Penn Yan has held a special place in Father John Gathenya’s heart ever since he took up residence there in November 2000. But in October 2007 he finally was able to call the village — and the Diocese of Rochester — his official home.
Formerly a priest of the Diocese of Nakuru, Kenya, Father Gathenya was incardinated into — or permanently attached to — the Rochester Diocese Oct. 1 after serving in Penn Yan for seven years as an extern priest. He initially decided to seek incardination in this diocese in early 2007, after spending six years as parochial vicar for Our Lady of the Lakes Catholic Community, which has worship sites in Penn Yan, Naples, Dundee, Rushville, Stanley and Prattsburg.
A number of personal and pastoral considerations factored into this decision, Father Gathenya said. He had an obligation to the Rochester Diocese he was working in, but he still had an obligation to his home diocese of Nakuru, where he was ordained, he noted.
“Once a priest is ordained, he’s incardinated in a diocese. In a sense I didn’t want to float in two dioceses,” Father Gathenya said, noting that he asked himself, “Which way do I want to move in this particular stage in my life?”
After deciding he’d like to stay in the Rochester Diocese, Father Gathenya met with Bishop Matthew H. Clark in January 2007 and expressed his desire to stay. That was the beginning of the 10-month incardination process, which involved both Bishop Clark and Bishop Peter J. Kairo of Nakuru, Father Gathenya said.
“The two bishops entered into a dialogue. To be incardinated it means that I have to be excardinated from the Catholic Diocese of Nakuru. It’s no longer my home diocese,” he said.
On Oct. 1, 2007, Father Gathenya received the letter from Bishop Clark that confirmed his incardination into the Rochester Diocese, and shortly thereafter Father Robert Ring, pastor of Our Lady of the Lakes, announced the news to parishioners and welcomed the Kenyan priest into the diocesan family.
“Bishop Clark has welcomed him to no longer be a missionary among us, but to be an official brother, part of the family,” Father Ring wrote in his Oct. 21, 2007, bulletin column. “It has been wonderful to have you as a missionary among us, so much better yet to have you as part of our diocesan family and to say, ‘Welcome to your new home.'”
Father Gathenya said he’s enjoyed the seven years that he’s called Penn Yan home, even though there were a few surprises he had to get used to when he first arrived. For one thing, cars are driven on the left side of the road in Kenya. The New York weather also was a bit of a surprise, he said.
“When I got here it was snowing in November. I thought it was going to stop snowing after two days. It kept going on and going on until March,” he said.
His adjustment wasn’t as difficult as it could have been, however. Father Gathenya, who was ordained in 1986, came to New York after spending six years studying philosophy at Public University of Louvain, Belgium.
“If I came directly from Kenya maybe I’d have been challenged differently. Having come from Europe and stayed there for six years, I think the challenges were within my comfort zone,” he said.
Father Gathenya said he decided to come to the Rochester area in 2000. He’d heard favorable things about the diocese from his own bishop and from Rochester seminarians studying at the American College in Louvain, and he felt like he needed a break from studying and being in an institution of higher learning.
“I needed a break to do pastoral work other than what was familiar and comfortable,” he said.
Father Gathenya said he’s been impressed by the way local Catholics care so much about and take an active role in their communities. Catholics in Kenya also care, but they’re not as active and are used to priests telling them what to do instead, he said. Most Catholics here are more educated than their Kenyan counterparts, so they’re able to form their own opinions after reading and learning more about their faith, he said.
Local Catholics also have impressed Father Gathenya with their generosity, he added. In June 2004 parishioners from Our Lady of the Lakes’ six churches came together to launch St. John’s Kenyan Outreach, which benefits the children of Father Gathenya’s home parish, St. John Parish in Subukia, Kenya.
Through this outreach, parishioners raised nearly $100,000 in three years. This money was used to renovate St. John’s Small Home, a residential home for needy and disabled children. Parishioners also have sponsored and provided funding for individual students and raised enough money to build a vocational school near the home so the children will be able to learn income-generating skills after completing eighth grade.
“It is a project that has been supported by the whole cross-section of churches. It’s not one church or the other church,” he said, noting that many summer visitors have contributed as well.
The parishioners bring their generosity and dedication to everything they do, whether it’s raising money for Kenyan children or trying to find ways to bring their six parishes together as one, he added.
“We have wonderful people in this cluster, people who feel God,” he said. “Many of them work very hard, pray very hard, dialogue very hard to see the possibilities of how we can make this cluster a community.”