A sister in Tanzania

Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church aids African sister parish

The ministry of Immaculate Heart of Mary parish in Northglenn extends far to the other side of the globe; namely, a small village in Tanzania called Nyantakubwa, where their sister parish, Christ the King, resides.

Father Spahn became connected with Christ the King a number of years ago through a priest assigned to Denver to represent the Diocese of Geita, Father Matthew Bulala. Father Bulala called Father Spahn one day to arrange for a priest from Tanzania to come and appeal to his parish to raise money for the Diocese of Geita, which was the perfect opportunity for Father Spahn to fulfill a longtime dream of his: have a sister parish in Africa. Father Bulala passed along the request to Bishop Flavian Kassala of the Diocese of Geita, and thus began the fruitful relationship between Immaculate Heart of Mary and Christ the King.

This relationship also eventually led to the assignment of Father John Ludanha as parochial vicar to St. John the Evangelist parish in Loveland. Father Spahn was actually present at Father Ludanha’s priestly ordination in Tanzania the first time he went over there, and as a result, had a hand in getting Father Ludanha his first assignment as a priest in Denver when it was time for Father Bulala to return to his home diocese.

africa canonT3i 041

Father James Spahn, pastor of Immaculate Heart of Mary, stands with children from the African village of Nyantakubwa in Tanzania. Immaculate Heart of Mary has a sister parish in Nyantakubwa called Christ the King that they maintain a close relationship with, one that has blossomed and been cultivated over the past several years. (Photo provided)

Father Ludanha is now a man of two worlds, being born and raised in Nyantakubwa and having lived in America for the past seven years, and he can attest first-hand what it means to the people of Nyantakubwa for Americans to come visit and help them.

“[The people] know America from the media, how great it is, how wonderful it is, how everything is available, and for someone to take interest to go down there and live with them, just to share that experience, it’s like the incarnation in some ways,” Father Ludanha said.

Every dollar helps

“We both help each other,” Father Spahn said. “The sister parish over there prays for [Immaculate Heart of Mary] and the Archdiocese of Denver all the time, and we pray for them. We’re brothers and sisters in the Lord. We [also] help them with something that they really need our help with, and that’s finances. There are things they really couldn’t do without us, and our dollar goes so far down there. A dollar there makes a big difference.”

Christ the King’s parish territory includes 29 outstations where the villagers live and a girls’ school located next to the parish. Due to the harsh terrain and distance between the outstations, the girls live at the school. Immaculate Heart of Mary helped to fund the construction of the girls’ school, which Father Spahn is very proud of.

“Women are very subservient to men in African society and culture, so to empower them through education is really a wonderful thing,” he said.

IMG_2962

Father Spahn stands with some of the students of the girls’ school, which is attached to Christ the King parish. Immaculate Heart of Mary raised funds to build the school, which Father Spahn is very proud of. “To empower [women] through education is a really wonderful thing,” he said. (Photo provided)

Father Spahn has taken staff and parishioners from Immaculate Heart of Mary down to visit Christ the King each year for the past three years. The purpose of their trips is three-fold: to check on the status of various projects that funds raised by Immaculate Heart of Mary are going toward, to visit with Christ the King pastor Father George Nkombolwa as well as the parishioners and girls at the school, and lastly, to assess any future needs.

Future projects include building an administrative building for the teachers of the girls’ school that will double as a library, and also building a pump house by Lake Victoria to pump water to the school, parish and village.

Harsh terrain
Nyantakubwa is located just south of Lake Victoria, which serves as the villages' main water supply. (WIkicommons)

Nyantakubwa is located on the south shore of Lake Victoria. During the rainy seasons, thick mud coupled with harsh terrains make the roads and paths between Christ the King parish and the outstations nearly impassable. (Maps courtesy of Sadalmelik and Wikicommons)

More recently, funds raised by Immaculate Heart of Mary went to building new dormitories and classrooms for the girls’ school, as well as getting Father Nkombolwa a new pickup truck, which is an absolute necessity for him to have while traveling about the harsh terrains of Africa.

“It’s so important that he has a pickup truck because the roads are very bad during the rainy season,” Father Spahn said. “To get around, you need that four-wheel drive.”

Part of what Father Nkombolwa does as pastor of Christ the King is travel around to the different outstations to say Mass for the people and hear confessions. Part of the Mass is, of course, the offertory, and Father Ludanha noted that the offertory over there is much different than at a typical Mass here in the U.S.

IMG_2927

Father Spahn and Father Nkombolwa celebrate Mass for the parishioners of Christ the King. (Photo provided)

“When [Father Nkombolwa] goes to the different outstations, people give what they have,” he said. In addition to rice and beans, Father Ludanha said,“Some will give chickens and some will give goats, so it’s good to have a pickup that you can put things in.”

Father Spahn continued, “He puts all of that in the back of his pickup, brings it back to parish, and he has a little storehouse where he puts all of this. That’s what he lives off of, and he feeds the girls at the school with the supplies that come from the people at the outstations.”

Sunday’s best

Though the people of Nyantakubwa don’t have much, Father Spahn said they exhibit, in many ways, a happiness and joy that is infectious.

“It is really infectious when you’re around people who have a love for the Lord that just radiates from them,” he said. “It’s attractive, it’s like a moth to a flame, and you want to be around that.”

Father Spahn explained that Masses are huge events for the people that last as long as seven hours and end up being an entire day’s celebration. He said that the enthusiasm and fervor for the faith can be seen in the way the people dress when they come to Mass.

africa canonT3i 174

Sunday Mass is a huge event for the people of Nyantakubwa, Father Spahn explained, sometimes lasting for up to seven hours. The people come dressed in the best clothing they own, and they have a fervor and enthusiasm for the faith that is “infectious,” Father Spahn said. (Photo provided)

“The people, when they come to Mass, show up in the best clothing they own,” Father Spahn said. “Why? Because they’re coming to Mass. What could be more important? They’re giving God their best. It speaks volumes about what’s in [their] minds and hearts.”

To learn more about Christ the King and the work that Father James and Immaculate Heart of Mary are doing in Tanzania, there will be a presentation and Q&A session on September 14th at 6:30 p.m. in the parish hall.

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

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

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.”