This is the fifth in a series of seven profiles of the men to be ordained new priests for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia on May 20.
Thirteen-year-old John Chidiebube Okpara suffered from Malaria, while growing up in Imo State, Nigeria. It was after receiving a blessing from Msgr. Gabriel Eche, his home pastor, that Okpara says he received a healing. He says this was the first experience that formed him as a priest. “It was my first encounter with God,” he said.
Okpara says the second experience that formed him was witnessing the marriage of his parents Fidelis and Francisca, who Okpara describes as “very devout Catholics.”
“Becoming a priest is also being a good father,” he said. “Having a loving father and a loving mother shaped my vocation into the priesthood.”
His father had a business selling kitchen utensils. His mother was a homemaker with a small farm producing what the family ate.
The third of four children, Okpara grew up with daily family prayer in the home and daily Mass attendance.
As a young boy, Okpara played soccer and was an altar server. At age 14, he joined the Legion of Mary, which “drew me closer to the altar, where I discovered my vocation,” he said.
Through the Legion of Mary, he started cleaning pews every morning at 5 a.m. before school. He did this for two years.
Later, he also visited the sick in the hospital on his way home for lunch. “I would go right from school with my school uniform and book bag,” he says. “I’d pray with them, and then stop at the church and pray for them.”
He also enjoyed working with his hands. “When I see something, I want to figure out how its done, how to fix it, what to make out of it,” he said.
To pay for his education during secondary school, Okpara became a local producer of clothing. He spent time in the shop of a family friend after school. “I’d go to his store and spend time there just to stay out of trouble. He taught me how to take the measurements, how to make the patterns, how to cut and sew.”
After graduating from secondary school, Okpara entered the college seminary in Nigeria. In 2015, towards the final year of his seminary studies, he had the devastating experience of his mother’s death, and about six months later, his oldest brother Pius was murdered.
“In that moment, I felt that God’s loving presence wasn’t there” in his life, he said, and he started to question committing himself to the priesthood. He left the seminary in 2016 and moved to the U.S. in 2017 seeking “a new life, get married, get a job, all of that.”
He attended John Carroll University, a Jesuit university in Ohio. “My questioning led me to leave the seminary but didn’t lead me to leaving the Church. I was still faithful,” he said.
He planned a future career in clinical psychology, but his desire for the seminary returned. Through the Holy Spirit, Okpara says he realized that he had “left the seminary out of emotion.”
The pastor of the Cleveland parish where Okpara attended daily Mass recommended to Okpara that he apply to Glenmary Home Missioners to continue along his path to the priesthood. Okpara spent a year going on missions to rural American towns, places in the Appalachians, Kentucky, and Tennessee.
During this time, Okpara was recommended to the Archdiocese of Philadelphia by a priest in Indiana at Saint Meinrad Seminary, who had previously been a pastor at Sacred Heart Church in Royersford, Fr. Peter DiMaria. With the help of Fr. DiMaria, Okpara entered St. Charles Seminary in 2018.
Okpara’s transitional deacon assignment was at Saint Cyprian Roman Catholic Church in the Cobbs Creek section of Philadelphia, where weekday Masses are celebrated in a chapel dedicated to St. Josephine Bakhita.
“I noticed there was no picture of her in the chapel,” he said. “I went online, found a picture of her and I drew it with pencil. Normally, she’s pictured wearing the veil for her community, and I put on her a Sudanese [hairstyle].”
Though Okpara has no blood relatives in the U.S., Robert and Theresa Gallagher of Saint Agnes Parish in West Chester, who spiritually adopted Okpara as their son, will be attending the May 20 ordination, along with many friends. The chasuble Okpara will be wearing that day is one he sewed by hand.
Okpara’s first Mass will be celebrated at Saint Luke the Evangelist Roman Catholic Church in Glenside, his home parish, on May 21 at 3 p.m. Homilist will be Fr. Aloysius Ochasi, a good friend of Okpara and Assistant Director of Academics and Consultation at Saint Joseph’s University. In attendance will be Bishop Timothy Senior, the former Chancellor of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary and the newly appointed Bishop of Harrisburg, as well as other priests and friends of Okpara.
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