FOLLY BEACH — Father Michael Okere, administrator of Holy Trinity parish in Orangeburg, described it best when he said, “This celebration for Father Sylvanus is a celebration of vocations, of the gift of life, and of the continuation of the church.”
Father Sylvanus Udoidem was a philosophy professor on sabbatical leave from the University of Port Harcourt in Rivers State, Nigeria, in 1995 when he became the first priest from Africa to serve in the Diocese of Charleston.
A second sabbatical leave nearly ten years later returned Father Udoidem to Charleston. He was appointed chaplain for Catholic students at The Citadel and College of Charleston, and administrator at Sacred Heart Church and the Church of Christ the Divine Teacher until August 2007.
Now, as administrator of Our Lady of Good Counsel, Father Udoidem marked both the 30th anniversary of his ordination and his 56th birthday by celebrating Mass on Dec. 9. Concelebrating was his fellow Nigerian and former student Father Francis Obong, currently assigned to St. Patrick Church in Charleston.
During his homily, Father Udoidem spoke about the profound mystery of the priesthood. He recalled traveling to his hometown just after he was ordained. While hearing confessions, he looked up and saw that the next penitent was his own father. It was a moment of deep understanding of what it meant to be a priest, and the mystery of how God works through the sacraments of the church, he said.
Father Udoidem recognized the contributions of those who helped him become a priest, saying his presence at the celebration was “the fruit of the work of Irish missionaries.”
He also noted the presence of Sister Antonia Essien, provincial superior of the religious community Handmaids of the Holy Child Jesus. The sisters from that community were in charge of Assumption Girls Juniorate, a middle school in Uyo, which was Father Udoidem’s first assignment after ordination. He served as a tutor and principal of the school.
Following the Mass at Folly Beach, about 150 people attended a reception hosted by the parishioners of Our Lady of Good Counsel. Guests included Nigerian Fathers Obong and Okere; Sister Antonia; Deacon Joseph Cahill, director of the Office of Vocations; Joan Latore, secretary from Sacred Heart Church; and Citadel alumni.
Members of the parish pastoral council, women’s guild, men’s club, and choir presented gifts to Father Udoidem. Parishioner Claire Martin recited a poem written for the occasion by Nancy Biddlecom.
Several people spoke about the impact that Father Udoidem has had on the diocese, which now has eight Nigerian priests.
“Our country is blessed to know Nigeria through Father Sylvanus,” Deacon Cahill said.
Father Obong was a student at the Immaculate Conception Seminary in Mfamosing when the seeds of priestly vocation were sewn by Father Udoidem.
“I am here because of Father Sylvanus,” he said.
Father Udoidem was affected by the heartfelt support.
“I have heard, but I don’t believe,” he said. “I know my limitations and weaknesses, but the church has not abandoned me.”
He thanked everyone for their encouragement and asked for continued prayers for vocations.
At the end of April, Father Udoidem will return to the University of Port Harcourt where he is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Catholic chaplain to over 6,000 students.
Submitted by Liz McCafferty.