By Theresa Carson
On Saturday in the Chapel of the Holy Spirit, Most Rev. Richard E. Pates, bishop of Des Moines, ordained four men to the priesthood. The newest Divine Word priests will serve their first assignments in Chad, Mozambique and Chicago. One wishes to remain anonymous because of lack of religious freedom in his home country. The others are Fathers Balonda Thierry Koula, Messan Sylvain-Franck Tettekpoe and Huy Khanh Tran. This article about Father Koula marks the first in a series about the newly ordained missionary priests.
On the cusp of age 40, Divine Word Father Balonda Thierry Koula has been an old soul for a long time. The youngest of six children, he was born in Togo, Africa, in 1977.
He credits his parents with his Roman Catholic faith and his education. His father worked as a lab technician in a hospital. He said that his family was fortunate to have a father who had a job and a salary that allowed the children to go to Catholic schools taught by French missionary sisters.
One of his earliest memories was when he was in elementary school and one of his sisters gave a hard copy of the New Testament to him.
"As a small boy, I loved to read," Father Koula said. "I felt different every time I read [the New Testament]. I felt connected to my life."
Father Koula would open a page and read it in a prayerful way. "Sometimes, the passage had to do with my life, a challenge or something that I should work on," he said.
The maturity and self-discipline that he exhibited at a young age led him to succeed as a student and eventually as a teacher. He graduated from Lycée Ataknamé in Togo with a bachelor’s degree in literature in 2001. Three years later, he earned an elementary school teaching certificate and was on his way to becoming one of the region’s youngest administrators.
"My degree allowed me to teach in middle school or high school, but my primary goal wasn’t to be there as a teacher but as a formator to teachers," he said.
He had a plan: to teach for two years to develop his skill then become an educator of teachers. He took a critical look at the Togolese education system and wanted to improve it.
"We got our curriculum from the French system, and it does not fit our context," he said of the Togolese education system. "It is not working. We need to develop a system that works for the people. If we really want to move forward, then we need books and lessons that talk about our experience not about the region and topics in a Western context."
When teaching children, he learned that they need to use the senses of sight and touch as much as listening.
"They get bored when you are talking," he said while discussing the importance of curriculum that incorporates the regional culture and experience.
"For example, if we teach about fruit, then we need to show fruit that grows in the area, not fruit that is indigenous to Europe," he explained.
Teaching energized him, yet he felt gently pulled in another direction. In a way, he felt like St. Paul when struck on his way to Damascus.
"My whole focus was only on education until I started helping my cousin."
Father Koula began helping his cousin who is a diocesan priest. He would spend weekends and holidays with him at outstations, assisting the priest and serving the people.
"This desire was growing and becoming stronger—slowly, slowly—I got the second passion or calling."
Eventually, the desire to become a priest became stronger than to become a teacher.
"At first it was a funny thought; my mind was on teaching. When [the idea of the priesthood] became stronger I couldn’t help it. I went to see my cousin, the priest. He was surprised. He saw me as a teacher—he never thought I’d go to the seminary."
He asked himself, "What happens if I’m not accepted? I put a lot of effort into prayer and needed a sign from God. I did not want to venture into something that would not work."
That’s when he came across L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican’s daily newspaper. The second page contained a news blurb about St. Arnold Janssen’s canonization.
"St. Arnold’s love for the Bible was a strong message to me," he said. "For some reason, I felt connected to him—as a person and a teacher—and to his love for the Scriptures."
Being the responsible type, Father Koula felt that he needed to be certain that the path to the seminary was open to him. He felt that he needed a "strong Plan B."
He said, "For some reason, I saw some options. One…there are a lot of Catholic schools in Lomé. Two, my cousin was director of Catholic schools. Three, my sister already lived in Lomé [the capital city of Togo]. I resigned from teaching when I realized this."
His colleagues told him that he was crazy to leave education. As one of the youngest and most promising teachers in the district, he had a bright future ahead of him. But, he was determined to explore the possibility of a religious vocation and went to see the director of the Catholic schools.
He landed a job in a Catholic school, moved 200 miles to the capital city of Lomé and a year later met with a vocation director. In 2009, he earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Seminary John Paul II and entered novitiate at Nkwatia, Ghana. The following year, he professed vows and began studying at Chicago’s Catholic Theological Union (CTU) in 2011.
Education is still a passion for him. Earlier this month, he graduated from CTU. Now that he is an ordained priest, he returns to teaching—this time teaching the Word of God through word and deed.
Father Koula completed his Cross-Cultural Training Program in California. During this past year, he served as a deacon at St. Ambrose in Chicago’s Hyde Park. His first assignment as a priest will be in the Chad Mission of central Africa.