Q&A: Father Innocent Okozi to be installed at St. Joseph Church Sunday

Father Innocent Okozi

Father Innocent Okozi

Fr. Innocent Okozi, SMA, will be installed as Pastor of St. Joseph Parish this Sunday, July 28, at 10 a.m. in Bridgton.

Fr. Daniel Greenleaf, Vicar Forane, will preside at the installation at St. Joseph Church, located on South High Street.

St. Joseph Parish consists of St. Joseph Church in Bridgton and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Fryeburg. As he continues to settle here in Bridgton, The News caught up with Father Okozi and asked him the following:

Q. How did you become interested in the priesthood?

Fr. Okozi: My interest in the priesthood began at about age 7 in Nigeria, where I was born. I was attracted by the activities performed by the priest at the Catholic Mass, and I “played” Mass with my sibling and friends, using my towel tied around my neck as my chasuble (the outer garment worn by the priest). As I grew up, the desire for the priesthood stayed with me. Later, I did my training in two local Catholic seminaries in Africa.

My influence, as a missionary, came from some priests of the Society of African Missions (SMA). The SMA is a missionary community of Pontifical rite in the Roman Catholic Church, which is also regarded as a Society of Apostolic Life (under the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life). The SMA community, due to its focus on mission “ad extra” also works under the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples.

I was an altar server and worked with some of the SMA priests, as well as with some Diocesan priests in the southwestern part of Nigeria. I appreciated very much the courage and zeal of these missionary priests, and how they left their own countries and dedicated their lives to working with peoples of Africa and of African origin.

Later, I was recruited by the SMA priests, completed my training and sent on mission. I made my final SMA commitment on Dec. 2, 1994 and was ordained a priest on Dec. 8, 1995 in Ibadan, Nigeria.

Q. What led you to the United States and what were the biggest adjustments you faced?

Fr. Okozi: I was sent on mission in 2004 to the United States by my Superiors from Africa. I was welcomed by the American province of my religious order in New Jersey. I was later appointed Parochial Vicar of Queen of Angels Church, Newark, N.J., where I engaged in pastoral ministry.

Later, I became a pastoral associate at the Parish of the Transfiguration, Newark, N.J., with the pastor, Father Josephat K. Kalema, STD.

I also spent some time at the parish of one of my friends and the pastor of St. Philip Neri, Pennsburg, Pa., Father Robert Roncase.

During my pastoral ministry, I studied Mental Health Counseling (at the master’s degree level) and Counseling Psychology (at the doctoral degree level) from Seton Hall University (New Jersey) and graduated in 2010.

Sometimes, it was quite a challenge for me to adjust to doing both pastoral ministry and my studies. I also learned to adjust to living through the winter months, as well as the hot and humid summer days.

Q. How would you describe yourself? Your interests?

Fr. Okozi: I would describe myself as a Christian, easy going, soft-spoken, adventurous, caring and faith-filled person. My interests include sporting activities, such as soccer, football and cross-country skiing. I enjoy listening to music, watching sports (when I find the time) and learning about different cultures and people. I also enjoy different kinds of fish food and delicious Acadian dish.

I finally got to see three live moose in Madawaska this year! I would like to go on a boat ride on the lakes in the region and go hiking in the parks in area. I also look forward to going to the Fryeburg Fair this year.

Q. Recall some of your fondest achievements.

Fr. Okozi: I am one of those people who do not really like listing my achievements. However, one of my fondest memories includes scoring some equalizing and winning goals for my soccer teams in the seminary.

I also recall owning my first box guitar and playing my first song, “Oh When The Saints Go Marching In.” Another fond achievement was when I was able to converse freely in at least six different languages, including French.

Publishing some of my research studies, completing my internship at University of Maine, Orono and graduating from the doctoral program at Seton Hall University and completing my postdoctoral experience in Augusta were also among my fondest achievements.

I also cherished presenting some of my academic research work at local, regional, national and international conferences.

Lastly, kayaking on Moosehead Lake and taking some “baby steps” in cross-country skiing, and seeing my first live moose and black bear are also included in my fondest memories. I am grateful to God and all those people who helped me along the way for these achievements.

Q. How has your training as a missionary priest and your work here in the diocese in Maine helped prepare you to be a pastor?

Fr. Okozi: My life experiences and missionary work prepared me for my assignment as a pastor. During my training to become a missionary priest, I studied philosophy in Nigeria and Theology in Côte d’Ivoire. I also engaged in missionary work in different countries in Africa prior to my missionary work here in the United States.

From the onset, I was exposed to training in international settings, some of which include doing some programs with some American students in Togo. I worked mostly in French-speaking African countries prior to coming here. I also studied at St. Anselm’s Institute, Kent, England for a year. My pastoral ministry in the Archdiocese of Newark, N.J. also prepared me for pastoral assignments in Maine.

I have been involved in pastoral ministry in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland since August 2009. I was appointed last year by Bishop Richard J. Malone, STD for part-time pastoral ministry at the Corpus Christi parish in Waterville, and part-time with the Diocesan Chancery in Portland. This appointment was my most immediate preparation for this assignment. As a part-time parochial vicar at the Corpus Christi Church, Waterville, I coordinated the outreach program of the parish, especially the ministry to the sick and the homebound. On most weekends, I provided coverage for priests who were engaged in other ministries outside their regular pastoral ministry. That enabled me to travel to the different parts of Maine, including Madawaska and Biddeford.

During my various assignments, I met many wonderful people, both Mainers and people “from away” (as we say in Maine). I also cultivated many lifelong friendships. I have a great respect and appreciation of different people and their life experiences, not only here in Maine, but in different parts of the country.

Q. What do you see as the biggest challenges as pastor of two parishes consisting of four churches and one summer church?

Fr. Okozi: At this time, it is a little difficult to state the biggest challenges as pastor of two parishes. One of the challenges I can imagine is the lack of priestly personnel; we — Fr. Samuel Madza, SMA, who has been appointed Parochial Vicar at St. Joseph Church in Bridgton and Blessed Teresa Calcutta Parish in Norway — will be two priests assigned to lead these communities. We will foster and encourage more involvement of the Catholic Lay faithful, in different aspects of the life of the church community. We would encourage young persons to consider embracing the vocation to the priesthood and religious life.

Another challenge I foresee is how to be more present to members of these church communities while engaging in the administrative responsibilities of a pastor. To facilitate my pastoral ministry, I look forward to working with both volunteers and staff of the two parishes entrusted to me by the Roman Catholic Bishop of Portland. I also look forward to meeting different people from the Lake Region and getting to know them. It is my hope that my missionary presence in the Diocese of Portland would contribute positively to its missionary dimension, as well as enrich my own life.

I use this opportunity to appeal to Catholics in the Lake Region who have stayed away from the church for various reasons, and want them to know that they are welcome anytime to the church. I also look forward to meeting them and sharing a cup of coffee together with them.

Q. What were your first impressions of Maine and the Lake Region area?

Fr. Okozi: I like Maine and I love the people of Maine. The Lake Region is splendid and beautiful. There is something peaceful about Maine that draws people to Maine. The four seasons in Maine are quite distinct from each other and they are beautiful. I enjoy the simplicity of life in Maine, as well as its natural habitat. Maine is one of the most beautiful locations in the country and in the world. It feels like a second home to me.

Note: The installation as Pastor at Blessed Teresa of Calcutta Parish will take place at a later date.

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