Friday, June 21, 2024

The Called: Father Bernard Wamayose, AJ

Father Bernard Wamayose, AJ

Father Bernard Wamayose, AJ
Hometown: Eastern Uganda, Africa
Education: Seminary for the Apostles of Jesus in Moroto, Uganda
Current Assignment: Pastor of Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament Parish in Harrisburg
Where did you grow up, and what was your childhood like?
I grew up in eastern Uganda. Eastern Uganda borders Kenya. We are divided by a mountain called Mount Elgon. Half of the mountain is in Uganda, and the other half of it is in Kenya.
The Lord blessed my father with 90 years now. My mother passed on in 2011, she had a double stroke. For my family, we have been strong Catholics. My mom was a strong Anglican, but then she converted to Catholicism in 1993, when Pope John Paul II visited Uganda. She was seated in the front, and she happened to be one of those who greeted the pope. She did a good job raising us as Catholics. When she became a Catholic, she loved the Eucharist and she prayed the Rosary and all of the prayers.
In my family, there are eight. Three boys, including myself, and five girls. God called one home. She passed on. She was working in Mombasa, Kenya. She died in her sleep very peacefully. I am the second-to-last born.
When we grew up, my dad used to work in another city in Uganda near the River Nile, the longest river in Africa. He was working for a railway, called the East Africa Railway Company, which was built by Indians in the 18th century during the slave trade. When I was about six, he took me to stay with him while my mom and the others stayed back at home, taking care of the land, the animals and other things of the family. With my dad, I learned a lot of languages. In Uganda, there are 42 tribes, and each tribe speaks almost their own language. It’s like going to Lancaster and having a different language; York, another language; Harrisburg, another language.
Then my brother joined me. We had President Idi Amin Dada. He was a dictator who killed a lot of Ugandans. He was a Muslim. That’s when he started to say, “Friday is a public holiday. People go to the mosque. On Sundays, you may go to work, you may go to church.” The fighting came and he was killing a lot of people. My dad was among the people protesting in the company about their salaries, pensions. By then, Dada wanted to get rid of them. That was because we had the Kenyans, we had Tanzanians and we had Ugandans. Later, we had more. Burundi came. Sudan and Congo soon joined.
One of the generals was a friend of my dad. He said, “You better find a way to escape out of the country, because there is a move to erase most of you.” My dad asked to take refuge in Kenya with his friend. The president never wanted any opposition. He never wanted anyone to oppose him or push against him.
When my dad went to Kenya from the railway, my brother and I had to go back home. We went back home and stayed with mom a little bit, and then dad called mom to join him in Kenya. For us, we stayed for many years with our grandfather and grandmother. My grandfather was a chief, and chiefs in those days were very powerful people. They had authority, they had power, they had everything. My dad came back about five years later, when the president was overthrown.
When my dad came back, which is about 1983, I was used to the city life and schools. In Uganda, they have Primary 1 through Primary 7. After Primary 7, you go to high school. For us, we were still under the British system of education, because we were colonized by the British.
I used to go to Mass at my parish, which was about two-and-a-half miles away. Of course, you go on foot, you walk. Our pastor was Polish, and we were evangelized by the Mill Hill Missionaries. Our eastern region of the country was evangelized by the Mill Hills. There is another part of Uganda evangelized by the Comboni Missionaries from Italy. The missionaries learned our language. They learned the common language that was understood by everyone.
When did you start thinking about becoming a priest?
It was in grade five, when I started to be an altar server. The reason I became an altar server was because when I would go to Mass, I saw the altar servers dressed in white with two coats. When they came in for Mass and rang the bells during the Consecration, I thought, “This would be good. I should do that.”
The altar servers could also move, when the priests went to other stations for Masses. The parishes were too big, so they had to go to what were called stations. The catechists would take care of the stations. They would put the altar servers in one car with their linens to help serve at the stations.
Father Nicholas, my pastor, was so kind. I said, “Father, I want to join the seminary.” He said, “Ok, I will talk to your parents.” I said, “I talked to my grandfather and he told me he’d love for one of us to be in the seminary.” Then he asked me what type of seminary I wanted to join. He said, “Do you want to join the Diocesan seminary to serve our Diocese, or do you want to become a missionary?” I asked, “What is a missionary?” He told me about the Apostles of Jesus, who wear white robes with the yellow sash and yellow ribbon. I said, “This is beautiful!” He said, “The Apostles of Jesus were founded by the Comboni Missionaries in Uganda. I am a Mill Hill Missionary.”
