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One Collar, 
Many Cultures

In September 1954, a young and newly ordained Father James Heslin boarded a ship for a five-day voyage to the United States. After completing his studies at St. Patrick Seminary in Thurles, County Tipperary, Ireland, his first assignment was in the Diocese of Saint Augustine. Fifty-three years later, Msgr. Heslin retired last June at the age of 76, passing on a legacy of foreign-born priests serving in the diocese.

The face of this priesthood has changed from the days when Irish priests were being exported to all parts of the world, including Florida. Msgr. Heslin remembers when the diocese encompassed much of the state and Archbishop Joseph P. Hurley began inviting Spanish-speaking priests to the diocese to serve the many immigrant farm workers in the south. “There were a number of priests from Spain,” he remembers.

While there are still Irish priests serving here, most are among the older clergy. Now Msgr. Heslin is observing a different kind of clergy immigration from India, Poland and several Spanish-speaking countries. “At present [the priests] seem to be doing a fine job. The people are glad to have priests from elsewhere,” he says. “We haven’t seen priests coming from Ireland in some time.”

In fact, a study done by the Life Cycle Institute at Catholic University of America has found that the majority of priests born in other countries complete their seminary study in the United States, Asia and the Pacific. The average age of foreign-born priests serving in the United States is 47, and most stay in the United States for more than five years.
  Msgr. James Heslin of Ireland
  Father Jan Ligeza of Poland
  Father Antonio Leon of Spain
  Father Victor Narivelil of India

In 2005, a study was conducted by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) of Georgetown University for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). According to the study, more than two-thirds of all vocation directors as well as major superiors of religious congregations and rectors of seminaries responded. The study found that one in three priests ordained in 2006 was born outside the U.S., and the percent of foreign-born priests increased from 24 percent in 1998 to 30 percent in 2006.

Father Jan Ligeza, parochial vicar at St. Augustine Church and Catholic Student Center in Gainesville, is one of about 47 foreign-born priests serving in the diocese today. He came to the United States in the fall of 1998 after completing five years of seminary training in Poland. Bishop Victor Galeone ordained him in 2003.

Father Jan admits experiencing “culture shock” when first arriving to the United States. “It wasn’t easy in the beginning to adjust,” he says in a thick Polish accent. “It was far away, very different people and very different lifestyles. There is more variety of other religions (in the U.S.). In Poland, I didn’t know anyone who wasn’t Catholic,” Father Jan observes.

According to Father Jan, Poland still produces a large number of priests and many religious vocations. His home diocese encourages priests to serve in other countries around the world.

“It has been a great experience for me to see different denominations working with the Catholic Church. That’s great,” he says.

In turn, he is proud to share his culture with the many students at the Catholic Student Center in Gainesville, and he occasionally enjoys preparing his favorite dishes from Poland for the students at the Newman Club at the university.

“This generation of young people is the generation of Pope John Paul II (also a native of Poland). I have enjoyed sharing extended stories about myself and my roots.”

Shortly after he arrived in Florida, Father Jan invited his brother, Father Kazimierz Ligeza, who was teaching in Krakow, Poland, to visit the Diocese of Saint Augustine. Father Kazimierz decided to stay and has been serving in the diocese for two years. He is currently assigned to Queen of Peace Parish in Gainesville.

The number of Hispanic Catholics in the diocese has increased significantly and Spanish-speaking priests, like Father Antonio Leon, pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish in downtown Jacksonville are in great demand. Father Leon came to the United States from Spain in 1959 and 10 years later decided to stay and serve in the diocese permanently. About 100 Hispanic families are currently registered at his parish, from places like Mexico, Puerto Rico, Colombia and other Latin American countries. Father Leon says it means a lot to his parishioners to have a priest who can effectively communicate with them and understand their culture.

“They are newcomers to America,” he observes. “I think it is a tremendous help to make them feel at home - to celebrate Mass in their own culture.”

The parish regularly recognizes the feast days of Latin American patron saints and celebrates Mass in Spanish every Sunday. Father Jhon Guarnizo, parochial vicar at Assumption Parish in Jacksonville often assists with the Spanish Mass downtown. However, many of the children are now going to confession in English, and Father Leon says he sees the Hispanic youth of his parish holding tight to their native culture but also adapting to American life.

International religious order priests are also a strong component of priests serving in the diocese. Father Victor Narivelil, pastor of Sacred Heart Parish in Jacksonville, was ordained on April 6, 1964, in Cochin, India for the Carmelites of Mary Immaculate (CMI). After eight years of schooling in Chicago and Champaign, Ill., and South Bend, Ind., he came to the Diocese of Saint Augustine at the invitation of Bishop John J. Snyder in 1997. At present there are seven Carmelite priests from India serving in the diocese.

Father Victor says that priests have come from different countries to remedy the shortage of priests in various dioceses. “In countries like India there is a surplus of priests at the moment and, hence, they are here.”

But for how long, he can’t say. “It will depend on the availability of local priests and the availability of priests from other countries.”

Throughout his years of formation for the priesthood, Father Victor has had a chance to experience the benefits of great diversity.

“The diversity (of the priesthood) really adds to the richness of our Catholic faith experience,” Father Victor observes of the multi-cultural parishes in the diocese. “Taken properly, it (the universality of our Catholic faith) helps you to feel at home no matter where you are.”