Samuel Ejeregbe is a seminarian for the Diocese of Westminster, currently in his fourth year of formation. On St Patrick’s Day, he reflects on the huge debt he owes to one particular Irish missionary priest.
'Freely you have received; freely give.' (Mt: 10:8)
As a young teenager visiting the Blessed Sacrament in my parish back in Nigeria, I made a request to God that He would grant my parish priest, Father James Higgins, a long life so that one day he could see me training for the priesthood. Fr Jim is an Irish missionary from Co. Sligo and a priest of the Society of African Missions (SMA) who was sent to my local parish of Saint Patrick’s in Sapele, Nigeria, in 1980. He baptized me as a baby and I grew up to know Fr Jim very well. He was the first person to say to my parents, when I was only 6 years old, that one day I might be a priest. He prepared me to receive the Body and Blood of Jesus for the first time and after my First Holy Communion, I joined the altar servers. Now I could see him minister at close quarters and I remember I was very struck by his great dedication to his priestly calling. He often visited our family home to explain the teachings of the Church to us and of course I had lots of questions to ask him.
Fr Jim’s priestly zeal was what first inspired me to consider if God was calling me to become a priest. I wanted to evangelise like him and win souls for God for the building of His kingdom. He established an incredible 48 out-stations which today are all busy parishes. I benefitted a lot from his fountain of wisdom and I assured him that if I did I begin formation for the priesthood I would let him know.
I left Nigeria in 2006 and came to England to further my education and lost touch with Fr Jim. It was here that God really showed me that He wanted me to test this calling to the priesthood and so since 2011, I have been a seminarian at Allen Hall seminary in London. In the summer of 2013, while working on the seminary summer hostel, I met a priest from the SMA Fathers from Dublin who was staying at Allen Hall. So I asked him if Fr Jim was still alive and he said yes and put me in touch with the Superior General. Through him I was able to make contact again with Fr Jim and phone him - he was very surprised to hear from me!
In August 2014, I decided to travel to Cork to see my dearest Fr Jim, the great missionary priest who spread the Gospel and made me want to be a priest just like him. I arrived in Cork and was well received at the SMA house on Black Rock Road. Fr Jim is now 90 years old and has been retired for a few years. I was moved to tears when I first saw him in his simple room as he had become so frail but, I just closed my eyes and thanked God for allowing me to see him again.
I had the privilege to feed him, and get his room tidy and took some pictures with him. He was absolutely thrilled to see me. We prayed evening prayer together and it was a huge joy to connect once again with this great shepherd of souls. He asked me if I was already ordained a priest and I told him not yet, but that I am still in formation towards priesthood for the Archdiocese of Westminster. In his lovely Irish accent he said, “I am not surprised Samuel, I could see the desire in you as a teenager. Whenever you are ordained be a good and holy priest, don't lord it over the people under your care but be there for them always.” With tears in my eyes I held his hands assuring him that I will always remember his advice. It was such a privilege to see Fr Jim and I continue to keep in touch with him by phone. I hope that, God willing, he is alive to witness my ordination, if that is indeed God’s will for me.