JACKSON HEIGHTS — Father Louismary Ocha spent nine years in Rome, becoming a biblical scholar and earning a doctorate in divinity.
But before returning home to Nigeria for a seminary professorship, he had a request — a one-year sabbatical to work at a parish sharpening his pastoral skills, but also to decompress from the academic rigors of Rome.
“I needed to apply what I have accumulated from the books into the field of reality,” he said.
Bishop Lucius Ugorji of Umuahia, Father Ocha’s sponsor for Rome, agreed to let him serve one year at St. Clare Parish in Rosedale, Queens. The priest had already spent summer breaks in the Diocese of Brooklyn, helping the ministry team at St. Joan of Arc in Jackson Heights.
He arrived at St. Clare in October 2019, eager to administer sacraments, counsel parishioners, and lead Bible study classes.
“And — boom! — came the COVID,” he said. “Then we all went into lockdown.”
Father Ocha found himself in the exclusive company of the pastor, Father Andrew Struzzieri, who was in the final stages of a decade-long battle with kidney cancer. He died on Sept. 18, 2020.
“In the rectory, it was only two of us because we couldn’t let anybody in,” Father Ocha said. “We were isolated.”
Meanwhile, “Father Andy” faced death with courage, dignity, and faith in God while never losing his pastoral zeal, Father Ocha said.
This example, he noted, is a pillar of priesthood that he now shares with seminarians.
Father Ocha returned to Queens this summer to help serve at local parishes. He split the time between St. Clare and St. Joan of Arc and will return to Nigeria in a few weeks.
“He’s just great,” said Msgr. William Hoppe, pastor at St. Joan of Arc. “I’ve been here two years, but on the other hand, Father Louismary has been coming to help out here in the summer for over five years now. So I kid him that he knows more about the parish than I do!
“He certainly has got quite a following here. People know him, and they love him.”
After a recent noon Mass at St. Joan of Arc, Father Ocha reflected on his sabbatical during the pandemic and his lifelong ambition for the priesthood.
Like a Handbag
Father Ocha, born in 1975, is the fifth of eight children — four daughters, four sons — born to Abel and Justina Ocha, who both worked as yam and fruit traders, supplying local markets in southeastern Nigeria.
His parents were devout Catholics who raised their children in faith, but he gives special credit to his grandmother, Martha Ocha, for inspiring his vocation.
“Because I was a young one, she carried me around,” he fondly recalled. “I became like a handbag to her. She would take me to some of the societies in the church.”
One group was the Legion of Mary, where Father Ocha said his grandmother was an “ardent legionnaire.”
A patron saint of the legion is the French priest Louis-Marie de Montfort (1673-1716). The priest’s parents, at his grandmother’s urging, named him after the saint.
“She really exposed me to the church,” Father Ocha said. “And that is how I ended up getting my profession as a priest. Seeing the priests and what they do, I became very interested in becoming a priest. I almost had nothing else in mind.
“My dad, it was okay for him. It was my mom who really, at that early stage, said, ‘Um, let’s think about it. Let’s see how it goes.’ At some point, she saw that the desire was burning in me. She said, ‘OK, if that is what you want, why not?’”
At age 12, he entered a minor seminary and advanced six years later to the Seat of Wisdom Major Seminary in Owerri, Nigeria, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy. He is now a member of the faculty there, teaching sacred scripture, Greek, and accounting. He also obtained a bachelor’s degree in theology from St. Joseph’s Major Seminary in Ikot-Ekpene, Nigeria.
Father Ocha’s ordination came in 2006. After a few years as an editor of a Catholic newspaper, Bishop Ugorji sent him to Rome for the intense biblical studies needed to be a seminary professor.
He earned a master’s degree in biblical studies from the Pontifical Biblical Institute, his doctorate of divinity from the Pontifical Gregorian University, and a master’s in international human resources from the Rome Business School.
He also notched a year at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, studying Hebrew, Greek, and biblical archaeology.
With all these academic degrees on his résumé, Father Ocha was eager for a sabbatical in Queens.
“I was living with priests for nine years,” Father Ocha explained. “So I needed to get out, to mingle with people, to leave the intensive academic and mental work.”
Faithful to His Call
After being hit with the initial jolt of the pandemic lockdowns, Fathers Struzzieri and Ocha struggled to keep serving parishioners.
Soon, however, they regained their footing with counseling via video conferencing, streaming the Mass on social media, and lots of phone calls.
Father Ocha moved his bible study classes to a digital format. Later he was amazed to learn that the livestreaming Mass had viewers all over the planet, including family and friends of his back in Nigeria.
Later the pandemic eased enough to allow health professionals into the rectory to help take care of Father Struzzieri. Meanwhile, his example of courage flourished, Father Ocha said.
He recalled long conversations with the pastor, who spoke candidly about his impending death. Meanwhile, the ailing priest remained a faithful counselor for parishioners grieving loved ones lost to COVID-19.
“He left a very deep impression on me,” Father Ocha said. “His zeal for the things of God was incomparable. He remained faithful to his call, even until the end. And the people — they loved him so much.
“I remember him saying, ‘It is sad that I’m leaving this world, but I feel like I can’t wait to see what the next one looks like.’ Such words are very impressive.
“So, he died well because he was prepared.”
Count Your Blessings
The sabbatical and simultaneous pandemic made for a year of tremendous growth for Father Ocha. He said it forced him to become a team player, helping to make radical changes to “methodology” to keep serving the parish.
“It was a really good opportunity for me, both to have the experience of the COVID lockdown and also to live with a terminally sick priest,” he said. “When I came here, most of the things I wanted to do, I didn’t do them. I was locked down.
“We entered into God’s agenda.”
Father Ocha said he came out of the sabbatical with a powerful conviction: “Man proposes, and God disposes.”
He said this idea is backed by Proverbs 16:9 — “The human heart plans the way, but the Lord directs the steps.”
“That is to say,” he explained, “this is what you want to do, but God has his own will for you.”
During his noon Mass homily, he noted, “We only need to pray that our will corresponds with God’s will for us, and the humility to accept it.
“We need to be grateful to him. Thank him every day for his blessing. Stop complaining. If you must compare yourself, do that with the dead, those who are in jail, those who are terminally sick and dying.
“If you do that, you cannot (help) but count your blessings.”
This is the final of a four-part series profiling visiting priests who spend summers working in the Diocese of Brooklyn.