Ugandan bishop’s summer visits foster relationships, bring support of local Catholics

  • Written by Morningstar Stevenson
  • Published in Local
Bishop Sabino Ocan Odoki of the Diocese of Arua, Uganda, speaks to refugees at Bidi Bidi Camp in October 2016. Bishop Odoki has been visiting Western Washington parishes since 1992 to ask for help in supporting the needs of his diocese, including the 300,000 South Sudanese refugees now living at the refugee camp, said to be one of the world’s largest. Photo: courtesy Nancy Wojack Bishop Sabino Ocan Odoki of the Diocese of Arua, Uganda, speaks to refugees at Bidi Bidi Camp in October 2016. Bishop Odoki has been visiting Western Washington parishes since 1992 to ask for help in supporting the needs of his diocese, including the 300,000 South Sudanese refugees now living at the refugee camp, said to be one of the world’s largest. Photo: courtesy Nancy Wojack

POULSBO – In 1992, Thom and Joni Bayler volunteered to fix dinner for a new missionary priest from Uganda who was visiting their parish, St. Olaf in Poulsbo. They had no idea that more than 25 years later, the priest — now Bishop Sabino Ocan Odoki — would still be coming for dinner.

“We feel very gifted to have him come into our lives,” Joni Bayler said. “I’m not sure if we adopted him or he adopted us.”

Bishop Odoki
Larry Devlin, a member of Knights of Columbus Council 8297 at Poulsbo’s St. Olaf Parish, presents a chalice to Ugandan Bishop Sabino Ocan Odoki during the bishop’s visit August 26. Presented on behalf of deceased Knight George Marquis’ family, the chalice will be given to a newly ordained priest in Bishop Odoki’s Diocese of Arua. Photo: Joni Bayler

Over the years, Bishop Odoki has traveled to Western Washington most summers, asking local parishioners to support the people in his Diocese of Arua, in northern Uganda.

“We have a lot of needs,” said Bishop Odoki, who was back in the Archdiocese of Seattle in August, visiting St. Olaf and St. Pius X Parish in Mountlake Terrace.

Bishop Odoki’s diocese includes more than 1 million Catholics. For the past two years, the diocese has also served nearly 300,000 South Sudanese refugees living in Bidi Bidi, said to be one of the world’s largest refugee camps.

“They’re really suffering,” Bishop Odoki said, due to a lack of water, food and medicine. (Catholic Relief Services is among the organizations ministering to people there.)

In addition to physical needs, the people living in Bidi Bidi need pastoral and spiritual care, the bishop said. “The challenge is very big. We need financial support as well as human resources, such as volunteers,” he said.

The needs of refugees struck a chord with St. Pius X parishioners when Bishop Odoki celebrated Masses there in August.

“You could hear the [congregation] murmuring when he told us more than a million refugees have come to his country,” said parishioner Nancy Wojack.

Meeting Bishop Odoki and hearing him speak over the years inspired Father Cal Christiansen, pastor at St. Pius X, and a team of parishioners to take steps toward establishing a sister parish relationship with a school and parish in Arua which share their patron saint.

Making life a bit easier

Bishop Odoki first came to Seattle in 1992 as a missionary priest raising money for the Missionary Vehicle Association (now called Survive-Miva), a Catholic lay organization that provides transportation for those doing pastoral work in Africa, Asia and Latin America. He has visited St. Olaf and St. Pius X nearly every summer since then.

During his visits from 1996 to 2006, when he was rector of the National Major Seminary in Gulu, Uganda, many of his appeals sought support for the seminarians, Wojack said.

Bishop OdokiUgandan Bishop Sabino Ocan Odoki enjoys a meal with the Wojack family, parishioners at St. Pius X Parish in Mountlake Terrace. It’s been more than 25 years since the bishop began making mission trips to the Archdiocese of Seattle and enjoying the hospitality of parishioners at St. Pius X and at St. Olaf Parish in Poulsbo. Photo: courtesy Nancy Wojack

In 2006, he was consecrated as auxiliary bishop, and in 2010 was installed as bishop of the Diocese of Arua. But Bishop Odoki still looks out for the seminarians during his annual visits, Wojack said.

“We always end up on a shopping trip, buying very practical things to make life just a little bit easier,” she said.

Bishop Odoki said the Diocese of Arua is fortunate to have many vocations; he ordained 16 priests this year, and 75 men are in the seminary. They need support “to receive good formation so they can serve the people faithfully,” the bishop said. The needs include tuition, transportation, prayer books, vestments and Mass kits.

“I could not even give them Mass kits” Bishop Odoki said of the recently ordained priests. “We [travel] a lot for Mass. Without these kits, they are handicapped.”

Bayler said that fact prompted Knights of Columbus Council 8297 at St. Olaf to present Bishop Odoki with a new chalice when he visited the parish Aug. 26. The bishop said he plans to give it to one of his new priests.

Father Christiansen said supporting seminarians is supporting the growth of the church. Local Catholics, he said, have a responsibility to “share our wealth to build those churches and support the students and clergy [in Uganda] as they evangelize, helping them to support their own evangelical efforts.”

A breath of fresh air

Wojack remembers hearing Bishop Odoki speak on one of his first trips here. “He was so delightful,” she said. “He was so holy, a breath of fresh air.”

But the bishop also manages to insert a little levity in his homilies, Wojack said. He often breaks the ice with his U.S. audiences by telling them he usually prepares a 15-page homily, because in Uganda Mass can last four or five hours. “When they start looking a little nervous, he tells them, ‘I only brought three pages today,’” Wojack said.

Bishop OdokiAlthough his country has many serious issues, Ugandan Bishop Sabino Ocan Odoki retains his sense of joy, captured during a stop at the Archdiocese of Seattle’s Missions Office in August. Photo: courtesy Missions Office

During Bishop Odoki’s homily at St. Peter Mission in Suquamish on August 25, he described how he used a microscope to show Ugandan children the organisms present in water that hasn’t been boiled. He also mentioned the microscope had been stolen. The next morning, a parishioner gave the bishop a replacement, Bayler said.

At St. Pius X, the next step toward the sister parish relationship is approaching the parish finance commission, and continuing an email correspondence with the priest at St. Pius in Uganda, Father Christensen said.

The fledgling relationship between the two parishes is “a faith-sharing adventure,” Bishop Odoki said.

“They will get to know about all of our needs and we will get to know their needs,” he said. “Together we will grow as Christians. We are one people.”

How to help

To help those in need in his Diocese of Arua, Uganda, Bishop Sabino Ocan Odoki suggests donations to Comboni Missionaries. The international Catholic organization says it works in 41 countries, serving the poorest and most forgotten people. When donating, make a note that the funds should be used in the Diocese of Arua.