Ugandan man currently serving ‘on loan’ at area church

Let’s imagine what life might be like in a rural area, without electricity and running water, where people lived off the land. There were poor roads. No hospitals. And you grew the food that you ate. Small scale farmers had large families and produced corn, beans and vegetables, enough to hopefully feed their children and maybe sell extra for the other things the family might need. Teaching your children to farm was valued, going to school was not. In fact, it cost money to go to school. For water, you must walk four miles and then get your water from a dirty swamp where it might contain water borne diseases and make you sick. This is what life was like for Father Andrew Obel in 1973, in Tororo, Uganda. Father Andrew Obel is temporarily serving at the Holy Rosary Church in Detroit Lakes.

From 1971-1979, Uganda was in a state of civil unrest. The brutal dictator, Idi Amini Dada, an illiterate soldier, took absolute control over the country. He toppled the current government by ordering the president, who was flying back from attending an international conference, not to land in Uganda. Anyone who disagreed with him was assassinated. This in a country that has never had peaceful transfers of power from one president to another.

Father Andrew said when he was young, his father, an educated man, was invited to attend a political meeting; but for some reason he had to leave the meeting early. Later he found out that everyone at that meeting had been killed.

“I couldn’t sleep in our family’s home after that, as we were afraid we would be killed too,” he said.

Despite the turmoil, life for Father Andrew as a boy was not unhappy. He described how everyone in the community looked out for one another.  In Africa, he said, there was no nuclear family. Your uncles and aunts were like your parents. There was no word for cousin — everyone was described as a brother or sister. There was always someone who would take care of him and feed him.

His father, a pharmacist, believed in education so Andrew was able to attend school. You had to pay for primary school, and everyone learned English from the very start, as it was mandatory. When he was 15 years old, Andrew joined the seminary. At that time he didn’t know for sure if he wanted to become a priest, but he had a friend that was going and his uncle was a priest. He went through the necessary steps and was accepted into preparatory seminary. This seminary was 20 miles from home and there was no motorized transportation. He used a wooden box to load up the family bicycle with everything he would need for school. Then unload the box once he got to school. Then he had to bring the bicycle home and walk back to school. There were not a lot of home visits during that time.  He was very happy when he started to attend high school Seminary which was only six miles from his village.

Father Andrew Obel. Photo by Deb Trygstad

High school seminary cost money because it included room and board. Father Andrew said in Uganda, a pharmacist didn’t make a lot of money. In addition, he was the youngest child of eight children. There was a risk that he would not be able to continue his education. His older sister, Christine, a doctor stepped in and took over his education expenses. He remembers that she would give him money and she bought him his first pair of shoes. But tragedy struck and Christine died in childbirth while having a C- section.  Father Andrew experienced the pain of losing his sister and the concern that he would not be able to continue in seminary.  But after his sister died, his uncle, who was a priest, stepped in to help him continue his education. Remembering that difficult time, Father Andrew said, “I still have that pair of shoes.”

After six years of high school, college was next. In 1996, Father Andrew attended seminary college, located in Gulu, the northern part of Uganda, 250 miles from home. Gulu was right in the midst of civil unrest between the Lord Resistance Army rebels and the government of Uganda. It was during the time period of the Lost Boys of Sudan.

Despite the dangers, Father Andrew was determined to become a priest, so he boarded a bus and rode the 250 miles north to college. For three years he lived in a war zone. The entire village would come to the seminary for protection.   He remembers many nights lying under his bed for safety. His faith helped him through this difficult time. After he left, he said the college was closed. Upon completion of college, he had a B.A. in Philosophy and Religious Studies, but he still was not a priest.

