From 1,000 tears to 1,000 smiles

Colorado students see healing in Rwanda 20 years after genocide

During a recent mission trip to Rwanda, Africa, Jenn Pritchard, 21, could feel the death as she stood in Nyamata Catholic Church outside the capital of Kigali.

The church had filled with people in early April 1994 as extremist members of the Hutu tribe terrorized the country slaughtering minority ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus. They hoped the church would be a safe haven from the death squads wandering the country armed with machetes and grenades. However, no place proved to be safe during the 90-day killing spree that ultimately took the lives of 1 million Rwandans. From April 14-19, 1994, 10,000 men, women and children were murdered in and around Nyamata Church.

“Standing in the middle of that church made it so real,” said Pritchard, a senior at Colorado State University, involved with FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students). “You could feel it … there was so much death there.”

Blood stains, bullet holes and remnants of clothing remained, serving as a memorial to the victims.

“It rocked all of us,” she said of her experience along with 17 other college students from Ram Catholic, the campus ministry of St. John XXIII Parish in Fort Collins.

Though the trip began in a place of pain and suffering, as it unfolded the group discovered that in 20 years since the genocide, many Rwandans have experienced healing and forgiveness.

“Rwanda is an international example of both forgiveness and Christ’s resurrection in the mystical body after the genocide they experienced,” said Father David Nix, 35, parochial vicar at St. John XXIII, who led the trip. “We had that experience of talking to so many who lost family members … and how many people have moved to forgiveness. It really shows that Christ is triumphant over death, not just 2,000 years ago but even in the mystical body with everything we saw.”

Outside Nyamata Church, they are now building a bigger church, he said.

“It shows how the resurrection is greater than the murders,” he said. “We experienced that so palpably in the lives of the people there.”

During the trip from June 17 to July 8, the missionaries served in Kigali with the Missionaries of Charity sisters, working with orphans and the elderly, and helping with manual labor such as building bricks and fences; and they served street children at the Rugamba Center. In Butare the next week, they cared for children and assisted with manual labor at a day care center run by the Servants of Mary of the Heart of Jesus from Brazil. On the final leg of the trip, they walked 20 miles to Kibeho, the village where the Blessed Mother appeared in 1981.

The group’s home base was the Emmanuel Community in Kigali, founded by Cyprien and Daphrose Rugamba in 1990, who also founded the Rugamba Center.

“Because (Cyprien and Daphrose) didn’t differentiate between Hutus and Tutsis, they were among the first executed in the genocide,” Father Nix explained of the couple killed April 7, 1994, the first day of the genocide, as well as six of their 10 children. “Their community has a formal petition for the couple’s cause for canonization.”

The missionaries donated 200 jerseys, 70 soccer balls, 60 pairs of shorts, 40 pairs of shoes and socks, and 20 shin guards to the children at the center, mostly boys from the streets.

“They were filled with genuine joy … it was so cool,” Pritchard said. “They’ve been through so much and they’re so joyful.”

Another joyful experience took place following the group’s first Sunday Mass June 22. After Mass, the parish of about 2,000 members began a eucharistic procession through the dirt roads of Kigali.

“This will be one of the most amazing moments of my life,” Pritchard reflected. “People dropped everything to follow Christ. Thousands. Cars couldn’t get by. People packed the streets.”

A road once impassable, covered with dead bodies, was now filled with Christians “following the Man that saved them,” she said. “Not only have they been healed, but they know why.”

Approximately 56 percent of Rwandans are Catholic.

“They gave us so much hope,” Pritchard said.

At the beginning of the trip, a host father of one of the missionaries and leader at the Emmanuel Community, Valance Mwumvaneza, said: “We are known as the country of 1,000 tears but we hope that when you leave we’ll be known as the country of 1,000 smiles.”

“That couldn’t be more true,” she said. “There can’t be any country that can show how love is stronger than evil than Rwanda; in the way they love and the way they praise the Lord.”

COMING UP: Father and son, deacon and priest: Deacon dads and priest sons share special bond as both serve God’s people

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The bond between a father and son is one of God’s greatest designs; however, when father and son are both called to serve the Church as deacon and priest, that bond takes on a whole new meaning. Just ask these two dads and their sons, all of whom answered the call to serve the people of God at the altar.

Deacon Michael Magee serves at Our Lady of Loreto Parish in Foxfield, while his son Father Matthew Magee has worked as the priest secretary to Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila for the past several years and will soon be moved to a new assignment as parochial vicar at St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Boulder. Deacon Darrell Nepil serves at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Denver, and his son, Father John Nepil, served at several parishes within the archdiocese before his current assignment as a professor at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary.

However different their journeys may have been, all four have something in common; mainly, that far from seeing their vocations as a reward from God, they have received them as an uncommon gift of grace that has blessed their families and individual relationships with each other abundantly, knowing that God acts in different ways to help us all get to Heaven.

Interwoven journeys

Deacon Michael Magee was ordained in May 2009, at the end of Father Matt’s first year of seminary. Little did they know that God would use both of their callings to encourage each other along the journey.

Deacon Michael’s journey began when a man from his parish was ordained a deacon.

“I simply felt like God was calling me to do something more than I was doing at the present time,” he said. “I had been volunteering for a number of different things and was involved in some ministry activities and in the Knights of Columbus. And I thought the idea of being a deacon would be simply another activity for which I could volunteer.”

