Priest celebrates healing ministry and Silver Jubilee
By Katherine Long
Sun Associate Editor
Like the doctors and nurses he works with at SUNY Upstate Medical University, Father Ejike Innocent Onyenagubo is always on call. As Catholic chaplain at Upstate, he must be at the ready to minister to patients and families who need his quiet grace to help them through crisis.
Seminarian Jason Hage, who studied in Upstate’s Clinical Pastoral Education program this summer, recalls the night a gravely ill patient urgently needed anointing of the sick. Though he had already worked a long day and had just sat down to dinner in his apartment across town, Father Innocent, as he prefers to be called, was back in his car without a second thought. “He left dinner on the table to come back and anoint the patient,” Hage said.
Answering those calls is the only option for Father Innocent. Ministering to the sick is his calling and his deepest joy. “It has been my longing to bring hope to the hopeless,” he said.
That longing was born out of his own hopelessness many years ago. At just 12 years old, Father Innocent was drafted into military service in his native Nigeria. He experienced the darkest violence and terror during the bloody three-year civil war, a conflict that extinguished families and left more than a million people dead. During those years, prayer was his only refuge.
“I swore an oath before God,” Father Innocent recalled. “‘If I survive, I will offer my life in Your service.’”
Once home safely, Father Innocent finished his schooling and entered the seminary. He was ordained on Aug. 9, 1986.
For 13 years, he worked in parishes in the Owerri and Mbaise regions of Nigeria, helping to heal, strengthen and lead the Catholic communities there.
In 1999, his bishop assigned him to the Diocese of Syracuse. The community of the Immaculate Heart of Mary Church (IHM) in Liverpool, where he served as parochial vicar until 2006, was a huge support and helped him acclimate to life in the States. “The people opened their hands to me,” he said.
Michael Tubbert, a parishoner who helped Father Innocent with his computer skills, cites the priest’s charisma and warmth. “He has a joy, a warming spirit that just invites you in,” he said.
After several years in Syracuse, Father Innocent began looking for additional ways to help his faith community. His experiences in Nigeria drew him to the healing ministry, as did his visits to hospitalized parishoners.
He enrolled in the Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) program at Upstate, a series of courses designed to ehance the quality of spiritual care given to patients and their loved ones. Rev. Terry Culbertson, Upstate’s Spiritual Care Manager, credits Father Innocent’s good humor and gracious spirit for propelling him through the intense course of study and making his interactions with patients so successful.
One of just a few priests in the diocese with CPE certification, Father Innocent has also been certified by the National Association of Catholic Chaplains. His credentials, in addition to his talent in minstry to the sick, led to his appointment as chaplain at Upstate and on-call priest at Crouse and St. Joseph’s Hospitals in 2006, and as chaplain at Hutchings Psychiatric Center in 2007.
Today, Father Innocent’s day starts with prayer. “I ask God to use me as an instrument for healing,” he said.
He then checks the list of patients and goes straight to the newly admitted. He introduces himself and his ministry, offering whatever support he can. “Families are longing to see someone who will tell them ‘be not afraid,’” he said. “Sometimes just the presence of a priest will bring them some peace.”
Kathy Fiorenza-Jewett recalls the day Father Innocent visited her mother, Delores, at Upstate. “Mom was everything to us, we didn’t know what we were going to do,” she said. “Father came to give the final blessing. And he put everyone at ease. We sang songs, we said prayers. Something came over us. We were sad but we had joy.”
The joy Father Innocent has brought to others was reflected back to him tenfold at his Silver Jubilee Mass, held at IHM on Aug. 14. Bishops Cunningham, Moynihan and Costello presided, and more than 20 fellow priests and religious concelebrated. A reception and dinner followed, coordinated by Tubbert and attended by parishoners, colleagues and members of Father Innocent’s family – including his sister, flown in from Nigeria as a surprise.
Father Innocent looks forward to continuing his healing ministry despite the emotional toll it can take. “There is no day where you come in and there is no sad story. Every day you touch three, four, five dying people. It changes your life,” he said. “But when family members go home in peace, you go home happy you were there.”