By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published April 5, 2018
JOHNS CREEK—With praises sung in Ibo, the language of his native Nigeria, Father Charles Okeke was memorialized during a funeral Mass March 23 at St. Benedict Church.
The faithful filled the sanctuary’s 1,200 seats to say farewell to the priest in the church where he began his ministry in 2011. Wearing ornate headdresses and blue and gold finery, the Nigerian Catholic Women’s Choir sang, and a Scripture reading was proclaimed from the pulpit in Ibo.
From his career as a research scientist to his ministry as a clergyman, Father Okeke pursued an understanding of the natural and the spiritual worlds. Behind a quiet reserve was a man capable of being playful and relatable to many people.
Erin Milone met Father Okeke during his ministry at St. Monica Church, Duluth. She said he kept to himself but had a great affection for children. It wasn’t unusual to see him interrupt a conversation with an adult to pay attention to young people, she said.
Her daughter, Eva, told how he was her favorite priest from whom to receive the sacrament of reconciliation.
“He always talked you through it. He was just really nice,” she said.
Milone said when her kids spoke with Father Okeke, “you’d hear them in there laughing.”
As a priest, Father Okeke knew that he was sent to serve, said Father Paul Flood, pastor of St. Benedict’s, who gave the homily.
“We know we are sent out with a message of love. We also know that is not our message but the message of God’s love for each of us,” he said.
Using the word “faith,” Father Flood made an acronym for “Forsaking all, I trust him.” He said when Father Okeke was diagnosed with cancer, he accepted it with the faith of God’s love.
“Forsaking all the cancer that ravages this body, I still trust him, even when it looks bad,” he said about Father Okeke’s outlook.
“Scripture tells us that God has plans too. His plans came before we made ours, with all the twists and turns of our life, even the number of days that we have. God just tells us we are to have faith,” said Father Flood. “Father Charles shared his humanity with many people. And by doing so, he shared his divinity with us. You and I this morning can shed tears that Father Charles has died and gone from us or we can smile that he has lived with us.”
Father Okeke grew up in Nigeria, where he attended the University of Nigeria. He earned a doctorate in medical microbiology. He taught microbiology at the university level and later worked as a medical research scientist in universities across the world, from Germany to Japan to Toledo, Ohio. The study of science eventually brought him to discern a vocation to the priesthood.
Peter Awachie knew Father Okeke for nearly 40 years, having attended the same high school in Nigeria. Careers took them both away from their native country, but they reconnected a dozen years ago.
“He was interested in faith and what life was about, how best to live his purpose in life,” said Awachie, who attended the funeral with his wife, Miram. They are members of St. Philip Benizi Church, Jonesboro.
His friend was very introspective but also enjoyed other interests, like an enthusiasm for playing guitar, said Awachie, who works as a chemist.
Rachel Cannata turned to Father Okeke to learn about a career in a university setting. A graduate student now pursuing a doctorate in astronomy and physics, she said he became her “unofficial spiritual and academic mentor.”
“He was really honest about life in academia, and it can have challenges for people who are active in Christian life,” she said.
But that was only one side of him. He was a blend of serious and stoic with joy and reverence, said Cannata. When he celebrated Mass, the priest clearly had a love for the Eucharist that was plain to see, she said.
Bishop Bernard E. Shlesinger III was the principal celebrant of the Mass, with more than 40 priests in attendance. Scriptures at the funeral included readings from the books of Wisdom and Romans and the Gospel of St. John. The choirs of St. Benedict led the congregation in song.
Father Okeke’s spiritual path took him in 2005 to the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers to discern a possible vocation as a monk. He left after two years and then applied as a seminarian for the Archdiocese of Atlanta. As a seminarian for the archdiocese, he earned a master’s degree in divinity at Blessed John XXIII National Seminary in Weston, Massachusetts. At 55, he was ordained to the priesthood on June 18, 2011, by Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory at the Cathedral of Christ the King, Atlanta.
Father Okeke, who died March 5, is survived by his siblings, Victor Okeke, Dr. Daniel Okeke, Finna Okoye and Cordelia Chiemelu, all of Nigeria, and his cousins, Adaeze Agu, of New York, Okechi and Rita Nwachukwu, of Nigeria, and Nkiru Okolo of Chicago.
The Nigerian community led an overnight prayer vigil at St. Benedict for Father Okeke March 22-23.