Greg and Bridget Agwu, whose Catholic roots run deep to their native country of Nigeria, immigrated to the United States to better their education. And when their four sons were born in Denver they knew giving them a Catholic education would be their first priority as a family.
They scrimped and saved, seldom ate in restaurants, worked bingo and volunteered at each school when their boys attended Loyola School until it closed in 2009, then Blessed Sacrament and finally Regis Jesuit High School.
The two oldest sons, Nnaoma, 20, and Uche, 18, graduated from Regis Jesuit and Chibueze, 16, and Chidera, 15 resume classes there in the fall. Nnaoma attends Santa Clara University where Uche begins classes in September.
But none of the boys would have been able to attend Catholic schools without tuition assistance from Seeds of Hope, the family says.
“Without Seeds of Hope our sons wouldn’t have been able to get a Catholic education and the moral standards that mean so much to us,” said Greg Agwu. “We did everything we could but without the help, our children would have had to go to public schools.”
Seeds of Hope Charitable Trust began in 1993. The nonprofit provides tuition assistance to working poor families attending 11 Catholic primary schools in the Archdiocese of Denver. Many families face a financial challenge because annual tuition for kindergarten through eighth-grade is about $4,500 per student.
The families all pay what they can and volunteer at the schools for such things as cafeteria clean-up and fundraising events.
“We work closely with each family on how much they can pay and no one gets full coverage,” said Natalie Mesko, executive director. “The parents have ownership and because of that they work closely with their children on their academic progress.”
The commitment from the families includes traveling long distances to get their children to the schools, Mesko said. One school has students from 27 different zip codes, she said.
“A student’s zip code should not define their ability to receive a Catholic education,” Mesko said. “Once they get into a school they find it is a community that cares and they get to know the faculty. We do whatever we can to keep the child in the school.”
Since 1993, the organization has helped more than 14,000 students and raised more than $24 million. The business community has helped through three annual events but the majority of donations come from individuals, Mesko said. She welcomes any future corporate sponsorships and aid from the city’s professional athletes.
“It is wonderful the generosity of Catholics in the pew and non-Catholics who see the value of a Catholic education especially for inner-city kids,” Mesko said. “The beauty of our donors is that they just believe in the mission of a Catholic education. They are not donating to get their name on a building or for front row seats at a concert. They are so humble and want nothing in return.”
The Agwu couple has had ownership in their sons’ education from day one. They were married at Loyola Parish and their sons received the sacraments of baptism, holy Communion and confirmation at the parish. When the school closed, they transferred to Blessed Sacrament where Greg was hired as a math tutor after he was laid off at Denver Health Medical Center, where Bridget works as a nurse.
“As I get older, I see how past things have led to where we are today,” Uche said. “If we didn’t have Seeds of Hope we wouldn’t have been able to attend Loyola or Blessed Sacrament and that helped us to get to Regis. We would not have met all the people who have impacted our lives.”
Seeds of Hope does not provide financial assistance for high school students but the Agwu sons have been able to get scholarships. This summer, Uche had an internship with Kiewit Construction Company through the help of a Regis Jesuit counselor. He learned more about mechanical engineering, which may become his major at Santa Clara.
“Regis was such a great experience not just academically but they prepare us as people to want more spiritually and mentally,” Uche said.
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.
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.
“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.”
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.”