Seeing the holiness and humanity of his parish priests as a child inspired Father Ikenna Okagbue, 35, to consider priesthood for himself.
A native of southeastern Nigeria, he grew up in a devout Catholic family as the oldest of seven children born to Michael and Regina Okagbue of St. Joseph Church in Aguleri, Anambra State.
He attended Holy Rosary Primary School, Ulakwo; Christ the King College, Obike; St. Peter Claver Seminary, Okpala; Assumpta Spiritual Year Seminary, Ogbaku; and Seat of Wisdom Seminary, Owerri.
As a child, he attended daily Mass and met with other local children to pray the rosary every night as part of a prayer movement called the Block Rosary Crusade, dedicated to Our Lady of Fatima.
From there, he became an altar server, which gave him the opportunity to get to know his parish priests. Watching them interact with the faithful, he grew in admiration for them and their vocation.
“They were wonderful – their influence, guidance, assistance,” he recalled. “Sometimes, one of them would play soccer with us or do something social, and I said, ‘Wow, I would like to be a priest too.’”
His parents did not take his vocation seriously at first because he was still very young. But his father said he could study at the seminary, and then later get married and raise a family.
“When I went to the seminary, it didn’t happen as he planned because I decided to continue on,” Father Okagbue said.
He earned two bachelor’s degrees in philosophy through Imo State University, Nigeria, and the Pontificia Università Urbaniana, Rome, and then his academic dean advised him to take some classes abroad. He enrolled at Liberty University in Lynchberg, Va., in 2014.
After arriving in the U.S., he received a phone call from his cousin, Father Alexander Agbata, parochial vicar at Sacred Heart of Jesus Church in Bayside, who suggested that he visit the Brooklyn Diocese.
He made his first trip to Brooklyn for a vocation event, where he met Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio and Father Kevin Abels, then-vocation director.
“I still remember the way Bishop DiMarzio and Father Abels treated us (attendees). It was like a family,” he said.
Though he did not like the cold weather in New York, the warm manner with which he was received touched his heart; he knew he was home.
He finished his theology studies at St. Joseph Seminary, Dunwoodie, and earned his bachelor of sacred theology and master of divinity degrees.
Over the last three years, Father Okagbue said that what he has come to love most about the diocese are its people, especially “their love, their faith.”
As part of his formation, he served summers and his diaconate year at St. Sebastian Church, Woodside, under the guidance of Father Abels, pastor, whom he calls a friend and role model.
Not only did he enjoy ministering with the people of the parish, but also found joy in the communal life of the rectory, which reminded him of home.
“I grew up in a big family, and the rectory at St. Sebastian’s is a big family. The staff, the priests, everybody working there, you see this connection, this love, this bond,” he said.
Besides Father Abels, he counts among his other priestly role models Nigerian Father Remigius Ihim, who taught him the art of accompaniment, and Blessed Cyprian Michael Iwene Tansi, the first Aguleri native to be on the path to sainthood.
“He spoke the truth, and he was not afraid to tell you the truth no matter who you were, or where you were from,” he said.
In that way, Blessed Iwene Tansi was much like the man who beatified him, Pope St. John Paul II, for whom Father Okagbue also has great admiration.
Having an interest in Christian unity and ecumenism, he said one of his favorite writings from the late pontiff is “Ut Unum Sint” (“That They May Be One”) because “there are a lot of divisions, even in the church.”
Father Okagbue is fluent in both English and Igbo. In his priestly ministry, he looks forward to bridging divisions, wants to be approachable and set a good example for young people.
“My dream is to be a simple, holy priest who will always be there for the people, to meet them on their journeys,” he said.
Father Okagbue will celebrate his First Mass of thanksgiving at St. Sebastian Church on Sunday, June 4, at 1:15 p.m.