The Archdiocese of Chicago was to welcome 10 new priests on May 21. Some are homegrown — one through the entire archdiocesan seminary system — and the others come from Kenya, Tanzania, Mexico and Poland. They range in age from 25 to 34. All of them are inspired by a desire to bring Christ to their parishioners.
Hernan Cuevas, 29
- First assignment: St. Athanasius, Evanston
- Education: Elementary and secondary school in Mexico, Thomas More University, University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary Parents: Arcelia (Contreras) and Liborio Cuevas
- Parents: Arcelia (Contreras) and Liborio Cuevas
- First Mass: May 22 at 11:30 a.m. at St. Athanasius
Hernan Cuevas hopes to be a blessing to the Archdiocese of Chicago.
Born and raised in Michoacan, Mexico, he is expected to join the growing ranks of foreign-born priests ministering in the United States.
"For generations the Catholic Church in the United States has relied on vocations coming from other countries," said Cuevas, who had already started major seminary before arriving at Casa Jesus, a house of discernment for Spanish-speaking men in 2007.
"The work of preparing these men for ministry in this particular missionary territory is one of the most important aspects of priestly formation in this country. Thanks be to God, and to all those that today continue cultivating the missionary impulse of young men," he said.
"Casa Jesus played a crucial role in my time of transition, especially when it comes to understanding how the broad American culture impacts the way the Catholic faith is received and practiced in this country," he said.
He feels sorry for victims of clerical sexual abuse. "The clerical sexual abuse scandal has made me think that my vocation is meant to bring healing into the church, and into those who have been affected by this experience, through my prayer, through my good example and through the love for my vocation and for the church," he said.
Elliott Richard Dees, 25
- First assignment: Our Lady of Perpetual Help, Glenview
- Education: Forest Hills Elementary School, McClure Junior High, Lyons Township High School, Indiana University, University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary
- Parents: Christina Turlek and Richard Dees
- First Mass: May 22 at 10:45 a.m., St. John of the Cross, Western Springs
Elliott Dees said that he first expressed a desire to be a priest in "third grade or so." "I remember turning to my mom at one point when we were out running errands and saying, 'I think I want to be a priest,'" he said. He talked about the priesthood with the former pastor of his parish, Father Joseph McDonnell and the then-pastor, Msgr. Richard Hynes, and while they provided "gentle encouragement," he was not ready to make the leap when it came time for college, and he enrolled in Indiana University.
When the opportunity to study abroad arose, he first thought of Prague, but then chose Jerusalem as soon as a program there opened up. "My faith was reinvigorated and it was while praying at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the site of Jesus' empty tomb, that I finally realized God was calling me to be a priest, no matter how much I had tried to run from it," Dees said.
He entered the seminary in 2007 after graduating with a bachelor's degree in philosophy and religious studies from Indiana University.
Although he was coming of age at a time when the sexual abuse scandals racked the church, his vocation remained steady. "Honestly, the sexual abuse scandal did not affect my vocation at all," Dees said. "It certainly makes the conditions under which priests operate more difficult given the various suspicions and barriers that exist around the priesthood but if anything, it just makes me want to be the best priest possible to truly show people that those men were the aberration and not the norm."
Orlando Flores, 28
- First assignment: St. Mary of Celle, Berwyn
- Education: Elementary and secondary school in Mexico, Seminario Mayor de Nuestra Senora de Occatlan, University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary
- Parents: Violeta (Orea) and Pascual Flores
- First Mass: May 22, noon, Providence of God
For Orlando Flores, entering seminary after high school was encouraged — by his father, the seminary teacher; his cousin, the seminarian; and his uncle, the priest. But if his path to a priestly vocation was clear, his road to Chicago took some turns.
He entered the college seminary in his diocese in Tlaxcala, Mexico, but soon decided that he was called to be a missionary, so he joined the Misioneros de Guadalupe, a missionary congregation.
He first went to Mexico City, an eyeopening experience. "It opened my mind, and it showed me the need for priests in the world," he said.