He didn’t know what it entailed at the time. In fact, he believed it was something a man could simply sign up for. To his surprise, the diaconate was more serious – and it required five years of formation and discernment. Yet he was so drawn to it, that he decided to do it anyway. But as he learned more about the nature of the diaconate during his formation, he became more nervous and unsure about whether God was really calling him to that vocation. 

While his doubts remained all the way up to his ordination, Deacon Michael was faithful to his studies, trusting that God would lead him in the right path. 

And God did — through the calling of his own son to the priesthood.

Deacon Michael didn’t realize that his son Matthew had paid close attention to his father’s faith journey and had found in it a light that gave him courage to discern the priesthood.

Father Matthew Magee (left) and his dad, Deacon Michael Magee (right), were both encouraging to one another as they each pursued their respective vocations. (Photo by Daniel Petty/Denver Catholic)

“Seeing my dad, as a father, growing in his relationship with the Lord was really influential for me on my own desire to follow Christ,” said Father Matt. “Looking at his courage to discern his own vocation and follow God’s plan in his life gave me the strength and courage to be open to the same thing in my life… He played a very important role, whether he knew it or not at the time, and whether I knew it or not at the time.”

On the other hand, Father Matt didn’t know that his dad was in turn encouraged by his own response to God’s calling. 

“As I went through all those doubts, I watched Matthew’s journey in seminary and listened to how he was dealing with that in his life. And, as he just articulated very well, I also saw those same qualities in him,” Deacon Michael said. “Seeing a young man in his 20s willing to consider following God for the rest of his life also gave me the courage to continue on in my own journey, to see it through.”

God’s way of uplifting them in their vocations through each other’s journey is something they are very grateful for. 

This unusual grace impacted Father Matt during his first Mass, when his dad, as deacon, approached him before the Gospel reading and asked for the traditional blessing by calling him “father.”

“It was a really special moment for me. He’s certainly my biological father and raised me. But then there’s something different when we’re at the altar in a clerical capacity — there’s a strange reversal of roles when we’re giving spiritual nourishment to the people — a father asks the new father for the blessing,” he said.

In both of their vocations, Deacon Michael and Father Matt see God’s Providence and the unique plan he has for all of us.

“We all have a vocation, even if it’s something we may not expect,” Deacon Michael concluded. “You may feel anxiety or worry about what it’s going to look like, but trust in God. He will take care of things as he always does.”

A bribe for Heaven

For Deacon Darell and Father John Nepil, the journey was different, but not any less providential.

While he grew up Catholic, Father John wasn’t interested in setting foot on any Church activity during his teenage years. His saving grace was perhaps what many parents have to do to get their teenagers to Church: bribe them.

“His mom and I basically bribed him to go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference,” Deacon Darell said with a laugh. “He didn’t want to go, but we’d heard so many good things about it, that we said, ‘We’re going to make this happen, whatever it takes.’”

So the Nepils came up with a creative idea.

“He owed me some money for a uniform that he had needed for a job in the summer. So, I said, ‘Listen, if you go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference, I’ll forgive your debt. And he did, he and his brother went. And John especially came back a different boy. He literally was converted with a lightning bolt at that retreat.”

To this day, Father John marks his conversion to Christ from the summer before his senior year in high school when he attended that conference. 

As it happens with stories worth telling, the details of how much money he owed his father have varied over the years, and it’s a matter of debate among them, but Father John remembers it was close to $500.

“That’s subject to each one,” Father John said laughingly. “But what matters is that they offered to forgive my debt if I went to this retreat – it was money well spent.”

Besides this important event, Father John said that his dad influenced him in many ways by the simple fact of who he was as a father.

“My dad’s faith and moral character were a rock for me during some difficult teenage years,” he said. “He’s a great example of a man who was always faithful and lived a really outstanding moral life, but then as he deepened in love with Christ, he decided to give of himself in a more profound service.”

Father John Nepil (left) and Deacon Darrell Nepil (right) both had rather roundabout ways to their respective vocations, but they both say serving God’s people together as brothers in Holy Orders is a great joy. (Photo provided)

Besides his desire to serve and follow God, the seed that would eventually lead Deacon Darell to the diaconate was planted by a coworker, who would also take holy orders: Deacon Joe Donohoe.

“One day he said to me, ‘You should be a deacon.’ And, of course, I laughed at him and said, ‘I don’t have time for that. My life is too busy.’ But it only took him to suggest it for the idea to keep coming back to my head, and God kept nudging me. Eventually I decided I really wanted to do that,” Deacon Darell said.

The ability to share at the altar during the Mass has deepened the natural relationship of father and son and given Deacon Darell and Father John new opportunities to grow closer to God. 

One of the most meaningful times came when Deacon Darell had a massive stroke in 2018. While he was in the hospital, Father John was able to visit and celebrate Mass at his bed and pray the rosary with him every day, as he had come back from Rome and was working on his dissertation.

“It was probably the most privileged and intimate time I’ve ever had with my father,” Father John said. “It was an amazing gift that really changed our relationship.”

“I feel like that’s a huge reason why I healed and why I am here today,” Deacon Darell added.

“It’s a real gift to have my dad as a deacon and a brother. It’s a tremendous honor. It’s one of the great joys of my life.” Father John concluded. “That’s really what has bonded our relationship together: the sheer desire to serve Jesus, especially in holy orders.”