- The Washington Times - Friday, February 16, 2007

NORTH TROY, Vt. — For the past eight months, the Rev. Henry Mlinganisa has been getting a lesson in American culture. His parishioners at St. Vincent de Paul Church, meanwhile, have been learning about Roman Catholic life in Tanzania, the East African nation that is his home.

And they are grateful to have him.

“If it wasn’t for Father Henry, we would be closed,” said retired farmer Ernest Choquette, 65, who has attended the simple wooden church a half mile from the Canadian border since he was 2 years old. “When we had a surplus of priests and a surplus of sisters, we went over to Africa and ministered to their people. Now, they are coming back and ministering to us.”

Father Mlinganisa is one of eight foreign priests brought to Vermont to help the Catholic Diocese of Burlington alleviate its well-known priest shortage that has forced the closure of churches across the state.

It’s a solution being used by Catholic dioceses across the country.

A 1999-2000 study by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University found that about 16 percent of active priests in U.S. dioceses were from outside the country. That number has likely increased since then.

While the number of priests in Europe and the Americas has dropped, the clergy ranks have grown in Africa and Asia, according to recently released Vatican statistics.

Foreign-born priests are serving all over Vermont. There’s another Tanzanian priest in Brattleboro, two Nigerians at Fletcher Allen Health Care in Burlington, one in Fairfax and one in Wilmington. There’s an English priest in Enosburg and a Filipino who works in the diocese offices in Burlington.

Father Mlinganisa’s journey began when he asked for a four-month sabbatical in the United States to coincide with the 25th anniversary of his becoming a priest. Instead his bishop sent him to Vermont for four years.

Now Father Mlinganisa does his turn at the North Country Hospital in Newport, meets with his parishioners and learns the ways of rural Vermont.

Over his lifetime, Mr. Choquette has watched as the number of priests in Vermont has dwindled and rural churches have been shuttered and parishes consolidated. He said he feared that without Father Mlinganisa the church where his seven children were married would have closed.

“When he decided to come into the rural area it gave us a whole new opportunity to keep our churches open,” Mr. Choquette said.

Everyone involved recognizes the irony of missionaries from Africa and elsewhere leaving their Third World countries to share their faith in the United States. But even if he speaks with an accent and comes from a church with no electricity, the church’s message is the same.

“What we read on Sunday here is the same Gospel read throughout the world,” Father Mlinganisa said.

Father Mlinganisa, a wiry 55-year-old man who loves to play soccer and volleyball and ride his bike, said sharing is a part of the church.

“The nature of the church is missionary,” Father Mlinganisa said. “By it’s nature, we are not bound to remain where we are incarnated.”

Catholic dioceses across the country are using foreign priests to make up the well-documented shortage of priests.

“Historically we’ve always had missionary priests coming to this country,” said Sister Mary Ann Walsh, a spokesman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington. “Of late we are seeing them again. It’s all over the country.”

But Sister Walsh said the imported priests were arranged by the individual dioceses and no one was tracking the numbers.

The hope is that Vermont’s imported priests will help fill the immediate need for priests, said the Rev. John McDermott, the diocese’s chancellor. Seven of the diocese’s eight international priests are temporarily assigned to the United States: Father Mlinganisa’s appointment is for four years.

“The prayer is that as the years progress we generate more vocations to the priesthood here in Vermont,” he said.

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