"It showed me how to be a good leader, and gave me an interest in other cultures, in other beliefs and other religions." But soon enough the congregation was going to send him away on mission, to somewhere in Asia.
"I was kind of afraid," he said. "I was thinking of being too far from my country and from my family, but I still had the desire to be a missionary."
By this time, he had learned of Casa Jesus in Chicago, so he applied and was accepted.
"Because I didn't want to come too far, I decided to come here to Chicago. I was amazed with the multicultural city and the life here," he said. "Asians, Hispanics, Americans, all kinds of cultures. I was feeling really blessed."
Lorenzo Gamboa Cadena, 34
- First assignment: St. Catherine Laboure, Glenview
- Education: Elementar y and secondary school in Mexico, St. Joseph College Seminary at Loyola University; University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary
- Parents: Maria del Pilar (Cadena Vazquez) and Lorenzo Gamboa Sandoval
- First Mass: May 22, 11 a.m. at St. Catherine Laboure
Lorenzo Gamboa Cadena said his family always taught him to love the Catholic faith and that he loved being an acolyte and then a member of his church choir — a position for which he had to learn to play the guitar. But when a new pastor at his parish of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Chinacates, Durango, Mexico, asked when he was going to enter the seminary, he said, "Never."
"I thought that the seminary life was not for me. Nevertheless, as I walked with God in prayer, he allowed me to know his will and the plans he had for me," Gamboa said.
He was "not very aware" of the clerical sexual abuse scandal until he was at Casa Jesus in Chicago, discerning his vocation to the priesthood. But after considering it, he concluded that the scandal should not stop him from being ordained. "I came to follow Jesus in a land that is very different than mine. My focus is to serve the people of God in the Archdiocese of Chicago. If some priests did wrong like abuse minors they will be held responsible for their actions. This does not have to discourage me because I came for Jesus not because of those clerics involved in scandals."
Gamboa traveled to Mexico City for one of Blessed John Paul II's trips there. "I could not see much because there were thousands of faithful waiting to hear the pope," he said. "Just listening to his voice was as if a saint was talking to the people. He had the power to call people's attention. His life was an example of how God called people to his service."
John G. Hetland, 26
- First assignment: St. Barnabas
- Education: Transfiguration School, Archbishop Quigley Preparatory Seminary, St. Joseph College Seminar y at Loyola University
- Parents: Mary E. (Skaro) and John M. Hetland
- First Mass: May 21, 5 p.m. at Transfiguration
John Hetland was in seventh grade at Transfiguration School on the North Side when Msgr. Peter Snieg came to visit his class and talk about Archbishop Quigley Preparatory Seminary. "He was loving, compassionate, joyful, sincere," Hetland recalled. "I knew what he had, I wanted."
So Hetland decided to attend Quigley, not necessarily intending to become a priest, but open to the idea. He honestly didn't think God would call him to it, he said.
Then, on a parish visit as a sophomore, a priest he remembers only as "Father John" said something that stuck with him. "He said, 'It's a very fulfilling life and you'll go to sleep happy.'"
When it came time for college, Hetland looked into St. Joseph College Seminary and found a group of "normal guys" where he thought he would fit in. Then, "As I started thinking more and more about bringing God to others, I just fell in love with the idea of the ordained priesthood." His pastor at Transfiguration, Father Terry Keehan, nurtured those ideas.
The sexual abuse scandal that occupied the news during Hetland's teen years has removed any glory that the world might once have attached to the priesthood, he said.
He's already heard the cutting remarks suggesting that there's something wrong with him if he wants to be a priest. "I've been told the priesthood was once put on a pedestal," he said. "I don't know what that looks like. Now accepting the priesthood means courage."
He admired Blessed John Paul II — the only pope of his lifetime until his death in 2005 — for what he saw at World Youth Day in Toronto in 2001. "He had the power to energize the youth," he said. "There was something there that made people follow him."
