Newly ordained priest sent abroad, far out of his comfort zone, to complete seminary

May 23, 2017 11:20 AM

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 Tettekpoe is the second in a three-part series about the newly ordained missionary priests.

One Sunday evening when newly ordained Divine Word Father Messan Sylvain-Franck Tettekpoe, 36, called home, his sister asked, "How should we call you?"

The thought hadn’t occurred to Father Tettekpoe, who at the time had recently become a transitional deacon. "Just call me by the name that you always call me," he replied.

Father Tettekpoe, a native of Togo in West Africa and the youngest of seven children, grew up in an environment that instilled Christian values and a deep respect for elders—even elder siblings—so the thought that he would have social prominence within his immediate family had not crossed his mind.

He enjoys talking about his childhood. When he was a toddler, his mother would take him to 6:30 a.m. Mass every day. His parents expected their children to go to Mass. With respect and affection, he imitated the priest. When his mother took him on her annual pilgrimage, he immediately knelt at the Stations of the Cross.

Even though his family is an ocean away and on the other side of the Equator, He makes a point to call each family member on his or her birthday, and he dutifully calls his mom two to three times a month. "The respect that I have for them is something that I really treasure in my life," he said.

Although his father passed away a few years ago at age 81, Father Tettekpoe still feels his presence. In fact, his vocation to the priesthood answered one of his father’s fervent prayers.

His father, who married in his 40s, had applied to the seminary as a young man but was denied admittance. Since he couldn’t be a priest, he wished that one of his sons would become a priest. Father Tettekpoe wasn’t even born when his father began his prayerful petition.

When the young man told his father that he wanted to be a priest, the elder Tettekpoe wept. Father Tettekpoe, said, "God heard his prayers."

Father_Sylvain_Tettekpoe_and_mother_news_websiteAlready, Father Tettekpoe’s journey as a missionary has surprised him.

"I hated English," he said. "It was worse when I started learning English [in middle school]. When I came back home, practicing English, a neighbor started laughing. After that I never spoke English again." That is until his religious superiors had other plans for him.

While in Togo, he earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Seminary John Paul II in Lomé in 2008. Later that year, he entered novitiate in Nkwatia-Kwahu, Ghana, and professed vows as a member of the Society of the Divine Word in 2009.

After professing vows, he received an unexpected assignment. With an infectious smile, he said, "The Provincial Council of Togo was sending me abroad for further studies in the United States. I said, ‘What? What are the criteria?’ They replied, ‘Well, we the council decided to send you.’"

The council sent five seminarians from the Togo Province. Only one Togolese seminarian spoke fluent English, and it wasn’t Father Tettekpoe.

He applied for his visa in July of 2009, anticipating an October trip to the United States. With each passing month, he became more and more nervous. He faced the first time being away from his home country and the first time leaving his family.

"I never thought in my life that I would be traveling away from my family and to the United States," he said. "It came as a big shock and surprise to me."

The initial news was only the beginning of surprises.

"It was my first time on a plane," he recalls. "I was so cold. I had never traveled before. I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t know that September and October [in the United States] were so cold. I don’t like cold."

The first leg of his flight to the United States arrived in Rome around 10 a.m. About ten hours later, he arrived at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport and found that his flight to Dubuque, Iowa, was delayed.

Fortunately, his provincial had given him a $100 bill and one of his cousins gave him a $5. He stopped at McDonald’s to get a sandwich and realized that he didn’t know the coins or the value of the currency. He felt overwhelmed.

"I didn’t know if the [cashier] was cheating me," he said. "I told myself, ‘Sometimes it’s good to lose money to get more.’ I told the guy to keep the change."

In time, he became accustomed to the new language, culture, weather and food. Upon arriving, he encountered a lot of spaghetti, bread and potatoes—foods that did not agree with his system.

"The first week, I tried to get fish," he said. "Finally, I said, ‘I am a missionary. I have to conform to the ways of the people.’"

His life and ministries in the United States have been robust and busy. After completing language studies at Divine Word College in Iowa, he began graduate studies at Catholic Theological Union (CTU) in Chicago.

He has served in a soup kitchen at St. Ambrose in Chicago, as well as at House of Hope, a shelter for homeless men in Dubuque.

He said he still occasionally feels anxious, but then he remembers what a special gift of a vocation that God has given to him.

"I don’t know what led Jesus to make me like one of those priests on the altar, but I am thankful. When God is behind you, He will catch you if you falter."

As a seminarian, Father Tettekpoe completed his Cross-Cultural Training Program in the Society of the Divine Word’s U.S. Southern Province. As a deacon, he served St. Ailbe parish in Chicago’s Calumet Heights neighborhood.

For his first assignment, he will remain in the Chicago Province and work in African-American ministry.

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