For his final step to becoming a priest, his Bishop sent him to the New Orleans in the United States. He and a friend were sponsored by the Archbishop of New Orleans. The journey started in the Entebbe airport in Uganda. Andrew and his friend had been given $20 spending money from their Archbishop. This was spending money for the two-day journey. Everything was new and they enjoyed spending the money at the airports. There was a five-hour layover in Brussels and the boys were supposed to check in. Unfortunately, they did not have a clue what “check in” meant.  They kept careful track of the flight and ran as they said their plane was boarding to New York. When they reached the gate, they were told the plane was full. They were supposed to have checked in. They were alone in a strange airport, no money, no phone and no means of contacting anyone. At the last minute, they learned that two people from business class had not arrived and they could have those seats on the plane. Divine intervention came through again according to Father Andrew.

Father Andrew served communion in his community in Uganda. Contributed photo

He lived in New Orleans for four years (2000 to 2004), leaving before hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans.  He said it was exciting to be in a new place. He remembers in the cafeteria seeing so much food. Milk and apple juice (a rare treat in Africa)  ran out of a spout and you could have as much as you wanted. In three to four months of this abundance these skinny boys had grown out of their clothes. Other obstacles he had to overcome were learning to use a computer. He had never touched a mouse before. He also had difficulty trying to understand the professors because of the different English dialect and accent. Eventually he learned all of this and completed his training and returned to Uganda.  He was ordained a priest in 2004 in Tororo, Uganda, in a ceremony that lasted five hours.

Coming back home after four years of living in the United States was like going back in time for Father Andrew. He was assigned a rural parish to begin his priestly ministry. It was difficult to adjust to life with no running water, no electricity and no transportation except a bicycle. For five years he worked for Archdiocese of Tororo, Uganda in different parishes and also in his home parish until he was assigned to work as the Bishop’s secretary. His bishop later sent him for further studies in St. Paul University in Ottawa, Canada, where he obtained a Ph.D in Church Law, also known as Canon Law. While in Ottawa, Father Andrew met Father Joe Richards, a priest of the Crookston Diocese, who invited him to Minnesota to gain pastoral experience.

Since coming to Crookston Diocese, Father Andrew has assisted parishes in East Grand Forks, Thief River Falls and now in Detroit Lakes.  He said, “I am a priest on loan.” He is still a priest of the Archdiocese of Tororo, Uganda and only temporarily serving in Crookston Diocese.

Kids in the Father Andrew’s community in Uganda traveled miles to collect dirty water, just so they can have water. Father Andrew and others raised money to bring a well to the community. Contributed photo

Father Andrew never has forgotten where he came from. In fact, when he started working at Holy Rosary Church in Detroit Lakes in one of his Sunday homilies, he talked about the  need of his people in Uganda who were were still living without clean water. They had to walk four miles to get five gallons of water from dirty swamps to bring back to their home. This water was contaminated and would cause illness and even death. Father Andrew and the Holy Rosary Parish in Detroit Lakes started the Uganda Water Project and raised over $30,000 to drill wells for the village.  They ended up drilling one well and then used the rest of the money to pipe water, pumped by a solar powered pump, to other locations in the village. Now the village community has clean water, closer to home, which saves them time and they are able to produce more food. But most important they are free from water-borne diseases. Father Andrew will be going back to Tororo at the end of April to see his mother and family for the first time in three years for his mother’s 90th birthday. It will be the first time he will see the new well and water project in the village. He might be greeted as hero, as someone who overcame obstacles and pursued daring adventures to reach his goal of becoming a priest and changing the lives of his village community.

But the story does not end here. Despite the blessings of clean water and a well in their community, the village still has other challenges like lack of hospitals and private bathrooms for schoolgirls. The neighboring villages still live without clean water. Father Andrew and the Holy Rosary parish community have a new campaign and would like to help build private bathrooms for girls in the village school and also  help these neighboring villages drill a well of their own. The Holy Rosary Parish Uganda Water Project will continue to help Father Andrew’s village and the neighboring villages meet some of their most basic needs.

If you would be interested in donating and learning more about this, please contact Father Andrew Obel at Holy Rosary Church in Detroit Lakes at 218-847-1393, cell: 218-850-1783 (cell) or  e-mail andykinara@yahoo.com