Archdiocesan priest gives gift of water and faith through mission in Togo, Africa
Oct. 17, 2017
The Gospel story of the woman at the well came alive for now-Father William Ryan while he was serving in a well-digging program in Togo, a small country in West Africa, from 1973-75. He was volunteering there through the Peace Corps, and would travel from village to village, manually installing wells so the villagers no longer had to walk miles to get dirty water to drink.
While he was happy to be able to provide these people with an essential material need, he kept thinking about Jesus’s words, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again; but whoever drinks the water I shall give will never thirst.” This eventually guided him to pursue a vocation to the priesthood in the Archdiocese of Washington, his home diocese.
After becoming a priest, he served in Hispanic ministry for the archdiocese for 16 years, and remained in touch with a priest he had met in Togo who later became the archbishop of Lomé. Throughout his priesthood, Father Ryan continually felt called to return to Togo, and in 2006 the opportunity finally arose for him to go there and open a new mission parish, which he named Our Lady of Guadalupe.
Before Father Ryan arrived, there was one parish covering the area of more than a hundred villages, which meant that the priest could only make it to each one about once a year. With the establishment of Our Lady of Guadalupe and another parish at the same time, the three parishes now each cover a much smaller territory and priests are able to visit the villages more often. When he does visit, Father Ryan said he always feels welcomed.
“Hospitality is a big part of the African culture. They are very welcoming,” he said. “I’ve never felt at all threatened. It has been a welcome from the very beginning.”
The mission parish has about 14 “secondary stations” that have a catechist to lead religious education and sacramental preparation for both children and adults. About half of those catechists are also Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion. Each Sunday, two of them arrive at Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish on their motorcycles to pick up the consecrated hosts to bring back to some of the secondary stations.
In addition to being the pastor of this mission, Father Ryan coordinates well-digging projects, allowing him to offer people in the villages that he serves both physical water and the “living water.” He said he has baptized hundreds of people in the 11 years that he has been there.
During the most recent well-building project that the mission sponsored, Father Ryan offered to say a Mass of thanksgiving at the village once the project was completed. He soon learned that this was the first Mass that had ever been celebrated in the village, and he was the first priest ever to visit.
The mission parish sent people to the village a few days before the Mass to set up a shelter to hold the liturgy, and on the day the Mass was celebrated, the choir from the mission waded through a river to sing there. Father Ryan celebrated Mass in their native language of “Ewe,” and afterward mentioned that he hoped he could come back to the village in the future and use water from the newly installed well to baptize some of the people there.
Father Ryan said it is important to help people there with specific human needs like building a well as a way to get their attention and build an environment where they can be open to the Gospel message. He compared this to how Jesus would often go into a village and perform a miracle before beginning to preach.
When talking about the faith with someone who hasn’t had much exposure to Christianity before, he said it is easy to find a common starting point with the belief in an all-powerful God, who the Togolese call “Mawu,” meaning, “He who will not be surpassed.”
“Africans in general have a spontaneous, natural belief in God. They are much more connected with nature than we are. They are in tune with the rhythms and seasons of nature and their dependence on God for the rain and the sun; otherwise their crops aren’t going to grow. They know they are sustained by God and His power,” said Father Ryan. “It is the next step after that, the specific Good News that that God has a Son, an eternal Son that He sent to redeem us. That’s the bridge from what they already believe into the Christian faith and specifically the Catholic faith.”
Father Ryan said he chose the name “Our Lady of Guadalupe” for the mission parish for several reasons. First, he called the apparition of Our Lady of Guadalupe “the greatest miracle of evangelization in the history of the Catholic Church,” since there were about nine million baptisms in the region after the Blessed Mother appeared to a peasant named Juan Diego in what is now Mexico. He also felt that the message of Our Lady of Guadalupe to Juan Diego was appropriate for his mission.
“She wanted a church built that people who were suffering; they could come and she would give them the consolation of a mother and heal their wounds and their suffering,” said Father Ryan. “There is an awful lot of poverty and suffering in Africa.”
In addition, he wished to invoke the patroness of the Americas to watch over the Hispanic community in the Archdiocese of Washington that he was leaving behind. Father Ryan said his ministry to the Hispanic community here prepared him well for his mission in Togo, because even though the Latin American and African cultures are very different, both experiences involved “working with people and trying to understand their background and how their attitudes are shaped from the country they come from.”
“All those experiences of life help you open your eyes to the universality of the Church and appreciate people of all different backgrounds and cultures,” he said. “One Lord, one faith, one Baptism. They celebrate Mass in a different way but it’s the same Mass.”
Our Lady of Guadalupe parish has several important events throughout the year, including a reenactment of the apparition, which incorporates different youth from the villages every year. On the feast of Christ the King, they have a special Mass, followed by a Eucharistic Procession and exposition of the Blessed Sacrament. The parish is currently housed in a mud chapel, but will soon be moved to a new church building that is nearly complete.
The mission in Togo also includes a health clinic, which provides low-cost medical service to people in the area, and it has opened six primary Catholic schools and one “collège” for grades 7-10. Altogether, the schools are currently serving 1,200 students, most of whom are not Catholic. But Father Ryan said the schools are a great avenue for catechesis, and most of their catechumens come from their schools.
Right now they are hoping to be able to build dormitories at the collège, which is located at the mission, so students who graduate from primary schools in other villages are able to attend. Then, someday, they hope to add a third story to the building so the students can continue their education even further.
“If we can work that out… I hope it is going to be a very beneficial thing for the whole region,” said Father Ryan.
In addition, Father Ryan hopes to increase the Internet bandwidth in the parish territory, which is currently very slow. This will allow the different pieces of the mission to be better connected, and enable them to teach students about computers in their schools.
To contribute to the mission, Father Ryan first asks for prayers and sacrifices, which he believes are most important. But since the material needs are also great, people can contribute financially by visiting www.TogoMissionParish.org or by sending a donation to PO Box 130, Gaithersburg, MD 20884, where Father Ryan said he will “handle it myself and make sure it goes where it is needed most.”
When asked how the mission has affected his faith, Father Ryan said he has learned the need to rely on God through prayer.
“You learn pretty quickly that you can’t survive if you’re not praying; if you’re not trying to maintain a deep and personal relationship with our Lord through prayer,” he said. “It certainly motivated me to try to deepen my prayer life; to try to spend time in front of the Blessed Sacrament each day, to know that all this work is really in the Lord’s hands. It is not in my hands.”
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