Priests help people of West mourn, recover

By Amy Moraczewski

Correspondent

It is often said that tragedy brings out the best in people. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Czech community of West over the course of the last few months. While many families remain devastated by the April 17 explosion that claimed their school, jobs, homes and neighbors, they have rallied around one another to rebuild. St. Mary, Church of the Assumption Parish has played a central role in the West community and continues to thrive under the care of Father Ed Karasek and Father Boniface Onjefu.

When Bishop John McCarthy asked the recently ordained Father Karasek to help out at St. Mary in West, he estimated it would be for about two weeks but perhaps up to two months. That was 24 years ago! But Father Karasek is not complaining. Among his parish family, he has found a second home approximately 100 miles northwest of his childhood home in Caldwell, where his dad, brother and sister-in-law still live.

As a child, Father Karasek attended Holy Rosary Parish, where he taught religious education. He later obtained a job cleaning the local cemetery, which led him to consider a career as a funeral director. He even visited the funeral home during high school to tour it with the director, but his visit to the seminary in Houston as an eighth grader continued to prevail in the back of his mind. Ultimately, priesthood won out. However, his sense of respect for funerals has proven to be an invaluable asset in his chosen vocation, never more so than following the plant explosion when he pastored the community in the initial steps toward healing.

Father Karasek‘s love of the people of West appears to be mutual. He gave a few examples of the numerous acts of generosity shown to their pastor over the years.

Father Karasek is also known for his own generosity. Every two weeks, he makes a habit of giving platelets and has donated more than 40 gallons of blood throughout his life. Never has there been a greater demand for these donations so close to home than now. While he believes a full recovery from the explosion may take another five or 10 years, Father Karasek said the town is healing as they move through the stages of grief.

Fortunately, the parishioners have an associate pastor who is equally eager to lend a hand. In fact, Father Onjefu is a self-proclaimed "compulsive helper." He is quick to point out that the common goal of both priests, "is to provide for the West residents, not just Catholics."

On assignment from his home diocese in Nigeria for the past year and a half, Father Onjefu has quickly adapted to life in the U.S., and more specifically, in West. He has even adopted a love of country music. He credits the parishioners with the smooth transition, saying that they immediately accepted him and were patient with him as he learned the language and culture.

"I’m really blessed to begin my ministry in the United States in West. They love their priests," Father Onjefu said.

Unlike Father Karasek, who can travel home to see family on his day off each week, Father Onjefu is anxiously awaiting his upcoming 6,500 mile journey to reunite with his parents and seven siblings for the first time since he came to the U.S. His parents are both members of the Knights of Mulumbra, which is similar to the Knights of Columbus, and raised their children in the Catholic faith. As a boy, Father Onjefu loved being on the altar to serve during Mass, and after graduating from a Catholic high school, decided to enter the seminary. Fifteen years after ordination, his love for the priesthood is more passionate than ever.

Back home in Africa, Father Onjefu used to assist in the care of HIV/AIDS patients, but one of his favorite forms of service has always been marriage counseling. He thrives on the opportunity to mediate through a couple’s problems and help save the marriage before it ends in divorce. He hopes to eventually continue his education by earning a degree in clinical psychology, with a focus on marriage counseling.

Most recently his "compulsive helping" has taken the form of ministering to the displaced nursing home residents of West. After the explosion, he helped identify parishioners in 13 different nursing homes spread across neighboring towns. Many of these homes do not offer any type of spiritual care from priests, so Father Onjefu organized a group of volunteers, who visit the various nursing homes, spending time in conversation and prayer with the residents, and bringing them the Eucharist.

Unfortunately, due to the trauma of the blast and subsequent relocation, many of them died shortly thereafter. Father Onjefu and his team of volunteers strive to bring Christ to each of the elderly victims in their time of need.

While the effects of the tragic explosion continue to reverberate throughout the town of West, there is another message that is felt in an even more powerful way. It is a message of hope, communicated through loving, selfless service. As Father Onjefu said, it is all about being with the people.

"Pray with them. Sympathize with them. Be humble, and be with them at all times," he said.

In the midst of their recovery, there is also a prevalence of gratitude. Father Karasek expressed his appreciation saying, "Thank you to everybody, all the priests and communities, who have prayed for us. Thanks for all the contributions and second collections and prayers. Know that we pray for you, too."

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