Elmira native recalls his 50 years as a missionary in Africa - Catholic Courier

Elmira native recalls his 50 years as a missionary in Africa

BRIGHTON — Father Damian Milliken produced a photograph of a young boy with an angelic smile standing inside the mud hut that serves as his home. Two well-worn pots, a ladle and not much else were visible in the background.

And yet, Father Milliken said, "He’s got everything he needs — one meal a day, a mother who loves him, and a school to go to."

In another photo, the priest is shown giving a piece of candy to a child whose sister, he noted, "will take it home, smash it and divide up the pieces for everybody."

These images underscore the modest surroundings Father Milliken has inhabited for a half-century in the far reaches of eastern Africa. So, you’ll have to excuse him for being puzzled by the fuss he observes stateside over LCD televisions, laptop computers and other high-tech gizmos.

"If you allow yourself to be consumed by them, you will be," Father Milliken remarked during a springtime trip through Rochester Diocese — part of his first stateside visit in six years — to visit relatives and friends while making mission appeals at area churches.

The Benedictine priest, 76, has spent nearly 50 years in Tanzania, where he has toiled tirelessly for the very basic priorities of education and the Catholic faith for folks who have little else.

He was born Denis John Milliken into a family of 14 children. His 7,500-plus mile road to Tanzania began as a 13-year-old student at Elmira’s St. Patrick School, where one day he became intrigued by a priest’s presentation about African missions. Upon his eighth-grade graduation in 1946, he entered Benedictine Mission Seminary in Newton, N.J.

He professed first vows in 1953 and took the name Damian, in part out of admiration for another missionary, Father Damien of Molokai, the leper priest of Hawaii, who is being canonized this coming Oct. 11. During the 1950s Father Milliken weighed the possibility of monastic life at the Benedictines’ newly founded Mount Saviour Monastery near Elmira. However, Mount Saviour was based on a contemplative rather than missionary life of ministry.

"How could I be a missionary and a monk at the same time? And I thought, ‘Why don’t I just leave it up to God,’" Father Milliken recalled.

God guided him to Africa and he arrived in Tanzania in 1960, two years after he was ordained at Rochester’s Sacred Heart Cathedral. He served for five years at a seminary for boys, teaching and overseeing construction of a new chapel. In subsequent years he served at a number of mission stations and worked as a government education officer.

A highlight of Father Milliken’s ministry was the establishment in 1989 of St. Mary’s Mazinde Juu Secondary School, a girls’ boarding school in the Usambara Mountains that seeks to empower women who, in cultural tradition, are not given equal opportunities for advancement as men. In 1995 a secondary school in Kongei, not far from Mazinde Juu, was opened under Father Milliken’s guidance.

Another major accomplishment was the erection of St. Benedict Church Mabughai in the town of Lushoto, about 10 miles down the mountain from Mazinde Juu, which celebrated its first Mass on Dec. 8, 2004. The church was planned and built over a 15-year period. Much of the work was done with natives’ own hands, as evidenced by women who carried bricks on their heads during construction. Father Milliken said such efforts give parishioners a special sense of ownership about their church: "It’s nice to see it when it’s done, but it’s beautiful in the making."

More recently, Father Milliken led efforts to begin a newly founded parochial school at St. Benedict, which — like his two secondary schools — is thriving thus far, he said. The fledgling facility marks yet another step in his use of education as the basis for rising past poverty, ignorance and disease.

Father Milliken’s innovative approaches also have been evident in the Southern Tier. He helped launch a priest-exchange program in 1994, whereby Tanzanian priests from the Diocese of Tanga obtain their master’s degrees at Elmira College while performing chaplaincy duties there. Father Milliken also has developed a scholarship program for Tanzanian religious sisters at Nazareth College in Pittsford.

In addition to the recent local mission appeals, Father Milliken’s cause has benefitted from a longtime "mission club" at his native St. Patrick Church, which is now a part of Elmira’s Blessed Sacrament Parish. Substantial aid also has come through a parish twinning project at Webster’s St. Rita Parish as well as ongoing support by the Sisters of Mercy and Sisters of St. Joseph.

Even so, Father Milliken lamented that Tanzania is still overwhelmed by hunger, disease and lack of funds.

"You know, poverty isn’t noble. I don’t think God wanted us to grovel, to die of hunger and thirst," he said.

The priest is eager to return to Tanzania and continue working toward a better tomorrow, saying his desire to serve remains just as strong as in eighth grade.

"I couldn’t shake it. I still can’t. I know, definitely, I was called there," he said. "The blessings in my life are numerous."

He observed, with a chuckle, that his definition of home has evolved quite a bit from when he attended seminary in New Jersey and yearned to be back in Elmira.

"I’m homesick for Africa now," he said.

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