By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published September 4, 2008
Caribbean rhythms, colorful African headdresses, and prayers uttered in half a dozen languages enlivened a celebration of two new black Catholic priests.
The African and Haitian immigrant communities applauded Fathers Henry Atem and Gilbert Exumé, who were ordained in the spring, at a special weeknight Mass.
Father Atem called it “such a joy and such an honor” to gather with people, friends and family. Glad to be done with seminary, Father Atem said he remains in need of prayers of support in his new work.
“It is kind of new territory for me,” he said.
For his part, Father Exumé thanked the community for their efforts as he spoke in French.
Atlanta Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory, along with nine priests, marked the occasion as black Catholics from across the archdiocese filled the pews of Sts. Peter and Paul Church, Decatur. The archbishop called the men “a source of joy and pride.”
The celebration highlighted how Catholic immigrants from Africa and from Caribbean islands living in the Atlanta Archdiocese are a growing presence. The Office for Black Catholic Ministry is learning how to serve the needs of the communities, from Igbo-speaking Nigerians to French-speaking Haitians.
A survey in 2006 by Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate found that the number of black Catholics in metro Atlanta could number more than 100,000, most of them immigrants.
“The black Catholic community is simply not African-American,” said Charles Prejean, director of the ministry office. “To respond to that reality, our work has to reach out” to these newcomers, he said.
The weekday event helps knit the communities together, along with celebrating the new priests, he said.
“We want to re-emphasize the message to the newly ordained that they have a community of support behind them,” he said.
Sts. Peter and Paul Church, the home parish for Haitian Catholics, hosted the event. The liturgy reflected the different traditions. Baskets filled with grapes, apples, bananas were carried as gifts. Dancers accompanied by drumming delivered Scripture readings to the archbishop. Four choirs—the James P. Lyke Memorial Mass Choir, the Haitian Catholic Choir, the Cameroonian Catholic Choir and the African Francophone Choir—added their voices to the celebration.
Fathers Atem and Exumé were two of eight men ordained as priests in the Atlanta Archdiocese in May. Father Atem, 29, grew up in Cameroon, Africa, and serves now as a parochial vicar at St. Peter Chanel Church, Roswell. Father Exumé, 35, who first entered seminary in his native Haiti, is a parochial vicar at St. Brigid Church, Johns Creek.
The archbishop said the Mass honors the two new priests who come from “nations that look upon Africa as mother,” but their ministry of service will extend to every person in the church, no matter what race or background.
Wednesday, Aug. 27, the date of the celebration, was the feast of St. Monica, the mother of St. Augustine, a fourth-century version of a playboy who later became a doctor of the church. They are two saints in a long line of holy people from Africa, who give people who share their ancestry more than a bit of pride, said Archbishop Gregory.
Now, the saints are family members to everyone in the church, whether from Africa or not, he said. In the same way, the new priests belong to the whole church, he said.
“(St. Monica and St. Augustine) inspire all of the church to see God’s grace active in all of our lives, no matter when or where we might live, no matter what language we speak, no matter what color we share as a gift from God,” he said.
“Gilbert and Henry, you are priests for all of the people of this local community of believers, no matter what their race, their culture or their background,” he said.
Denise Jules, a leader in the Haitian community, said people are very excited about Father Exumé’s new ministry.
“We are so glad to celebrate because our people gave a priest to the world,” she said.
Dominique Goda, one of the organizers for the event, said, “Today, together, our communities rejoice.”
Jesuit Father Emmanuel Nkeng shares the same Cameroonian roots as Father Atem.
In fact, they both attended the same seminary for young people in their native country. Father Nkeng said he was unable to attend the spring ordination so he made a point to be here for this community celebration. He plans to return soon to his assignment in the Ivory Coast after living in New York for the past year.
“He is far, but we are close in heart,” he said about Father Atem serving as an Atlanta archdiocesan priest.