By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
ST. JOSEPH — Quite literally, Deacon Leonard Gicheru followed a long road to the priesthood of the Diocese of Kansas City — a road that began in his native Kenya.
“I wanted to be a priest when I was 5 years old. When my family would go to Mass, I would point to the priest and tell my Dad, ‘I want to be like that man,’” Deacon Gicheru said.
He followed that path.
“My parents (Peter and Mary Gicheru) are strong Catholics,” he said. “I served many years as an altar boy, and that motivated me. In high school, I got into the Catholic Action movement. We make a promise to live a Christian, chaste life. We had meetings every week, and we went do daily Mass.”
Out of high school, Deacon Gicheru said, he not only wanted to be a priest, he wanted to be a Comboni Missionary, serving the poorest of his country’s poor.
“That particular way of life appealed to me,” he said. “I saw the sacrifices my parents made for me to send me to school, and I wanted to serve others.”
The Comboni Missionaries required a full year of discernment, working in the poorest slums of Nairobi.
“You live like that for one year to show that you can live that harsh life in the future, living with people who have nothing.”
From there, he served a two year novitiate, and was getting close to ordination when life intervened.
Deacon Gicheru had the opportunity to emigrate to the United States under the sponsorship of family friends, Joseph and Mary Mwaura, who live in Gladstone. His childhood dreams of the priesthood were over, or so he thought.
“’The Land of Green Pastures.’ That is what we call the United States in Africa. I had to go to the United States to get a job and help my family,” he said. “I went to school and became a certified nursing assistant. Then I worked in a nursing home.”
Every day, when he could, especially after working an overnight shift, Deacon Gicheru would attend daily Mass at St. Andrew the Apostle Parish. The pastor, Father Vincent Rogers, quickly took notice.
“He stopped me after Mass one day and said, ‘I’d like to talk to you in my office,’” he said. “Then he said, ‘Have you ever thought about being a priest?’”
Deacon Gicheru poured his story out to Father Rogers. Father Rogers then put him in touch with Father Richard Rocha, director of the Office of Vocations. Father Rocha then contacted the Comboni Missionaries in Kenya.
“My (Comboni) Superior said, ‘We are still waiting for him to come back,’” Deacon Gicheru said.
His dream was alive again as he entered a special seminary, Holy Apostles in Cromwell, Conn., to finish his education and preparation.
Holy Apostles is not only a seminary for delayed vocations, but one that attracts students from around the world — 20 nations from Asia, Africa, Europe, North and South America.
“It opened my mind to the church,” he said. “It motivated me. It challenged me once again not to look just at myself.”
Deacon Gicheru also set aside any fears he might have had about serving people from a different culture.
“It is not fear, it is a challenge. Now I am being challenged to face the people I will serve for the rest of my life,” he said.
The people of Co-Cathedral Parish in St. Joseph, where he has served in his year as transitional deacon taught him the beauty of American Catholic culture.
“I love St. Joseph,” he said. “Here at the Cathedral, the people are very loyal to their church. They are three and four generations of families who have come to this church. They choose to come back here because of the loyalty they have for this parish.”
One thing he has learned — keep the homilies short and to the point.
“In Kenya, most of the people would feel cheated if you only have a homily for seven minutes,” he said. “A priest has to preach for at least 20 minutes, sometimes for an hour. Mass is a community event that we long for.”
Deacon Gicheru said he has no idea where his priesthood will lead him. But he knows that is not for him to decide.
“I trust in God to guide me,” he said. “He is leading me the right way.”
Deacon Gicheru is also certain of his vocation, more certain, he said, because of the unusual path God led him down to answer it.
“God never stopped calling. I just had to sharpen my way of listening,” he said.
“I don’t feel worthy to be a priest, but if not me, then who else?” Deacon Gicheru said.
“God is calling me. I am now convinced of that more than ever,” Deacon Gicheru said. “Everything I have asked for, I have been given. Obviously, he is the one who is accepting me.”