I decided I wanted to be an Apostle of Jesus, and they sent me an application. I applied, and was admitted to go to the Apostles of Jesus in Moroto, Uganda. Moroto is a very dry place. They keep a lot of cows, camels, sheep, and that’s their main food.
When did you begin seminary, and what were your studies like?
I started in seminary in 1987. I was 14 years old. My high school years were at the seminary. We studied classes just like we would have in high school. My high school education was the same as the rest of the country, but there was discipline, prayers and work in the seminary.
Most of the teachers were Comboni Missionaries from Italy. We had some Jesuits and Passionists who were also teaching philosophy. We had a novitiate on the other side. The minor seminary was in the center of campus, with philosophy on one side, the novitiate on the other side, and the Fathers’ quarters – we called it the Vatican – for the Italian priests, where they lived.
I studied there for seminary for four years. After exams, I had to go back for another two years, because in Uganda, you have to go to high school two years. The priests there were so good. They were very kind, encouraging us. The one who encouraged me most was my pastor. He loved children, and when he celebrated Mass, he really could sing. I was so much impressed by his way of life and how he encouraged us when we went back home. He would have people come and give us a small party before we went back to school.
After my senior year in high school, I had to apply for philosophy. It was in Nairobi, Kenya. I thought, “How am I going to go to Nairobi? I don’t know anyone.” I was there for three years, and I met people from Tanzania, Kenya, another part of Uganda, Sudan, Congo. After philosophy, you have to apply for the novitiate for two years. There was a novitiate in Moroto, where I had been for six years. Then there was a novitiate in Tanzania and one in Kenya, which were both good areas.
Father Alex was in charge. When I was in seminary, he was in the novitiate, and he knew me ever since I was a small boy, so he became my formator. He put all three seminaries on a piece of paper and said, “Whichever one I pick, that’s where you’ll go.” Fortunately, he picked Moroto.
When and where were you ordained, and where did you serve?
I was ordained in Nairobi. All of us were ordained together by Bishop Irile, the Auxiliary Bishop of Nairobi. My first assignment was in Tanzania. It was my first time there, and I was to go to teach in the minor seminary. I taught history and geography. In Tanzania, they speak Swahili, but you have to emphasize to them that they can’t speak in Swahili, they must speak English. If you got caught speaking Swahili, you’d be punished. I was there for a year and a half.
At the same time, I was sent to teach at St. Maria Goretti, a high school for girls. Then, they wanted someone to go back to the novitiate to help the novice director. So I went there to join Father Andreas, and I became his assistant. They had cows, pigs and goats, and I had to also make sure there was food and water within the house. Father Andreas was in his 70s, so he wanted someone young to run around and support him in a lot of things.
I helped at the novitiate for the nuns, which was one-and-a-half miles away. I was their director, and gave support there for four years. I was supposed to go to Italy to do my master’s in Rome. I knew a little Italian, and I was supposed to study Italian in Nairobi. Everything was in place, and then my Superior General called: “Father Bernard, you are not going to Italy for studies. Instead, you are going to the USA.” That was the highest point of obedience I could ever have, because I wanted to go to Italy.
When did you come to the United States, and where have you served?
I came in 2007. I first went to St. John the Baptist in New Freedom. When I was first working on my papers, I was working with now-Bishop Waltersheid. He was communicating with me from the Diocese about coming here and how to get the visa.
When I packed my bags, I didn’t know what would be here, or what the weather would be like. I was told, “As a missionary, you have to pack light. Carry the essentials.” I arrived at Kennedy Airport in New York, went to Allentown to do paperwork, and then I went to St. John the Baptist. Father Capitani and Father Nugent were there. It was a very nice welcome and the parishioners welcomed me. I stayed for two weeks with one of the families. The people were nice and they were very happy. I tried to get used to American culture. The parishioners were so kind. They gave me a lot of warm clothing, invited me to dinner, took me to places I wanted to go. One of the ex-police officers taught me how to drive, because in Uganda, we drive on the left. I was at St. John the Baptist for five and a half years.
