By Theresa Carson
The son of a teacher, Father Raymond Asagdem Akumbilim SVD, 37, distinctly recalls his Confirmation at age 10. On that day, he received an invitation that has influenced the course of his life.
At the sign of peace, Bishop Rudolph A. Akanlu of Navrongo-Bolgatanga, the first Catholic prelate born in Ghana, patted him on the cheek. Father Akumbilim said, “I remember him telling me, ‘Raymond, I think I want you to become a priest, and that has stuck with me.’”
The fifth of six living siblings, Father Akumbilim attended St. Charles minor seminary for high school in Tamale, Ghana. His parents, both converts to the Catholic faith, sent him to parochial schools before high school.
As a child he served at Mass in his parish, which was run by the Missionaries of Africa. They arrived in Ghana in 1906 and founded his family’s parish in 1927.
“As a child I really admired the Missionaries of Africa, and our house was very, very close to the mission so we almost did everything for the mission,” he said “We followed the fathers to the villages to serve at Mass. At that time, I said I wanted to be a priest.”
He was somewhat familiar with the Divine Word Missionaries, who were founded by St. Arnold Janssen in 1875 and first sent men to the southern part of Ghana in 1938. He had gotten to know them through Holy Spirit Missionary Sisters, one of two women’s congregations established by St. Arnold. The sisters managed St. Luke Clinic in Father Akumbilim’s region.
Following high school graduation in 1999, Father Akumbilim decided to attend the University of Cape Coast. The loss of his father in 2004 eventually led him back to the seminary.
“He never felt sick,” Father Akumbilim said. “I suspect it was a heart attack. I met him on the ninth; he died on the 13th.”
In his last conversation with his father, they talked about what the young man needed to go back to school later that week.
“When I went back to school, I felt empty,” he said. “I struggled that year with my academic work. Everything was not going well for me. I started feeling I wasn't in the right place. My feet were not on the ground. The desire of being a priest came back to strongly.”
After graduating from the university with a degree in social science, he fulfilled his year of national service to Ghana and then landed sick in the hospital. More strongly than ever, he felt he should pursue the vocation to the priesthood. In 2007, he joined the Society of the Divine Word.
“I still remember how I felt that first night at seminary,” he said. “I felt at home. I had never felt that way before—joy, serenity, confidence. The conviction was unimaginable.”
That overwhelming sense of purpose and the camaraderie of fellow students helped him prevail, he said. In 2011, he professed vows in Nkawtia-Kwahu, Ghana.
Then came a new challenge. “Two weeks before first vows I was told I would go to the United States,” he said. “My initial anxiety was how will I fit in? But then I thought, ‘Well, we’re missionaries. We adapt.’”
Adapt he has. Last week, he graduated with a master’s degree from Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. He also served as a transitional deacon at two Chicago parishes: Immaculate Conception, a predominantly Hispanic parish in Chicago’s Brighton Park neighborhood and St. Ambrose in the Brighton Park neighborhood.
Every Sunday, he went to both parishes. They offer seven weekend masses between them, and he preached in English and Spanish. At St. Ambrose, he also served the Ghanaian community in Chicago.
Father Akumbilim will remain in the Chicago Province for his first assignment. He will serve Sacred Heart parish in Memphis, Tenn.
He said, “I’m looking forward to whatever the experience will be.”