Nicholaus Kiwango Marenga began his studies for the priesthood at Mount Angel Seminary in late August, 2011. Last summer he had been accepted by the Archdiocese of Portland as a candidate for the priesthood and became one of our more than 50 seminarians.  He had a good year at Mount Angel and the rector of the seminary, after consulting with the faculty, recommended that Nicholaus return to the seminary to continue his preparation for ordination.

But on Tuesday, July 10, Nicholaus drowned while swimming in John Day. A nurse at the site tried to restore his heartbeat, but on his way to the hospital, he died. Nicholaus was one of our growing number of international seminarians.  He was born in Moshi, Kilimanjaro, Tanzania.  His father had died when he was an infant.  His mother, Emmanuela, is still alive and grieving the loss of her son.  Nicholaus was the youngest of eight siblings, a wonderful young man with a dream to serve as a priest here in the United States.  He found his way to the Archdiocese of Portland and the rest is history.

We shall miss Nicholaus very much and many of us still mourn his death.  In a homily at the funeral Mass for Nicholaus at St. Mary’s Cathedral on July 20, Father John Henderson, the homilist and our vocation director, urged us to set aside our questions about why this should ever happen to such a fine young man and to place our trust in the good Lord, who so often brings blessings to us even under some of life’s most difficult and troublesome events.  We look at the crucifixion of Jesus and recall how that personal sacrifice has saved the world.
Before coming to Mount Angel, Nicholaus had lived in a Franciscan community for 10 months and so it was not so difficult to adjust to living in a community like the seminary.  He did miss his family but he adjusted quickly to his new surroundings.  Skype helped him stay in touch with the folks back home.  His teachers and formation director found him to be a very cooperative student.  His formation director stated that Nicholaus “recognized his need to be formed and wanted to receive formation out of faith.”  He got along with everyone.

Nicholaus spent much of his first semester studying English to improve his mastery of the language and to make his pronunciation of the language more intelligible to the critical American ear.  Some members of the faculty found him rather introverted and encouraged him to be more outgoing in dealing with faculty and superiors.  I smiled a bit when I read the latter recommendation because I can’t imagine myself approaching the faculty members my first year at any school, particularly in a brand new country, ready and eager to make small talk and go out for pizza and beer!

The funeral gave me an opportunity to acknowledge the significant contribution men like Nicholaus now serving in the archdiocese have made to our local church.  We have a growing corps of international priests, most of them members of religious communities or incardinated in other dioceses. But some of these men have been coming to prepare for priesthood in the United States and to become members of the diocesan presbyterate right here in western Oregon. In 2011 I ordained two such men to the priesthood. This year I ordained five. And more are on the way.  Some of the clergy and laity question the advisability of welcoming candidates from other nations to serve permanently here in the United States.  Yes, there can be some drawbacks. But my experience is that the men who come have deep faith, generous hearts, great devotion to Our Lady and the saints, unquestioned zeal and a great love for God’s people.  Sometimes they come here because the seminaries are full in their homeland or a priest or friend in their native country encourages them to be “missionaries” to secular America, just as Christian America decades ago provided countless missionaries to other lands.

Shortly before the death of Nicholaus, I celebrated Mass at Maryville Nursing Home in Beaverton on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the priestly ordination of Father Brendan Fleming.  Father Fleming was never an international seminarian for the Archdiocese of Portland because he studied in Ireland and was ordained there.  But he was ordained for Portland and arrived here in September of 1942 to begin his ministry.  My reason for mentioning him is that international priests are no new phenomenon here in the United States nor in the Catholic Church of western Oregon. In fact, in 2010 there were 6,453 international priests serving here in the United States.  They were approximately one-sixth of the nearly 40,000 priests serving in our nation.  Reportedly 300 international priests arrive in the USA every year.

It seems that international priests have always been significant in the life of the church here in the USA.  It was only from 1940 to 1960 that our church produced enough native-born priests to serve its parishes.  In days gone by most of the international priests came from Europe, but Europe has become much more secular than our own country.  Ireland provided most of the priests back then, which was quite acceptable to most American Catholics because, even with their delightful brogue, Irish priests could be easily understood and had a gracious and charming way of dealing with the people. It is true that not all of the immigrant priests have been successful in their ministry, nor were all the native-born priests. Nowadays the recruitment and screening of candidates is thorough and effective. Seminaries like Mount Angel are well-equipped to help these men prepare for life and ministry here in the United States.
Nicholaus Marenga is no longer with us.  He died at age 26 and his last assignment was at St. Helen’s Church in Junction City where he was spending the summer as a pastoral intern. When I celebrated Mass in Eugene at the Carmel of Maria Regina after his death, both the sisters and worshipers from Junction City told me how impressed they were with young Nicholaus, his good nature, his gentle ways, his love of God and the church.  In his death we have felt a spirit of unity and universality in our church, and we begin to see how, indeed, in the providence of our loving God, “all is grace.”  

Please pray for Nicholaus, his brother seminarians and his dear family back in Tanzania. We came to love him.  We always will.  May he rest in peace.