At the Lord’s service: Kesiena “Dennis” Obienu

Story by Beth Donze, Clarion Herald
Photo by Frank J. Methe, Clarion Herald

On May 18 at St. Louis Cathedral, five seminarians of the Archdiocese of New Orleans will be ordained as transitional deacons – the final step before ordination to the priesthood. The ordinands are Sylvester Adoga, Luis Duarte, Dennis Obienu, Luis Valencia and John Yike. The Ordination Mass will be live-streamed at nolacatholic.org.

Kesiena “Dennis” Obienu

Age: 35

Hometown: Warri, Nigeria

Diaconate internship: St. Luke the Evangelist, Slidell

Most looking forward to:  “Proclaiming the Gospel, giving homilies and serving the poor and sick.”

Catholic grandmother was a shining light

When Dennis Obienu’s parents finally received the baby they had prayed for after eight long years of marriage, they named him “Kesiena” – which means “It is now” in the tribal language of Isoko.

Unfortunately, the new parents’ joy would be short-lived.

Obienu’s father died before his son’s second birthday, which prompted his grief-stricken widow to hand over the toddler to her own mother and to permanently leave Nigeria for a fresh start in Italy.

The family tragedy had a silver lining: Obienu’s grandmother was a devout Catholic who formed her orphaned grandson in the faith and who was a guiding light to him until her death in 2010.

“I was born into the African traditional religion – that was the religion of my mother and my dad. They would worship trees and kill animals for sacrifice to the gods,” explained Obienu, 35.

“I had a very sad beginning,” he said, “but my grandmother filled the gap for both of (my parents). She was everything to me!”

At his Catholic elementary school in the southern Nigerian city of Sapele, Obienu joined the Legion of Mary, which offered weekly prayer gatherings and engaged members in service to the sick and elderly. Obienu also was a dedicated altar server and part of a parish group that sought to deepen devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary.

“(My discernment to the priesthood) was a gradual process, an admiration that began by seeing my pastor celebrate Mass,” he recalls. “I would come home and mimic him celebrating Mass, dressed like him and doing his gestures.”

Still, Obienu said his extended family was “shocked” when he told them he wanted to enter the seminary.

“In Africa, it’s really a big deal for an only child to consider the priesthood – because we believe in the continuation of the family name – so that became a struggle,” he said.

But Obienu kept pushing, finally gaining permission to enroll in Holy Martyrs of Uganda Minor Seminary, located in his hometown of Warri, Nigeria.

During his six years there – from ages 11 to 17 – Obienu was guided by two rectors who went on to serve in the Archdiocese of New Orleans: Father Peter Akpoghiran, archdiocesan chancellor and judicial vicar of the Metropolitan Tribunal; and Father Raymond Igbogidi, parochial vicar of St. Christopher Church in Metairie.

A Jesuit priest advised Obienu to first attend college, resulting in a bachelor’s degree in business management and an MBA in human resources management from the University of Nigeria. After two years of teaching religious education at a Jesuit high school in Lagos, Obienu entered the Spiritan novitiate operated by the Holy Ghost brothers and priests. He spent five years there, taking simple vows as a religious brother, serving as vice principal of a new high school and teaching religion and civics.

As he entered his 30s, Obienu began feeling like “any other social worker” and craved something more.

“I wanted to serve, but serve out of the enrichment I had received spiritually,” explained Obienu, who left the Spiritans to enroll in an internship in spiritual direction in Benin City and become a spiritual director for the Daughters of the Holy Spirit.

In 2017, his former rector, Father Akpoghiran, invited Obienu to consider undertaking priestly studies in New Orleans.

“The most fascinating thing I have received (at Notre Dame Seminary) is the theological studies,” Obienu said. “It has been very awesome. It transformed my whole perception about the church, life in general and how to see human beings.”

Obienu said Ignatian spirituality – which he calls “an imaginative form of prayer with Scripture” – gives him daily opportunities “to re-examine my vocation and to entrust my vocation to God.”

An avid reader and soccer player in his downtime, Obienu says New Orleans, with its welcoming people, warm weather and delicious food, reminds him of his Nigerian homeland.

“I’ve journeyed a long time alone outside family, so I don’t feel homesick that much,” he said. “I try to establish family wherever I find myself.”

Beth Donze can be reached at bdonze@clarionherald.org.

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