Then I went to Bucknell University in Lewisburg, and I assisted as parochial vicar to Father William Richardson at Sacred Heart. I was independent as the university chaplain, and I had my own house. Father was very nice. He had two churches and four Masses, and he’d give me one. I would do Sacred Heart one week, and the next week go to St. George. The parishioners would come to the Newman House to cook. Deacon Owen showed me around, and he became a good friend. I was there for four and a half years, then I was told to come here to Our Lady’s.
How do you take your experiences from Uganda and apply it to being a pastor at Our Lady’s?
As a pastor, there are good things and there are challenges. Being a pastor here is something, for me, that is very good. At home, it is not so much organized; the pastor is doing this, and this and that. Here, there is a system. When it comes to finance, your work is to get the figures and look at them. At home, not so much. All of the things there are for the pastor to do and decide. Here, it is very organized and I love it.
When I came, the biggest challenge was the Parish Council was not working. The parishioners said they didn’t have a Parish Council for two or three years. The Finance Council was still moving forward. So when I came, I said we needed a Parish Council, because we are two communities; we have Vietnamese, and we want them to be involved. When I invited them to join, the people came. We actually had too many people, so we had to limit the numbers. We now have a Parish Council that is very active.
We also do fund-raising. We needed to do fund-raising. We had a church roof that was leaking, and every time it rained, the water flowed. I was very sympathetic with the young ladies who, every Sunday, came in and cleaned it up. We took care of that project. We talked to parishioners, and the people gave very generously. We still have a few spots of leaking here and there, but the worst hole was filled. Then another project was the sound system. People were saying, “Father, we are not hearing you.” We called someone who came over and said, “The church has an echo, the sound is bouncing.” Then we put in a new system, and now people can hear. Our Lady’s is an old church, built in 1927. We have to take care of it.
What do you enjoy most about being a priest?
My favorite part of the priesthood is the Eucharist, because without the Eucharist I cannot be a priest. I also like to listen to Confessions and visit the sick. Of course, all the sacraments, I love them. Most of the time when someone calls because they are sick, or someone wants Confession, don’t I say, “It can wait.” Because you never know. I will rush to be with that person.
What do you do in your free time?
On my day off, which is usually Wednesday, we have ladies who clean the house. On Wednesday after a good rest, I do laundry, then I will sit and read. I read the Bible or watch short movies. I also do some exercise, or go out and listen to the birds. Sometimes I’ll go to the church to have quiet time there in Adoration. I also do some cooking. I cook twice a week. I like Italian food and Irish food.
Do you gather with your fellow Apostles of Jesus serving here in the Diocese?
We now have five Apostles of Jesus here in the Diocese. We always gather together once every two months, because we have to have community life. We prayer together, we discuss issues, and we share. Sometimes, we join the activities of the Diocese, which is very lively.
What is it like for you as priest these days during the pandemic?
It is very challenging for us, because we are used to having people around us. Now, we don’t see them. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t celebrate the Mass. I celebrate Mass every day. For Masses on Sunday, because we have wifi, we can put it on the website and Facebook. I always write my homilies to be put in the bulletin so people can read the message. Some people, I write to. Some, I give a call. Some call me. I encourage them and tell them that even though we are separated physically, we are united in the spirit and in faith. We are together. I am always in connection with them. I encourage them and pray with them, and I find that the people are generous. They send in their envelopes or donate online. Financially, we are not shaky.
It is a hard time. You don’t see your parishioners, they don’t see you. We are a family, and we are separated.
Is there anything else you would like to say about your priesthood?
My studies have enabled me to read a lot of things, reflect on a lot of things. It gives me a sense of how we need God in our lives so much. Without God, we are useless. One young lady came to me, who graduated from Bucknell. She’s now going to Johns Hopkins. She said, “Father, I have been sustained by Communion. When they told us we could not go to church, I almost died.” She said, “I told my pastor that I reflected on my faith, and our faith is shaken.” She said, “During hard times, people sometimes forget about their faith. They’re caught up in their fears, trials, anxieties and worries, and they forget that God can take care of that. We should remain strong. God is here, and God cares.”
(Interview conducted by Chris Heisey, The Catholic Witness)

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