Father Symon Peter Ntaiyia is marking 25 years in the priesthood by highlighting a vital part of his life: Education.
Born into a tribal family, the Kenyan priest said that only through schooling was he able to move toward his priestly vocation. He described this opportunity as “almost a miracle,” based on the very low percentage of children from his region who ever had the chance to attend school.
In the hope that more Kenyan youths might make similar strides, Father Ntaiyia is using the occasion of his 25-year milestone to launch construction of a private elementary school for boys and girls in his homeland. The initiative is being funded through his personal savings — he purchased the five-acre site on which the school is being built — as well as donations.
“I’m the first priest from these people in Kenya. I see the transformation that education can make in me, a lowly shepherd boy,” said Father Ntaiyia, who has served the past six months as temporary parochial administrator at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Elmira. He will begin a new assignment elsewhere in the Rochester Diocese at the end of this month after having served in the Southern Tier since 2003 as an extern — a priest from one diocese on assignment in another.
Father Ntaiyia, who will celebrate his 58th birthday on Jan. 5, grew up in southern Kenya. His tribe, the Maasai, are nomadic and reside among the most remote areas of the country. As a boy, Father Ntaiyia shepherded his father’s sheep and goats. His father had two wives — and he, also, was expected to marry and have children, especially since he was the only boy. Going to school, he remarked, was “a distant dream.”
That changed in 1958 when, at age 10, he became part of a colonial government act that allowed a limited number of children to attend school. He eventually began receiving religious instruction from Catholic teachers and was baptized in 1962. He went on to work as a catechist from 1966-68, teaching in four different parishes. This, he recalled, was the period when he first heard a call to the priestly vocation.
Father Ntaiyia attended seminaries from 1969-80. His decision to pursue the Catholic priesthood and the vow of celibacy that goes with it was decried by family members, yet he carried forward and was ordained on Dec. 7, 1980 — becoming the first Maasai priest, as well as the first from the Diocese of Nyong.
He spent six years doing pastoral work among the Maasai, then three years as principal of a fledgling diocesan high school. Father Ntaiyia first came to Rochester from 1990-92 when he attended St. John Fisher College and the University of Rochester. From there he returned to his principal’s position for six years at the now-thriving school in Kenya; he noted that nine graduates have gone on to become priests.
Father Ntaiyia logged another four years in parish ministry before coming back to the Diocese of Rochester in 2002 for extern duty. He first served at St. Helen’s Parish in Gates, Monroe County, then moved to Tioga County in June 2003. Over a two-year period he was parochial vicar for Blessed Trinity/St. Patrick parishes, which comprise six faith communities.
“I was going all over — quite a bit of driving,” he said with a smile, adding that he enjoyed the various communities. “The people are wonderful.”
In June 2005 he began at Our Lady of Lourdes, serving as administrator during the sabbatical of Father Jeremiah Moynihan, the parish pastor, who is due to return from Ireland later this month. Father Ntaiyia said that despite being in a leadership role, he has kept changes to a minimum because of his temporary status. He lauded the parish staff members, saying they have made his job “very easy. I’m going along with what they feel,” he said.
The Kenyan priest enjoys sharing his history with parishioners, having given a slide presentation about his native land in September. With his obvious love for education, he has also relished his visits to Holy Family Intermediate School on the Our Lady of Lourdes campus.
“The teachers and children are wonderful. The children are very, very well-disciplined,” he commented.
Father Ntaiyia’s 25-year jubilee is being acknowledged Dec. 18 with a reception following the 10:30 a.m. Mass at Our Lady of Lourdes. He added that another celebration likely awaits the next time he’s in Kenya. He went there this past May to oversee details surrounding the new school and hopes to make a similar trip in 2006. But for now, Father Ntaiyia is focusing on his next assignment — as parochial administrator at Church of the Epiphany/St. Rose in Sodus and Sodus Point, Wayne County. It’s his latest stint in an arrangement between the Nyong and Rochester dioceses that, if all goes well, will extend at least a couple more years.
“At the moment, the agreement is through 2008. And I hope that will happen,” Father Ntaiyia said.
Seven priests hail from foreign countries
Father Symon Peter Ntaiyia, featured in the above story, is among a growing number of priests from other countries — mostly Africa — who have served in the Southern Tier in recent years. Their presence is a win-win situation: It’s a blessing for diocesan officials in addressing the priest shortage, and the priests can experience American culture while serving at parishes and/or attending college.
Here are the seven foreign priests currently at Tier parishes:
Father Peter Abue — in residence, St. Anthony Parish, Groton. Age: 47. Ordained: 1985. Home diocese: Ogoja, Nigeria. Began in this diocese: 2001. Provides sacramental assistance at parishes in Tompkins County; will complete his doctorate at Cornell University in March 2006.
Father Peter Anglaaere — sacramental minister, St. Catherine of Siena Parish, Ithaca. Age: 48. Ordained: 1986. Home diocese: Tamale, Ghana. Began in this diocese: 2005. Also provides sacramental assistance at other parishes in Tompkins County.
Father Eugene Dobosz — parochial administrator, St. Casimir/St. Charles Borromeo, Elmira. Age: 46. Ordained: 1985. Home diocese: Lublin, Poland. Began in this diocese: 2002. Has served in the United States since 1993, having also ministered in Texas.
Father Boniface Ewah — parochial vicar, Blessed Trinity/St. Patrick parishes, Tioga County. Age: 36. Ordained: 1998. Home diocese: Ogoja, Nigeria. Began in this diocese: 2005. Has authored three books — on serving humanity; on youth and the future; and on ministry to AIDS victims.
Father Gerald Kabarega — chaplain, Elmira College; sacramental minister, Ss. Peter and Paul Parish, Elmira. Age: 35. Ordained: 2000. Home diocese: Tanga, Tanzania. Began in this diocese: 2002. Attends school at Elmira College; resides at Church of St. Mary Our Mother in Horseheads.
Father Stephen Ndichu Karani — parochial vicar, Holy Family Catholic Community, Steuben/Livingston counties. Age: 39. Ordained: 1993. Home diocese: Nakuru, Kenya. Began in this diocese: 2000. Previously served at St. Mary Our Mother in Horseheads from 2001-03.
Father Symon Peter Ntaiyia — temporary parochial administrator, Our Lady of Lourdes, Elmira. Age: 57. Ordained: 1980. Home diocese: Ngong, Kenya. Began in this diocese: 2002. Was parochial vicar from 2003-05 at Blessed Trinity/St. Patrick parishes in Tioga County.