Different circumstances lead priests to their vocation. Father Mark Itua, temporary parochial vicar at Queen of Martyrs Parish in Cheektowaga, came to the Diocese of Buffalo about seven months ago based on a friend's recommendation, which is not unusual. Unlike most other priests in the area, he was born and raised in Nigeria and came to the United States as an adult after being ordained.
Father Itua was born in Benin City, a large city with a population of over 1 million people. It is the capital of Edo State in southwestern Nigeria and about 200 miles east of Nigeria's most populous city, Lagos, the country's capital and one of the fastest-growing cities in Africa. He lived in a large family with his parents and seven siblings, five brothers and two sisters.
"One is here (in the United States). Another is in the United Kingdom, and the others are in Nigeria," said Father Itua, who attended high school in Benin City before going on to college.
Father Itua attended SS. Peter and Paul Major Seminary in Ibadan, Nigeria, deciding to become a priest after he attended high school. He had initially planned to become a doctor. However, during his final year of high school, he decided that being a doctor was not his calling. At first, his parents were not pleased, hoping he would change his mind and pursue his original plans of going into medicine. His father was a teacher and his mother a trader, with some of his siblings choosing careers in engineering.
"My parents were really angry with me," Father Itua remembered. "My brothers and sisters were really not so happy with me, but thankfully, my one sister, the last-born and my youngest sister, really wanted me to be a priest."
In August 2012, Father Itua made the journey to live in the United States on a permanent basis, although he had been to the United States to visit his brother who already lived here. He settled in New York City, where he studied at Queens College and St. John's University, receiving a degree in psychology.
"I had been coming to the U.S. since I was ordained," Father Itua said. "I was here in 2008 and 2010. I was here to visit my brother and my friends (in the United States). He came to study."
When asked what it was like to get used to the culture and adapt to life in New York City, Father Itua said he was already used to living in a large and bustling city. Like New York City, Benin City is also a large metropolitan area with a rich culture and many secondary schools and universities.
"I think I was actually brought up in a place like Brooklyn, back in Nigeria," he said. "I think the cultural experience is actually the same. I don't really see any difference, apart from Cheektowaga, where I am currently. In Brooklyn, it was more of the same thing, so I was able to adjust quickly."
While in the Diocese of Brooklyn, Father Itua was a resident at St. Martin Church, where he helped in the administration and parish while attending school at the local institutions of higher education. A friend from Nigeria, Father Daniel Ogbeifun, a priest of the Diocese of Buffalo, told Father Itua about some of the opportunities here. Father Ogbeifun attended Christ the King Seminary in East Aurora and was ordained to the priesthood by Bishop Richard J. Malone in June.
When Father Ogbeifun was still a seminarian, he visited with Father Itua and asked if he wanted to come to the Diocese of Buffalo. Then, Father Itua told him he didn't think he could because the people in Brooklyn didn't want him to come to Buffalo.
Father Itua eventually changed his mind and visited the Diocese of Buffalo, where he saw a welcoming community of people. He said being in the same diocese as someone he already knows from his home country made it easier, and life at Queen of Martyrs has been pleasant.
"I think it's a multicultural group, mainly of Polish origin," Father Itua said of the community at Queen of Martyrs, where he has lived since arriving. "It's been a good experience that I've had so far."
He serves with Father Louis S. Klein, pastor of Queen of Martyrs, referring to ministry as a "beautiful experience," although the first two weeks took more adjustment than New York City required. In the future, Father Itua plans to continue studying psychology and get his doctorate while living here, and may attend the State University of New York at Buffalo while continuing to minister in Cheektowaga.
"I think one that is coming should be able to try to understand the people, so that he could communicate with the people," Father Itua said of the most difficult part of adjustment. "You really need to have the message, you really need to communicate with people, so you need to pronounce things correctly."
He said he has tried to do his best to understand people and their language. In Nigeria, Father Itua said people told him people in America do not worship God or go to Church, but Father Itua regularly meets many people here who continue to faithfully attend Mass.
"In Nigeria, we have a lot of differences, a lot of big differences," he said. "People there go to Church. Almost everyone goes to Church, but here, people make other choices. I think we actually have to bring our own cultural experiences here to share with the people."