Celebrating Christmas far from home
Editors’ note: With Christmas a time of family celebrations, the Catholic Voice asked the 15 foreign-born priests serving the archdiocese how they celebrate Christmas so far from their homelands. Several shared some of their experiences.
Sharing Christmas with their families – their parish families – is a special blessing for several priests born overseas, and now far from family and friends in their homelands.
Welcome and fellowship are readily found in the homes of parishioners and local friends, said four priests, two from Africa and two from Singapore.
"People are very gracious," said Father Kizito Okhuoya, born in Nigeria and now pastor of St. Wenceslaus Parish in Verdigre and St. William Parish in Niobrara. "I get invited by families to celebrate Christmas with them, so I get to join them and participate in meals, conversation and gift giving.
"It’s beautiful, it makes me feel like family and an important part of their celebrations."
Father Damian Wee of Singapore, now pastor of St. Rose of Lima Parish in Hooper and St. Lawrence Parish in Scribner, said hospitality has been a hallmark of his parishioners.
"Over the years as a priest, I have been tremendously blessed to have gotten to know many families from the parishes I have served, who have welcomed me into their homes for Christmas and other occasions," Father Wee said.
Another Singapore transplant, Father Marc Lim, pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Pierce and St. Paul Parish in Plainview, said he has formed personal ties with people with whom he can celebrate Christmas.
"There is a family that welcomed me into their home and made me part of their family when I first got to the United States," he said. "I spend Christmas dinner with them and later with other friends."
And Father Vincent Sunguti, a native of Kenya and associate pastor of St. Margaret Mary Parish in Omaha, who has been in the United States for five years, said he has found a special Christmas fellowship with local friends from Kenya. They share a traditional Kenyan meal of mukimo (a dish containing several ingredients mashed together), pilau rice and roasted goat meat.
Father Sunguti said it’s too expensive to travel home during the holidays. But he calls his family at Christmas and often sends them the money he saves by not traveling, adding to their Christmas festivities.
"Also at Christmas, my parish needs my presence and my family members do understand," he said.
Trips home for Christmas haven’t been a common occurrence for Fathers Wee, Lim or Okhuoya. Father Wee has been in the United States for 20 years, but has not been home for the holidays since before his 2004 ordination.
"It’s just one of the sacrifices of being called by God to be a missionary priest in a foreign land," he said.
In the United States for a dozen years now, Father Okhuoya said he has been home for Christmas once – in 2009 – although he has led several mission trips at other times of the year to rural villages in Nigeria.
"But I am able to call my family at Christmas time to wish them Christmas blessings and share the joy of the birth of Jesus," Father Okhuoya said.
Father Lim said he has been in the United States for 15 years and has not been home for Christmas since his 2007 ordination. But he makes it a point to call his family back home.
"I try to give them a call on Christmas day, but most of the time it takes place after Christmas, as I am usually busy trying to get things set up and there is a 14-hour time difference," he said.
Father Wee said he shares Christmas greetings with his family using FaceTime, and is looking forward to a visit from his parents in the spring.
He also appreciates the similarity of traditions in the United States and Singapore – gathering with family for Christmas meals, exchanging gifts and singing Christmas carols, Father Wee said.
"Growing up in tropical Singapore, despite it being hot and humid year round, we always sang Christmas carols and songs like, ‘White Christmas,’ ‘Let it Snow’ and ‘Frosty the Snowman,’" he said. "I never realized how humorous it was until I came here to the United States and experienced the four seasons."
But for priests, first and foremost, Christmas is about celebrating the spiritual meaning of the season with their congregations.
"What’s most meaningful to me is celebrating that great mystery of the incarnation, of God becoming man, and being able to celebrate Mass," said Father Okhuoya, "not only for my parishioners but for their many visiting family members, and reminding them that Jesus came for all of us."
Father Sunguti said he enjoys making African traditions part of the Christmas Mass he celebrates with members of Our Lady of Africa Chaplaincy, a group of Omaha Catholics from Africa that he helps lead as chaplain, in addition to his service at St. Margaret Mary.
"We usually incorporate presentation of gifts where everyone is welcome to offer baby needs like food, clothing, formula, and other gifts of food, especially fruits, symbolizing the joy of new life. These gifts follow the bread and wine bearers in procession," he said.
The items are donated to needy members of the chaplaincy, and to the St. Vincent de Paul Society.
"And the prayers of the faithful are usually read in our various languages to remind us about the universal Child born, who is for all," Father Sunguti said.
Father Wee said that as a parish priest, he enjoys celebrating the many different feasts with parishioners during the Christmas season.
And he recalls his family in Singapore when he celebrates midnight Mass on Christmas Day, because it was a Mass they often attended together while he was growing up.
"I especially look forward to celebrating the midnight Mass," Father Wee said.
"Being so far from home, I am thankful for my parishioners and friends who are my family, thousands of miles away from family and homeland," Father Wee said. "God always provides, and he can never be outdone in generosity."