Father Shadrach Ketiga SVD has a head for dates. He can recall the exact dates and circumstances of when he entered the seminary, first stepped on American soil and began classes at Divine Word College.
He remembers when Father Timothy Lenchak SVD picked him up at O’Hare Airport in Chicago and when Father Frank Power SVD met him at the Norman Manley International Airport in Kingston, Jamaica.
He also holds the legacy of his Catholic faith in his heart. Father Shadrach grew up in Mount Hagen, the third largest city in Papua New Guinea, and attended Mass in Rebiamul parish, which was founded by the legendary Father William Ross SVD.
Father Ross established the first Catholic church in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea, among people whose ancestors had never seen a white man. Father Ketiga said an estimated 10 percent of Papua New Guineans live in the jungle with no roads.
“They have no experience of modern society, cars or white men,” he said.
Father Ross died six years before Father Ketiga was born. Nonetheless, the missionary priest had a profound impact on the younger man’s life.
In the early 20th century, Divine Word Missionaries trained catechists to help teach the Catholic faith to their neighbors. Father Ketiga’s maternal grandparents were two of Father Ross’s first catechists.
They raised Father Ketiga after his parents separated when he was an infant, so he grew up hearing stories about Father Ross.
“He taught locals to teach the faith to the people,” Father Ketiga said. “My grandparents were the first students to learn and know about Jesus. Only through Father Ross, they came to know this God that we serve.”
Before meeting Father Ross, Father Ketiga’s grandfather had two wives. “Lots of guys had polygamous marriages at the time—three to four wives. [To Father Ketiga’s grandfather] Father Ross said, 'You have to let go of one of the two wives.' My grandfather stuck to the one. He was faithful. He meant business. He was so curious about the afterlife.”
He allowed his second wife to leave and marry his younger brother.
“My grandfather told his peers, ‘God is telling us not to hold onto more than one wife,’” Father Ketiga said.
“My grandma, she’s a very faithful woman. She was a workaholic and a great farmer, good with pigs and chickens,” Father Ketiga said. “The amazing thing about my grandparents, they never fought. They are true soulmates. They were so loving together.
“My grandparents were devoted Catholics,” he continued. “My grandmother would wake me up very early and take me to morning Mass.”
As a youth, Father Ketiga was an altar server for Most Rev. Michael Meier SVD, a German native and the second archbishop of the Archdiocese of Mount Hagen.
Father Ketiga said he felt that being a priest and going to North America seemed inevitable. He entered the seminary in Papua New Guinea in 2008 and was ordained on Aug. 2, 2018.
Religious superiors assigned him to the Chicago Province for his first assignment. In December 2018, he traveled from Techny, Ill., to Divine Word College in Epworth, Iowa, where he studied until November of 2019. Father Ketiga has served the people of Jamaica since Nov. 21, 2019.
He is based at Our Lady of the Assumption parish in Morant Bay in southeastern Jamaica. The Our Lady of the Assumption is a poor parish.
“Our church is filled with the elderly,” he said. “We have only two professional people in the parish—one principal, a nurse, mostly retired people. Many young people in Jamaica are going to the cities for jobs, and the farmers are emigrating.”
St. Thomas, a mission outpost of Our Lady of the Assumption, is in Port Morant and has an even smaller congregation. St. Thomas draws 10-30 Mass-goers each Sunday and average offerings are small, he said.
Stipends from the diocese help but for the most part, the Society of the Divine Word is funding the churches, he remarked.
“It’s hard to run a parish with electric, phone and water bills,” he said.
Father Ketiga devotes himself to feeding the people—spiritually and physically. He helps to distribute food from the government and from Food for the Poor. He also visits the sick and those who cannot walk to church. He takes the Eucharist and prays with them.
Because some Morant Bay residents live in poverty, they hesitate to let him into their homes.
“I tell them, ‘All I need is your presence,’” he said. “The more I visit them, the more likely they’ll come to church. I have to reach out to them, just like Jesus reached out to people.”
Just like Father Ross reached out to the people.
What would Father Ketiga say to Father Ross if he had the chance? “You came to my country; now I return the favor.”