Visiting priest returns to Nigeria after three years
Gilroy – It is with mixed feelings – joy at reuniting with his family and sorrow at leaving all the friends he has made – that Fr. Felix Ethapemi leaves his friends and returns to his homeland today. After three years in the United States, the Catholic priest who has worked and lived at St. Mary Catholic Church in Gilroy for nearly a year, will be heading back to southern Nigeria.
“I am trying to pack, but getting ready to go I have mixed feelings,” Ethapemi said. “I am sad because I will miss my friends. I hope to come back someday on holiday.”
The 45-year-old pastor who has been working with the Catholic church since he was a 7-year-old altar boy, came to California in 2003 to study liturgy at Santa Clara University.
Ethapemi, who has worked as a priest for 17 years, completed his master’s at SCU in June 2004. During his time as a student and before coming to Gilroy in Sept. 2004, he worked as a priest in residence at St. Lucy Parish in Campbell.
While Pastor Dan Derry was recovering from knee replacement surgery, Ethapemi was invited to help out at St. Mary Church for a month and ended up staying for 10 months.
“He has a charismatic personality,” Derry said. “He brings a lot of energy to the parish and he has befriended people quickly.”
“I am grateful to Father Dan. He’s made a difference in my life,” Ethapemi said.
“They took me in as a brother, not minding the color of my skin,” he said of Derry and the other priests. “We shared everything. The rectory was a happy rectory.”
The parish members welcomed and respected the visitor whose own culture is much different from that in America.
“In Nigeria, it is much, much livelier than most churches in America,” he said. “There is a lot of dancing in Nigeria. It’s part of the culture.”
He saw a glimmer of the same spirit he sees in his native churches at St. Mary.
“The people are happy. People participate. It’s give and take,” he said of the church. “It is very much the ideal church. Hispanics, Filipinos, Vietnamese and Americans all come together.”
Church receptionist and parishioner Magdalena Valcazar said when Ethapemi spoke at Mass, his loud voice compelled people to listen.
“He’s touched so many people’s lives,” she said. “He’s so spiritual. He has morals and religious beliefs that are strong, and he gets it out in people.”
Until he can visit again, Ethapemi hopes to share the blessings he has felt here in Gilroy by spending time among the poor in his country.
“I know he is going back to the most tremendous poverty and social turmoil,” Derry said of the man who helped raise awareness of the world-wide needs of the church. “So we hope people will pray for him.”
In a letter of thanks to St. Mary, Ethapemi assured the parish that the money he had collected here would go to good use in Nigeria.
“I am looking forward to putting a smile on people’s faces,” he said.
And Ethapemi is sure to put a smile on the faces of his family members when he gets off the plane after his long flight home.
He will visit with his parents who are in their 80s, his four brothers and three sisters, and his many nieces and nephews.
“I have lots of nieces and nephews, some that I’ve not even met yet,” said Ethapemi of babies who have been born in his absence.
“God has blessed our family,” Ethapemi said. “And we use our blessings to bless others.”