Wisner, Beemer priest’s origins are in Kenya
WISNER — The Rev. Vincent Sunguti of Wisner is linked from one side of the world to the other by his Christian faith.
The rest of his life has been that of contrasts, as far apart as North America is from Africa. He’s relocated from the equatorial land of Kenya with little temperature variation to Nebraska, with its seasonal changes. From a mud house and life of poverty to a land of plenty.
Sunguti is a recent arrival to his Catholic congregations: St. Joseph’s at Wisner and Holy Cross at Beemer. He is known as an administrator.
Although his duties to his congregations are the same as a pastor, he is technically a priest on loan to promote faith from his Diocese of Eldoret in Kenya.
Sunguti grew up in Kenya in the village of Mukhuyu in Lugari, about 30 miles away from the city of Kagamega where his father worked with the city council. His mother took care of their nine children. Sunguti was number five.
Polygamy is a common practice in Kenya, and one day his father didn’t come home, preferring instead to live with his new, second wife in Kagamega. As a result, he no longer provided financial assistance for the youngest six children. That was left to Sunguti’s mother.
Sunguti, his mother and siblings worked for neighboring farmers, weeding corn and edible beans by hand from morning until three in the afternoon. For that labor, they were altogether paid $2, an amount that would buy cornmeal for the day.
In addition, Sunguti’s mother farmed three acres of her own, planting corn, beans and sunflowers that they sold for the oil. Three milk cows provided milk for the family, plus a portion to sell.
“There’s a lot of malnutrition in Kenya, and people are skinny,” Sunguti said, due to a diet lacking in protein, fats and fruit.
When Sunguti yearned to go to high school, his mother sold her three cows, paying for a full year of schooling. His Catholic high school principal, the Rev. Maurice Crowley, gave Sunguti a job during vacation between the school’s three terms.
Sunguti cleaned and did repair work at the school to pay for his remaining three years. Surprisingly, as he was arranging books in Crowley’s office, he came across his passport photo that Sunguti keeps as a souvenir.
“Without his intervention, I wouldn’t be here,” Sunguti said.
Crowley was a white, Irish Catholic priest in a mass of people of color. Most of the priests in his diocese in 1970s and ’80s were Irish.
Today, Crowley is Sunguti’s bishop in his diocese of Eldoret.
As Sunguti grew up in his village, his parish priest, the Rev. Joseph Oconor, was the only person in the entire village with a car. The village used his car as an ambulance.
One night when Sunguti’s older brother was sick, they knocked on Oconor’s door at night. The priest took him to the hospital.
When Sunguti felt the call into the priesthood, Oconor was an example he wanted to emulate.
“He saved my brother’s life,” Sunguti said. “The kindness and love he showed, created me to feel, ‘This is what I want to be.’ ”
As a result, Sunguti has found himself to be a photo negative of his childhood priest, the only Kenyan priest in a land of whites.
Sunguti was ordained as a priest in Kenya in 2001, and on his tenth anniversary into the priesthood, he was granted a sabbatical year to study at Creighton University in Omaha. By May of 2015, he had earned master’s degrees in theology and Christian spirituality.
Sunguti’s first language is Luhyam, his second is Swahili, and his third language is English, which is taught in Kenyan schools. He grew up in a country with 42 tribes and languages.
He served as a priest in residence at St. Mary Magdalene Church near Creighton, and following graduation, he served as an associate pastor at St. Margaret Mary Catholic Church, also in Omaha.
Eventually, he was asked if would be the administrator in Wisner and Beemer parishes.
A primary difference between serving as a priest in Kenya and the United States is that in Kenya, churches are spread out and priests serve more than one church.
Oftentimes, a large church will have 10 to 15 mission churches, or out-stations; one priest will serve all of them. A priest may be in the office only one day a week, with the remainder of his time spent traveling as much as 30 miles in every direction to serve the smaller parishes.
“It’s really missionary work. You will leave your car and walk in the hills on muddy, rocky roads. Sometimes you will go hungry and end up meeting a hungry congregation,” he said.
It’s why priests in rural Kenya rarely gain weight, he remarked with a smile.
“It’s easier and more comfortable to stay here in Nebraska,” he said, looking forward to his sixth winter where his only worries are icy roads.