BY TERRY DICKSON
Father John Ugochukwu, who ministered for 15 years as chaplain at Memorial Hospital, died unexpectedly Aug. 1 at age 73.
A native of Nigeria, Father John, as he preferred to be known, heard the call to the priesthood at an early age. He was ordained in 1984 and ministered
in several parishes in his homeland before being sent to the United States to further his education.
He earned a master’s in religious education at Fordham University in New York and was working
in a hospital there when he came across an online ad for the chaplain job at Memorial; he was offered the position and began working there in 2008.
n an interview with the Gulf Pine Catholic shortly after his arrival to the Diocese of Biloxi in 2008, Father John talked about the influence of the Irish in establishing Catholicism in Nigeria.
“The Irish missionaries brought the Gospel to Ibo land and other tribes of the eastern part of Nigeria, and they really planted the seed that has now grown tremendously, because in that part of Nigeria we have one of the largest major seminaries
in the world,” Father John said.
“In my diocese, for instance, each year for the past 15 years, we’ve had an average of 24 young priests ordained and the women religious congregations in Ibo land are also booming largely. So, the Irish missionaries came and evangelized, and God blessed their ministry. They were prominent and successful in school administration and apostolate, and were very dedicated in pastoral ministry. I am just one product of their ministry in Nigeria and much of my style of ministry I learned from the Irish missionaries.”
Bishop Louis F. Kihneman III was principal celebrant and homilist for Father John’s funeral Mass, which took place Aug. 25 at Most Holy Trinity Church in Pass Christian where, until recently, Father John had regularly celebrated the 9 a.m. Sunday Mass, one of the many parishes where he served as a supply priest.
“His ministry in his home diocese in Nigeria was blessed by the Lord. There are two schools there that are prospering that he was instrumental in forming and shaping,” said Bishop Kihneman. “Then the Lord called him to the United States and he began to see that the Lord was really calling him to a special ministry as a priest, and he lived out that special ministry in the Diocese of Biloxi as a hospital chaplain.”
Through his ministry, Bishop Kihneman said, “Father John touched souls that are hurting, bodies that are hurting, spirits that are hurting.
“He was able to reach out to people in very difficult times and be there for them, to touch them, to love them ,and to give them the love of Jesus Christ and, if they were in our tradition of faith, to anoint them in the name of Jesus Christ to bring healing to them. That touch he gave to the hundreds and hundreds of people he ministered to at the hospital, as well as the hospital staff, was the touch of the love of Christ. That touch is for those who are in need — the poor, the destitute and the lonely, those who truly need God’s love and God’s touch.
“In the end, that invitation is an invitation to all of us, to really make Christ present in the world, to make his love present in the world. That was something Father John really tried to do.”
Father Gerald Azike, a representative of Peter Ebere Cardinal Okpaleke, bishop of Ekwulobia, expressed his gratitude to Bishop Kihneman and the priests, religious and laity of the Diocese of Biloxi for their love and support of Father John.
“When I go back to Nigeria, one thing I will tell the cardinal and everybody there is that Father John was very much loved here in the Diocese of Biloxi,” said Father Azike, who works in the Diocese of Memphis.
“Ever since I came here yesterday, everybody I met said, ‘Father John is great. He is the best priest you can ever think of.’ How I wish people will also say that about me when I am lying in the casket like him.”
Father Azike called Father John “a meticulous soul who took his spiritual life very seriously.”
“He was quiet but a very friendly person when you encountered him,” said Father Azike. “He was good at counseling, advising, and guiding souls that went to him. He was also a compassionate man who identified with people, especially in their pains and sorrows. I experienced his com-passion about three years ago in a special way when I lost my eldest brother.”
Something that many people might not have known about Father John, said Father Azike, was that he was also a musician who composed liturgical music.
Also in attendance for Father John’s funeral were two of his nieces, Sister Elanna Ugochukwu and Dorothy Moneke. Sister Elanna, who is a member of the Congregation of the Sisters of Divine Love, thanked God for her uncle’s “selfless life of service to God and humanity.”
She also expressed her gratitude to Memorial Hospital staff for the “wonderful solidarity” he shared with them and, to the people of the Diocese of Biloxi for “their various influences and sacrifices to make sure that my uncle accomplished his God-given mission in this part of the world.”
Deacon Johnny Williams was one of those people touched by Father John’s ministry.
“Father John was truly a blessing to the Memorial patients, their families, but most of all, to our staff. Especially during the first year of COVID, Father was always present to our staff and prayed for them constantly,” said Deacon Williams.
“One of the best gifts from the Holy Spirit was his ability to pray. You always knew that you had been prayed for when he prayed over you. He was always there to offer prayers for our patients and felt a true calling to minister to the sick.”
Deacon Williams also recalled Father John’s sharp sense of humor. “I remember the first time that I met him when he came on board as chaplain. We were having a pot-luck luncheon in the department, and he was there in line,” said Deacon Williams, who formerly served as Memorial Hospital’s Director of Patient Experience. “I walked up and introduced myself and told him, ‘Father, it’s so good to meet you and we are very happy to have you at Memorial. I have one question, though.
Would you pronounce your name for me?’ He smiled at me and said, “Of course! It’s pronounced ‘John!’”
Deacon Williams said Father John always made it a point to celebrate Ash Wednesday Mass for the staff.
“He would line up several deacons to come and distribute ashes to our patients and our staff,” said Deacon Williams. “He usually started planning for this about two days before Ash Wednesday and was faithful in making sure that it happened.”
Deacon Dick Henderson, who ministers to patients at Memorial on a regular basis, crossed paths with Father John hundreds of times.
“What really stood out to me was the basic difficulty in understanding Father John. He spoke almost in a whisper, and his accent made it difficult to understand him. That said, there were probably more than 100 times people shared that he was a most saintly, beautiful, and compassionate priest,” said Deacon Henderson.
“They would share that he spent more time at their bedside than any other priest, praying over them and with them.
“One lady said that Father took the pyx containing the Blessed Sacrament and placed it on her forehead praying all the while. She could not understand all he was praying, but she genuinely sensed the presence of the Lord, and knew for certain that the devil wouldn’t dare enter her hospital room.
“Father John was genuinely concerned about the patients, Catholic and non-Catholic,” continued Deacon Henderson. “In fact, when he first started at Memorial, some of the priests, who had a parish relatively near Memorial, told Father John he would be a great help to them, as he could visit and administer the Sacraments to their parishioners occasionally. Father John immediately let everyone know he was at Memorial for all the patients, Catholics, Christians, non-Christians, Moslems, Jews, atheists, everyone. With a normal patient load in the high 300s, that would take up most, if not all his time.
“Our Dear God was kind to the Diocese of Biloxi allowing us to be able to receive the Sacraments through Father John, but also experiencing, firsthand, his gentle and highly effective presentation of how we, as Christians, are to live the gospel,” said Deacon Henderson.
Diamondhead resident Anne Pitre recalled an encounter she had with Father John while visiting her mother at the hospital.
“He was making rounds one day at Memorial and happened upon my mother’s room and prayed with her,” said Pitre. “When she was released, she said she was convinced he was an angel. A few weeks later, he ended up anointing her. I was so grateful to him for making her last weeks easier and lifting my family up as we said goodbye.”
Father John’s final resting place will be in the Ekwulobia Priest’s Cemetery, Ekwulobia, Aguata Local Government Area, Amanbra State, Nigeria.