Filbert Ngwila, 31
- First assignment: St. John of the Cross, Western Springs
- Education: Elementary and high school in Tanzania; Consolata Institute of Philosophy, Nairobi and University of St. Mar y of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary
- Parents: Hermina (Jumanne) and Fabian Prim Ngwila
- First Mass: May 21, 5 p.m. at St. Agnes, Chicago Heights
Filbert Ngwila was 10 years old when his parish priest, Father Emmanuel Makala, told him he would make a good priest.
"He was impressed with the way I was respectful at the altar when I served," said Ngwila, who was born and raised in Tanzania. "It was he who encouraged me to join a high school seminary to consider becoming a priest. He was very instrumental in my vocational journey."
For a time, he was with a religious order called the Camillians, Servants of the Sick. "It was a great moment in my formation to priesthood as I learned how to minister to the sick and to pray," he said, but he decided to come to the United States in the fall of 2006 as part of the Tuite Program.
"It was quite challenging to be in a different country. Weather, language and culture in general weren't easy to adapt to," he said. "Spending my first year at St. Joseph College Seminary at Loyola University helped me to get acclimated to the culture in this country."
The sexual abuse crisis has created challenges for priestly ministry, he said.
"I am aware of the possibility that being a priest might remind the victims of sexual abuse, of the perpetrators," he said. "On the other hand, I am determined to focus on the ministry, love my parishioners and let them know that there are good priests out there who are dedicated and faithful to their commitment and service to God and the people."
Collins Kisaka Nyache, 33
- First assignment: Sacred Heart, Winnetka
- Education: Elementary and high school in Kenya; Consolata Institute of Philosophy, Nairobi; and University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary
- Parents: Emiliana (Mshai Mwandau) and James Nyache Lenjo, both deceased
- First Mass: May 21, 5 p.m. at Prince of Peace, Lake Villa
Collins Kisaka Nyache said he wanted to be a missionary priest to emulate Christ, who left his heavenly kingdom to come to us. The sixth of seven children, his family practiced the Catholic faith and often prayed for vocations. His own vocation grew as he served at the altar during Mass.
"As I grew up as an altar server the idea of priesthood was at the back of my mind," he said. "However, being an altar server all Sundays I knew exactly the crucial role the priest was playing in the lives of the parishioners who were under his care. Slowly, by slowly, the zeal to become a priest started growing in my heart."
He originally wanted to join a religious congregation, but now is happy that he will serve the Archdiocese of Chicago.
"I want also to leave my comfort zone, and bring that joy to others who need it," he said. "Vocation is a mystery and words may not fully capture it. It's like a small seed that is planted, grows in silence and you cannot see it grow."
Wojciech Jan Oleksy, 27
- First assignment: St. Thomas of Villanova, Palatine
- Education: Elementary and secondary education in Poland; University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary
- Parents: Barbara (Sasek) and Marian Oleksy
- First Mass: May 22 at 10:30 a.m. at St. Mary of Perpetual Help
Wojciech Oleksy was born in Poland and grew up in a Catholic family. He became an altar server while he was still young, but it wasn't until he was in high school that he began thinking seriously about the priesthood, he said. The examples of his pastor and the priest who taught his religious class were "very crucial" to his decision to enter the seminary in the Diocese of Tarnów. After a few years there, Oleksy decided to come to Chicago in 2006, and entered Bishop Abramowicz Seminary and later on Mundelein Seminary.
The sexual abuse crisis did not receive as much attention in Poland as it did here, he said. "I was not aware how serious it was/is until I came to the United States," he said. "It was difficult for me to deal with it. Nevertheless, somewhere on the way, I realized that each one of us has his own way and that I cannot be discouraged by the mistakes and faults of others. I knew that God had plans for me and that he would give me strength to continue on regardless of any obstacle."
One example that helped was that of Blessed John Paul II.
"His vision of the Catholic Church and Christianity spoke to me," Oleksy said. "His openness to every human being helped me to be more open, especially in my initial moments in the USA, where cultural, religious and ethnic differences were revealed to me in a way I had never experienced before. John Paul II taught me how to love other people and how to understand the universal character of the Catholic Church."
