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