Omaha priests grow a Tanzania connection

One relationship between two priests – one from Hartington, the other from Tanzania – has inspired three parishes in Omaha to missionary outreach.

The friendship has led St. Leo the Great and Mary Our Queen parishes to adopt "sister parishes" in the Archdiocese of Songea in southern Tanzania. And it has led to a long-running relationship between Tanzania and St. Philip Neri-Blessed Sacrament Parish.

The story began in September 2012, at Eppley Airfield in Omaha, where Father Craig Loecker, then-pastor of St. Philip Neri and Blessed Sacrament before they merged, met Father Augustine "Tino" Gama, sent by then-Songea Archbishop Norbert Mtega for graduate study at Creighton University.

They served together at the Omaha parishes for a year, and Father Gama extended a standing invitation for Father Loecker to visit his homeland. Last summer, Father Loecker accepted.

"I always wanted to go to Africa, but I never had a connection," he said.

Their July 25-Aug. 5 trip, shared by two other archdiocesan priests, has yielded continuing harvests.

The fruits include a special collection Dec. 16-17 at St. Leo to support sister parish Holy Family in Ndongosi, where Father Loecker preached at an Aug. 2 welcoming Mass and was surprised with a celebration of his own 25th anniversary in the priesthood.

The collection also will benefit the Lighano Minor Secondary School Seminary near Mkongo, where Father Loecker saw great need.

He "was very down" after seeing the school’s broken desks and two bare light bulbs in a large classroom, said Father Gama, who once taught there. Back in Omaha, Father Loecker decided to collect funds for the seminary, which serves 270 boys ages 15 to 19, after asking Father Gama, "Is there something we can do for them?"

But Father Loecker also saw great joy as Holy Family parishioners welcomed him to Ndongosi.

More than 300 people jammed the simple church after greeting Father Loecker, Father Gama and their fellow travelers, Father William Safranek, pastor of Omaha’s St. Bridget-St. Rose and St. Francis of Assisi parishes, and Father Marcus Knecht, associate pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Amelia and St. Patrick Parish in O’Neill.

Singing and dancing, parishioners escorted them to the Mass, concelebrated by Archbishop Damian Dallu’s vicar general and seven priests, including Father Gama and the Nebraskans. A reception and meal followed.

During the procession, "this lady threw herself on the ground, rolling around," Father Loecker said. "Father Gama told me that she was expressing joy. … That was strange to have people who were strangers be so joyful, so welcoming."

Father Loecker presided over a July 28 Mass at St. Mathia Cathedral in Songea, where he gave Archbishop Dallu all but $1,500 of an $11,000 collection from St. Leo. The rest went to members of Holy Family Church, who used it to purchase floor tile for around their altar.

Father Loecker and Father Gama presented clothing donated by St. Philip Neri-Blessed Sacrament members to an orphanage in Chipole run by the Missionary Benedictine Sisters. Another Nebraska connection: Some Tanzanian-born nuns live at the order’s Immaculata Monastery and Spirituality Center in Norfolk.

The priests also brought soccer balls, basketballs and air pumps from Omaha and bottled water and soft drinks from Songea, splitting the gifts between the seminary and orphanage.

More help for the Songea Archdiocese is on the way. Mary Our Queen Parish will begin fundraising in January for St. Peter the Apostle Parish in Ligera at the urging of its pastor, Father Robert English, who heard Father Loecker discuss his trip Sept. 28 at St. Leo.

Father English and Father Gama have served together at Mary Our Queen since Father Gama was assigned as associate pastor last year, after four years in residence at St. Philip Neri-Blessed Sacrament.

Mary Our Queen is organizing a volunteer team and hopes to raise $25,000 to buy an all-terrain truck for Ligera’s priests, Father Gama said. A parish team will visit Ligera in April 2018.

Father Gama said he also is grateful to Father Loecker and members of St. Philip Neri-Blessed Sacrament for helping him finance annual homecoming trips, plus an extra trip when his sister died in December 2013.

"He’s been a really good brother and friend since I came out here," Father Gama said.

For his part, Father Loecker hopes to return to Tanzania in 2019, when Holy Family marks its 50th anniversary. "I’ve let the (St. Leo) parishioners know, ‘Anyone who wants to go, start planning,’" he said. "I’m going to have to learn some more Swahili."

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