Phillip T. Owen, 26
- First assignment: St. Cajetan
- Education: St. Luke School, River Forest; Fenwick High School, Oak Park; St. Joseph Seminary at Loyola University; University of St. Mar y of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary
- Parents: Mary (Mazeikas) and David Owen
- First Mass: May 22, 11 a.m., St. Mar y of the Angels
Phillip Owen has always felt the Blessed Mother watching over him, he said.
Born and raised in St. Luke Parish in River Forest, Owen is the eighth of 10 children in his family. The experience of growing up in a large family served him well, he said. "I learned at an early age what it meant to sacrifice, share with others, and be generous with my time," he said. "My parents instilled in me the importance of sharing with others, being respectful of others, the importance of Sunday Mass, and the importance of daily prayer."
He also learned the joy of assisting at liturgies when he was quite young, becoming an altar server after his First Communion.
"As a young boy in grade school I enjoyed getting out of class to serve funerals on Tuesday mornings," he recalled. "Looking back now, I believe that God blessed me with special graces for all the time I assisted at liturgy at a young age. My favorite thing to do was serve Benediction on Monday nights during the summer months. I believe that being surrounded by so much grace at a young age allowed me to say yes to the priesthood."
His time at Fenwick High School helped develop his desire to serve, especially when he was in the campus ministry outreach group his junior and senior years. "I have always enjoyed doing service for others; working at soup kitchens, hospitals, nursing homes, neighborhood cleanups, etc.," he said.
When his older brother, Peter, announced that he was entering Mundelein Seminary in 2003, Phillip Owen began to ask himself if God was calling him to be a priest. "After four years of college seminary, and after much prayer, growth and discernment, I was certain that God was in fact calling me to serve him as a priest," Owen said. "After four years at Mundelein, I am ready to begin parish ministry on the South Side at St. Cajetan Parish.
"I can only say that it is with great expectations and great enthusiasm that I move into ministry as a priest. I am looking forward to the great moments as well as the times when we must imitate Christ's victimhood. I want to be a priest because this is what God willed for me. I want it because he wants it. He is perfect and can only ask us to do things that will completely satisfy us and make us happy. I have learned to ask Mary for everything, especially the grace to imitate her example of surrender and trust in God's Holy Will."
Gosbertus Rwezahura, 33
- First assignment: St. Joseph, Wilmette
- Education: Elementary and secondary school in Tanzania; Salvatorian Institute of Philosophy and Theology, Morogoro, Tanzania; University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary
- Parents: Veronica (Tibashemalerwa) and Benedict Rwahinja Bisheko
- First Mass: May 21 at 5 p.m. at Our Lady of Loretto Parish, Hometown
Gosbertus Rwezahura started his vocation journey nearly 20 years ago when he entered the preparatory seminary in his home diocese of Bukoba in Tanzania. After preparatory and junior seminary, he spent a year teaching high school and then entered the congregation of the Holy Spirit Fathers, with whom he spent seven years. But he had decided that he was called to be a missionary — specifically, a missionary to one of the countries that first sent priests and religious to Tanzania — something that wasn't likely to happen with his congregation. When he learned of the opportunity to come to the Archdiocese of Chicago, he applied and spent one year studying at St. Joseph College Seminary before entering Mundelein.
He was inspired, he said, by the three priests he knew from his home parish. "I liked the way they said Mass, the way they preached, the way they lived and the way they were so loved by the people," he said. "People love their priests there."
His hometown was not affected by the clerical sexual abuse crisis as the United States was, he said, although it did leave the people somewhat suspicious of U.S. priests.
"It was in newspapers and televisions and so forth but most of the people did not understand what it meant because they could not imagine that it could happen that way," he said.
Blessed John Paul II did not have much effect on his decision to enter seminary, but once there, he got to know the pope through his studies and from the aftermath of John Paul's visit to the country.
"He loved the country and he loved the people. He tried to greet the people in Swahili. People did appreciate it," Rwezahura said. "He visited some sick people in hospitals, blessed them."