Father Simon Udemgba has been pastor at St. Joseph's in Greenfield Center and St. Paul's Church in Rock City Falls since 2011. (Mike Matvey photo)
Father Simon Udemgba has been pastor at St. Joseph's in Greenfield Center and St. Paul's Church in Rock City Falls since 2011. (Mike Matvey photo)

The interview series returns with Father Simon Udemgba, who talks with Mike Matvey of The Evangelist about his upbringing in Nigeria and how we have to call people to be priests.

Father Simon Udemgba, 50, was born in Okigwe, Nigeria, came to the United States in 1997, made his way upstate for graduate studies and has been at St. Joseph’s in Greenfield Center and St. Paul’s Church in Rock City Falls since 2011. Father Udemgba, who is quick to laugh, is also an adjunct professor at The Sage Colleges, where he teaches Family Systems — theories and practices for psychiatric nurse practitioners. He celebrated his 24th anniversary to the priesthood — he was ordained on the same day with Father Nicholas Nwokoh, who passed away last year and whom he calls his twin brother in the priesthood — on Aug. 24. 

TE: How did you decide to become a priest?

FS: Usually in Nigeria, seminarians are sent out to parishes at the end of each school year. Parishes would get two, three or four depending on how many seminarians in all. And usually the parishes would send them to live in homes of parishioners. When seminarians were sent to my neck of the woods, they lived in my house. Part of my job was to show them around (and say) ‘This is a Catholic house, this is a Methodist house.’ So the seminarian that was sent that year (1980), was from a different diocese. He came and I was showing him homes of Catholics and non-Catholics, and he was going to the homes of only Catholics and I thought he wasn’t doing it right. And I start thinking to myself, ‘I will go and become a seminarian so I can do it right!’ I wanted to go to the seminary, to do it right, and go to the homes of everyone, not just only Catholics.

TE: Do you remember your ordination?

FS: Oh yeah! That was in my home parish. It is still very vivid and clear in my mind. Both of us were ordained, unfortunately, my twin brother in the priesthood (Father Nicholas) is now deceased; he passed away last year. When the two of us were ordained, we were the eighth and ninth priests of our mother parish. Now that parish has been divvied up to five parishes. Now the old parish has (ordained) 37 priests.

TE: Catholicism was a huge part of your life from the start?

FS: My grandfather was the first person baptized in my whole diocese. And when he was baptized, he chose the name Simon. And in my parish, there is this legendary song dedicated to him and each time there is any occasion — like when the bishop comes — they sing it. They have this special music composed in my grandfather’s honor. It was surreal singing it on my ordination day, with my name being Simon. Among all the sons of my grandfather, no one was named after him. Of all the grandchildren, no one was named after him. I am the only one named after him. As a kid, my grandmother was calling me her ‘husband.’ At my first Mass, the homilist commented strongly how Father Simon will not be married. Due to her age and ill-health, my grandmother could not make it to my first Mass. The whole family with the priest-homilist went with me to impart my ordination blessings to her. As we were about to begin the prayer, one of my cousin’s stated ‘Simon is already married to grandma and you said he is not going to get married.’ My whole family is as Catholic as can be.

TE: You have only been pastor in Greenfield Center and Rock City Falls. How has that experience been?

FS: I get that question all the time. I have been here at Greenfield Center since I started working in the Diocese in 2011. This is a great community and I love being part of it. People always wonder how I ended up here. I remember there was this wedding of the daughter of a parishioner; sometimes they will invite me for the reception. At the reception, this couple from out of town came up to me and they said, ‘Father, how did you end up here? This is a rural, white area and you are the only black person in this whole area.’ I am at home here and I don’t even see color, as surprising as that may seem. Obviously, prior to being here, I was at Pocantico Hills in Sleepy Hollow. (Father Udemgba served at the Church of the Magdalene in Westchester County when he first came to the U.S.). I was the only black man in the whole town! I feel at home here. I think it is a testament to the seminary training in Nigeria. They train us to be at home wherever you are. I took it to heart. I became a seminarian because I wanted to visit everyone, I see everyone as a kindred. Ask my parishioners, I have a mother (who is now married, so I have a father too). I have cousins, brothers and sisters. Ask my parishioners and they will tell you. For me there should be no distinction. I feel at home anywhere.

TE: Talk about the people of your parish.

 FS: (The people) have been very, very welcoming. I have felt at home here from the first time I came down here to say a Mass in May of 2011. When I became part of the Diocese, they sent me first to say Mass at Holy Cross Parish in Morris and I remember after the Mass that weekend, the parishioners came together, two adults and young children, and they asked me if I could become their pastor, and I was like ‘Oh, my God.’ I told them I have commitments; I was then working on my license. I told them I might not be readily available. And that touched me so much. So the following week I was sent to Greenfield Center, and I remember Deacon Gary Picher, who was the parish life director here, called me and he said, ‘You will be the 42nd priest.’ He wanted to make sure if I needed a place to stay for the night. Ok, that intrigued me. When I came it was so welcoming, I felt so at home. That weekend I emailed the priest-personnel then and (told) him ‘I think I love this parish here, I want to stay permanent here.’ He goes, ‘OK, why not speak with Deacon Gary and you two work it out.’ And here I am!

Each of the weekends that I would come over for Mass, they would have a family cook food for me; some will bring it to the rectory, some will have me at their home and some will take me out to a restaurant. I joke that my family has been feeding seminarians and priests all my life, it’s about time I get pay back! (Father Udemgba says with a hearty laugh) And they have been very wonderful, some even go out of their way to make Nigerian food for me. They call it, ‘Father Simon’s mystery meal.’ Most often, a family who has me for the weekend will call to know what I will like. I usually will say “my stomach is Catholic and universal. I will eat anything.”

TE: Do you have a favorite passage, parable that you like to lean on?

FS: I say, ‘Jesus I love you. Jesus, I trust you.’ I say that all the time. That is a prayer that calms me. ‘Jesus I love you. Jesus, I trust you.’ When it becomes difficult, I say, ‘God make me an instrument of your love and peace.’

TE: What would you tell someone who was thinking about becoming a priest?

FS: I tell them it is all right. We are not miserable people. One of the things that I have done since I came here, each time I see a family with two, three or four boys, I will ask if any of them have thought about being a priest. I remember the first year I started, I came here in 2011, whenever I say that, they would be like ‘What is he talking about?’ Now they have become so at home with it, families say they know who it will be. And I am hoping by the time that I am dead, we will have a lot of priests from this parish. I believe Jesus Christ called the apostles. They were all gainfully employed, doing something. He went and told them, ‘Come and follow me.’ He wasn’t waiting for them to come. He went and called them. To be a priest, there has to be a sacrifice. … We have to call them. I remember when I … took the regional exams (in the minor seminary to graduate high school) … I was among the best results. And the rector said, ‘I know your dad wouldn’t want you to be a priest.’ I am like, ‘It’s not his decision to make.’ And I told him I think God should get the best of us. Why not? It’s not just enough to go to Wall Street and make money. People can sacrifice their lives to God but we have to call them.