Tasmanian Priest home in time for Christmas

By Veronika Cox

When Fr Paschal Okpon found himself trapped in Nigeria for almost two years due to pandemic border controls, the Hobart priest put his faith in God.

“In all the things that happened I give praise to God because His promise of not leaving us despite the storm abides still,” he said.

Travelling to Nigeria for his mother’s funeral in February 2020, Fr Paschal could never have imagined how long it would be before he set foot on Australian soil again.

Now back home, he has been released from quarantine just in time to celebrate Midnight Mass at St Mary’s Cathedral.

“It was almost overwhelming,” Fr Paschal said of the extended ordeal.

“After the funeral, I started making plans to return to Australia but was prevented from doing so because of the lockdown.”

Fr Paschal said everything in Nigeria was strange, as he imagined it was around the whole world.

“Not being able to go out, businesses weren’t opened, having to learn to wear a face mask, not going to church (the strangest of them all) and other things,” he said.

“At some point I thought to myself, what is happening in the world? Where are we going? What did we do wrong? How long are we going to continue like this?”

Fr Paschal said the uncertain nature of COVID-19 made people feel a sense of hopelessness, as they didn’t know what to expect next.

“People became more and more worried because sources of livelihood were disrupted – living to many became a nightmare,” he explained.

During the lockdown, Fr Paschal offered masses at home, in the company of his family members.

After the lockdown was lifted in Nigeria, Fr Paschal thought it was time to head home.

Unfortunately, however, the Australian borders remained closed.

“I made the decision (after asking God) to approach the bishop of my home diocese to ask him to send me to a church where I could assist in pastoral activities. Fortunately, the bishop agreed, and sent me to St John parish, Eniong Offot, Uyo where I assisted a very nice priest Very Rev. Fr. Victor Edet in the parish’s work.”

Fr Paschal said his first time working as a priest in Nigeria was an amazing experience.

“The parishioners were very hospitable and kind, the children and the youths welcomed me and always wanted to be around me,” he said.

“I celebrated many weddings and baptised many children. I visited the sick and administered communion. I also celebrated Masses every Sunday with the students of Adiahaobong Secondary School, Enoing Offot.

“Indeed, the lockdown became a blessing in disguise.”

Fr Paschal said despite some of the unexpected joys, it was wonderful to be home.

“I’ve missed Tasmania a lot,” he admitted.

“I’ve missed my friends, my parishioners, my priest friends, and the school children of St Brendan-Shaw [College]. I’ve pretty much missed everyone in Tasmania.”

Fr Paschal said he was excited to begin his new posting in the Cathedral, beginning with a Midnight Mass celebration.

“I’m looking forward to a lot of things. Primarily, I look forward to working in sync with the Archbishop to achieve the church’s mandate,” he said.

“I hope to make new friends and new families, too. I’d like to just walk around the place and familiarise myself with the environment.”

Fr Paschal said he was grateful for the support of Archbishop Julian and the Archdiocese while he was in Nigeria.

“I’d also like to appreciate my family and friends in Nigeria for supporting me while I was there, and my Australian families and friends for supporting me while I was away,” he said.

“May God protect and bless you all in the name of the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen!”

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