PICKENS—For parishioners at Holy Cross Church, Father Emmanuel Efiong is more than a priest, he’s a member of the family.
To show how much he means to them, one couple gave him an extraordinary gift to help honor his 25th jubilee —a pilgrimage to Rome.
Father Emmanuel, as he is called, said he was blown away by the gesture and by the love and respect it represented, adding that the feelings are mutual.
After Father Emmanuel scheduled his trip, he received a second gift: The dates of the canonization were released and it turned out the priest was going to be in Rome the same week that Blesseds John XXIII and John Paul II were elevated to sainthood. It was as if God had smiled on the pilgrimage and given it His blessing.
Father Emmanuel said the entire trip was uplifting and remarked especially on how beautiful it was to celebrate Mass at every historical site he visited.
One thing he carried away with him from the canonizations was a sense of validation in his own ministry.
“These guys were only human beings like me,” he said. “We must learn from their life and always strive to lead a holy life and do our best.”
Parishioners at Holy Cross believe Father Emmanuel takes that philosophy to heart and lives it each day, with many saying he is exactly what a priest should be.
“There’s nobody better. He’s so filled with the Holy Spirit, it’s just amazing,” Judy Masterson said.
Masterson said their administrator is an inspiration who has brought people back into active participation in the church and drawn the whole community closer.
Many credit his appeal to his aura of joy and humility.
In conversation, the Nigerian priest is full of great exuberance, talking passionately about many topics, but always with joy close at hand, so that even in serious issues he can find laughter.
He said the priesthood is not a profession that people choose, but a noble vocation that God chooses for you.
“I do not merit this office,” Father Emmanuel said. “I am a priest today because God chooses me. I must always be cheerful to share this ministry God has given me in a way that is just and honest.”
Born in Nigeria, he was the third of eight children raised in a deeply Catholic family. As a youth, he spent a lot of time in church as an altar server and loved working with the priests. He also was an avid soccer player and sprinter, and is a huge fan of Manchester United. He attended high school seminary, and said he felt called to the priesthood even then — but it was not a vocation he accepted easily.
“I liken my call to the call of Jonah,” he said with a laugh, noting that he ran away from it many times. It was not until the day of his ordination that he finally surrendered himself and said yes.
Left to his own devices, Father Emmanuel said he would have pursued becoming a medical doctor and serving in third-world countries.
He does what he can for his home country, sending money to family and to help build a church, Masterson said, adding that he often talks about life there and how dangerous it is.
Angie Villano, another parishioner, worries about him when he goes home. She said he flew to Nigeria on May 11 to celebrate the Mass of Christian Burial for a friend. He will return to Pickens in time to commemorate his 25th jubilee on May 31 with a Mass and reception.
Villano said she wishes they could keep Father Emmanuel here forever, but knows there may be a time his bishop recalls him.
“Since he came here, he’s been a huge part of our family,” she said. “He’s one of a kind; a breath of fresh air. We’ve thoroughly enjoyed having him and do not look forward to the day he has to leave.”
Father Emmanuel admits he is pulled by the need in Nigeria and would like to return one day.
At the same time, he calls Holy Cross home sweet home. “I am very happy here. I am so accepted and loved,” he said.
In the end he laughs, perhaps in relief, that the decision is not his to make: “It is all up to God.”
Read more about Catholics like you by subscribing to The Catholic Miscellany