The discernment of priestly vocations runs in the family for Father William Ryan, yet it was not until he traveled far from home that he discovered the mission that would ultimately define his own vocation.

Father Ryan grew up attending Holy Redeemer Parish in Kensington, Maryland, with his parents and seven brothers and sisters, including a brother who is now a Jesuit priest. His father had also been a Jesuit novice before discerning a different calling, which Father Ryan said was a “wise discernment,” because otherwise, “I wouldn’t be here!”

“Also, God got two for the price of one,” he said in an e-mail to the Catholic Standard, since his parents’ marriage resulted in both his and his brother’s vocations to the priesthood. This year, Father Ryan is celebrating the 40th anniversary of his ordination as a priest of the Archdiocese of Washington.

After graduating from Georgetown University, Father Ryan spent two years in 1973-75 serving in the Peace Corps in Togo, West Africa. During this time, he would travel from village to village, manually installing wells so the villagers no longer had to walk miles to get dirty water to drink. There, he experienced the universality of the Church that would become a marker of his priesthood.

“I never really thought much about the priesthood until my service in the Peace Corps, when I saw firsthand how much the Catholic faith meant to people from such a different cultural background from my own,” he said in an e-mail.

In Togo, Father Ryan worked to provide people with the essential material need of water, but 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 return home and pursue a vocation to the priesthood in the Archdiocese of Washington.

Father Ryan was ordained to the priesthood on May 24, 1980 in the Cathedral of St. Matthew in Washington. For the next 25 years, he served the varied cultures of the Archdiocese of Washington, beginning as a parochial vicar at Our Lady Queen of Peace, a predominantly African American parish in Washington, D.C. Then, after spending a year in Santo Domingo, he began ministering to the Latin American communities in the archdiocese, serving as parochial vicar at St. Thomas Apostle in Washington, St. Martin of Tours in Gaithersburg, and St. James in Mount Rainier.

Throughout this time of ministry in the Archdiocese of Washington, Father Ryan remained in touch with a priest he had met in Togo, who later became the archbishop of Lomé. Though he greatly cherished his parish experiences in the archdiocese, he continually felt called to return to Togo. In 2006, the opportunity finally arose for him to open a new mission parish there, which he named Our Lady of Guadalupe.

Before Father Ryan returned to Togo, 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.

The mission parish has 15 “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 Our Lady of Guadalupe, Father Ryan coordinates well-digging projects, allowing him to offer people in the villages that he serves both physical water and the “living water” of Baptism. He has baptized about 1,300 people in the 14 years that he has been there.

Father William Ryan baptizes a child in Togo, West Africa, where he serves as pastor of the mission parish, Our Lady of Guadalupe (Photo courtesy of Father Ryan)

Among the many reasons for choosing “Our Lady of Guadalupe” as the name for his parish in Togo, Father Ryan 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 in a 2017 interview with the Catholic Standard. “One Lord, one faith, one Baptism. They celebrate Mass in a different way but it’s the same Mass.”

In recent years, the ministry of the parish has extended even further, now including a health clinic, six primary Catholic schools and one “collège” for grades 7-10. They recently built dormitories for the collège, making room for 100 girls and 100 boys, who otherwise would be unable to attend, to live at the school. They have been opening them to one class at a time, and Father Ryan expects them to be full in about two years.

“Our conviction is that these rural students, almost all of them children of subsistence farmers, deserve the same educational opportunity as kids in the capital,” Father Ryan said in an e-mail. “Their only payment, aside from a minimal tuition fee, is to bring nine bowls of corn each trimester.”

In order to make the ministry of the parish sustainable well into the future, they have also launched a Teak Tree Project in recent years, where people can donate trees that they will harvest and sell in order to provide financial support to the projects of the mission parish.

“The Teak Tree Project is important because not only is teak wood of great value, but the teak tree regrows after it is harvested – a gift that keeps on giving,” Father Ryan said in an e-mail. “So the purpose of the teak project is to help the parish eventually become self-sufficient. We've planted thousands of teak trees already, but it's a long-term project.”

Father Ryan said he has learned many things from the people of Togo during his years there, including the importance of hospitality, an openness to new life even in the midst of severe poverty, and respect for the elderly, whom they consider to be repositories of wisdom.

“I have been blessed to experience firsthand the universality of the Catholic Church, in a suburban parish growing up, then in an African American parish (Our Lady Queen of Peace) for six years, then for a year in Latin America preparing for 15 years of Hispanic ministry, and now, for the past 14 years as a missionary in Africa,” Father Ryan said in an e-mail. “It's been a rich, full life, for which I am very grateful to God. I can't begin to repay Him.”

Father Ryan requests three things in order of importance from those who would like to support the mission in Togo: prayer, personal sacrifices, and donations. Tax-deductible donations can be sent by check to Togo Mission, inc., p.o. box 130, Gaithersburg, MD, 20884. Online donations can be made through PayPal at their website: togomissionparish.org

Father Ryan stands outside a chapel where he celebrates Mass for some of the people whom he is serving in Togo, West Africa. (Photo courtesy of Father Ryan)