Lesser also was impressed with the way Onyeneke adapted to the Catholic Church in America. “He was proactive about learning the difference between the American and Nigerian Catholic Churches,” Lesser said. “And did so with incredibly good grace.”

Onyeneke also has helped to integrate immigrants within the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany (NY). His own experience provides a unique perspective on the challenges they face. 

He is completing his studies for the Licentiate in Sacred Theology, an advanced degree with an emphasis on moral theology at Saint Mary’s Seminary & University in Baltimore, MD. He wrote, and will soon defend, his thesis on undocumented immigrants in the United States.

“Catholic social teaching says that laws should not deny any person human dignity and respect,” Onyeneke said. “Immigrants need a listening ear. Listen to their story, so they can integrate.”

For Onyeneke, as a graduate student living for the first time in the United States, that listening ear belonged to Dr. Randall “Woody” Woodard, chair of graduate studies in theology and religion at Saint Leo University. Realizing that Onyeneke knew little American English and few people but the Benedictine Monks of Saint Leo Abbey with whom he stayed, Woodard went out of his way to welcome Onyeneke into the Saint Leo University fold. 

“Woody was there for me,” Onyeneke said. “I was lonely and had little money, but Woody made sure I had food and asked me to join him at soccer games—sometimes to watch the Lions, and sometimes to play a match.” 

Perhaps more important, Onyeneke says, “We shared stories so that we learned about each other.”

He credits Woodard with helping him “fall in love with the Saint Leo community.” Onyeneke became very involved on campus, writing stories for The Lions’ Pride student newspaper and joining in student activities. He has especially fond memories of the Intercultural Student Association’s dinner, for which he cooked fufu, a West-Central African dish.

At the same time, Onyeneke says that immigrants have responsibility for their success in their adopted home country. Lesser said, “He has a very wise understanding of American culture and understands from his own experience the need for immigrants to adapt to American culture.”

Onyeneke offers this advice to those new to the United States: “Have patience, seek advice, and accept cultural differences. Rather than trying to hold onto your own culture, be open to American culture.”

Soon Onyeneke will complete his year at Corpus Christi Church. He is looking forward to his ordination and future assignment in the Diocese of Albany, NY. Lesser, with whom Onyeneke has roomed during his time at the church, said Onyeneke wakes with the Eucharist at the center of his life, so cheerful that he sings around the residence in the early mornings. 

It’s a joyful noise, reflecting  Onyeneke’s love for God and serving people, which Lesser said he wishes he could bottle. “He’s going to be a gift to the people of God no matter where he goes.”

Photos by Paul Buckowski

When Saint Leo University launched its Doctor of Business Administration degree program in 2013, it hoped to lure the nation’s best and brightest. That aspiration has been realized with highly intelligent and experienced students joining the first two cohorts. Patrick Plummer is one fine example.

23Plummer has already enjoyed a successful career, having started two health care data businesses and subsequently selling them. In his mind, he was always guided to do what was best for medical patients, and he believes that his companies attained that goal. Along the way, he also collaborated with Virginia Commonwealth University professors on a health care strategy textbook, a project that made him begin thinking about giving back to the next generation.

Now age 50, this Mechanicsburg, PA, native decided that he wanted to go back to school and become a professor, so he began looking for just the right program. Over the last several years, he had researched as many as 30 doctoral programs, but none was exactly what he wanted. Then in January 2014, he did another Google search and found Saint Leo. Within 45 minutes of perusing the website, he knew this was the place he wanted to be.

Catherine, Patrick, Grace, and CarolynA devout Catholic, Plummer was drawn to Saint Leo’s Catholic identity and Benedictine tradition. He even commented, “If I could be a married priest, I would.” He believes that approaching matters from a Catholic basis always makes things clearer for him.

Having sold that second business in December 2013, Plummer and his wife wanted to have a meaningful family trip for themselves and their two daughters, ages 13 and 14. So in August 2014, they traveled to Italy, where they spent two and a half weeks touring the Vatican and the surrounding sites. They enjoyed seeing the pope give his weekly address, amidst tens of thousands of people. “When Papa Franco appeared,” Plummer remembered, “the crowd roared, like someone had scored a touchdown.” Even with a sudden downpour, no one’s spirit was dampened. They also toured the Sistine Chapel and St. Mark’s Cathedral, and viewed The Last Supper. His daughters agreed: “the best trip ever.”

The trip involved so much history—so much emphasis on God, religion, and faith—that Plummer returned, even more determined to make a difference for young people.“I want students to know that you don’t have to be a schmuck to succeed in business,” he explained. “Sometimes it is hard to absorb that message in corporate America. It is easy to take the wrong path if that’s what you think you have to do.”

Plummer is currently on his way to his dream of being a professor, and his goal is to complete his dissertation by December 2016. For now, he is enjoying his time as a student.

“It is a lot more work than I expected,” he said with a laugh. “There is so much reading, and writing, writing, writing. But having the cohort has been a big surprise. I am amazed at how close we have all become in such a short period of time.”