DUNWOODIE — Some priests have admitted to playing “pastor” as kids, wearing bathroom towels for vestments, and turning their family coffee tables into altars.
But Tobechukwu (Toby) Offiah’s journey to the priesthood began as a college student of accounting back home in Nigeria.
One day, he noticed a group of religious sisters dressed in brilliant-white habits — a beautiful picture of purity consecrated to God.
He thought that if he ever had a daughter, he would want her to become one of these ladies in white.
“But then a voice came up within me,” he recalled. “It said, ‘You want to give your daughter, but why would you not give yourself and become a priest?’ ”
He took a major step toward that goal Saturday, Nov. 4, when he became a transitional deacon during ordination and Mass at St. Joseph’s Seminary and College in Dunwoodie, Yonkers.
Bishop John Barres of the Diocese of Rockville Centre was the main celebrant. Four other seminarians also became deacons on Saturday.
But Deacon Offiah, 37, is the only one destined for the Diocese of Brooklyn.
He is on track to be ordained a priest in June. Joining him will be three other transitional deacons who were ordained to the diaconate in July by Bishop Robert Brennan at the Cathedral Basilica of St. James in Downtown Brooklyn.
The other new transitional deacons ordained Saturday are Jonathan Castro and William Mendoza, both for the Archdiocese of New York, and Dennis Gannon and Joseph Lettieri for the Diocese of Rockville Centre.
During the ordinations, Bishop Barres lay hands on each man’s head and spoke the ordination prayer.
To each man, Bishop Barres urged: “Receive the Gospel of Christ, whose herald you have become. Believe what you read, teach what you believe, and practice what you teach.”
They promised to live a celibate life of service to the Church. They also donned the vestments of a deacon, each with a priest invited by them.
Deacon Offiah chose an old friend from the seminary in Akwa, Father Ikenna Okagbue, pastor of St. Jude Shrine Parish in Canarsie, Brooklyn.
The deacon is the youngest of five children raised Catholic in Anambra in southeastern Nigeria by Polycarp and Mary Offiah. His mother, now deceased, was “very instrumental,” he said.
“She was like, should I say, the police in the house who ensured we went to Mass every Sunday,” he said. “Nevertheless, growing up, I didn’t desire to be a priest. I just wanted to be an accountant.”
He completed his bachelor’s degree in accounting at the University of Nigeria at Nsukka. But the inner voice he heard after he’d admired the white-clad sisters kept challenging him to consider the vocation.
Deacon Offiah also became consecrated to Jesus through devotion to Mary, the Blessed Mother.
Finally, he attended a retreat where a priest made an analogy between the vocation and the “outcasts” in the folklore of Nigeria’s Igo-speaking people.
Called “Osu” in Igbo, they were once perpetrators of “abominations” in society, but then they surrendered themselves to the protection of a deity.
A priest is similar, Deacon Offiah explained — the difference is that he is consecrated to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, whom he serves and loves.
“Because I was already consecrated through Mary, I started asking myself if I hadn’t already started living this life of an outcast,” Deacon Offiah said.
In 2011 he entered the seminary for the Diocese of Awka, Nigeria. Six years later he completed his bachelor’s in philosophy from his seminary’s affiliate institution — the Pontifical Urban University, Rome.
Later in 2017, he came to the Diocese of Brooklyn, where much of his family had already relocated. He got a job stocking produce at the Target store on Flatbush Avenue, and also worked as a customer service representative at JFK Airport.
He lived in the diocese’s Pope John Paul II House of Discernment until 2019 when he was accepted to the seminary at Dunwoodie.
In August of 2022 he completed the naturalization process to become a U.S. citizen.
Deacon Offiah will continue his theological studies at Dunwoodie. He also will assist on weekends at Sacred Heart of Jesus Church in Bayside, where the pastor is Msgr. Thomas Machalski.
“I give God thanks for all these people that have been there for me,” Deacon Offiah said.