Later, memories of that prompted Nwokoye toward the priesthood. But even before that, he was listening for God's call.
The ability to listen is what the Cape Girardeau pastor believes to be the cause of dwindling numbers of priests around the world.
"To receive a calling, you have to be willing to hear it and generous enough to give in to that calling," Nwokoye said. "In America, we have not created a haven for one to hear that call. We live in a world where everything is so fast-paced, we may not be listening to what God is saying, so how can we hear his call?"
Boxed or feature:For decades now, the number of men entering the priesthood has not kept pace with the number of retired, sick or absent priests in the United States.
Between 1965 and 2005, the United States saw a decline of more than 7,200 priests -- from 35,925 in 1965 to 28,702 in 2005 -- according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, which does social services research. At the same time, the number of Catholics and the number of Catholic parishes in the United States is growing -- from 17,637 parishes in 1965 to 18,891 in 2005.
Around the country, the impact of that has varied from parishes closing to lay people taking over some duties previously designated to priests.
Nwokoye, who is serving as associate pastor at St. Mary's Cathedral in Cape Girardeau, will leave that position in August to serve at the Catholic Campus Ministry at Southeast Missouri State University. The Springfield-Cape Girardeau Diocese does not have plans to fill the associate pastor opening, which forced the parish to reduce the number of Mass offerings each week effective in August.
In the local diocese, 45 active diocesan priests and 16 retired priests remain involved in some church activities. This year, the diocese has seven seminarians -- men attending seminary school to study for the priesthood -- including one who was ordained this summer and another who will be ordained at the end of July. About five priests in the Springfield-Cape Girardeau Diocese retired this year, according to diocesan media coordinator Recy Moore.
Among them was Monsignor Edward Eftink, pastor at Immaculate Conception parish in Jackson. The diocese does not plan to replace Eftink. Instead, he will continue to be involved in the parish as an administrator, performing the duties he currently performs as pastor.
Several more in the diocese are approaching the retirement age of 65.
"The numbers going into seminary are declining in the U.S., but this is nothing new. It's been going on for several decades," Moore said.
The situation, according to Moore and Nwokoye, is not as dire as in other parts of the world.
"We know some countries around the world have a priest serving thousands of people. I'm not sure the United States has come to that level. Yes, the number of priests have dwindled, but not to that point," Nwokoye said.
For Nwokoye, the key to increasing the numbers entering the priesthood lies in the family unit.
"What I would like to see if for people to think about what is important, to building a family that is faith-filled and generous," he said. "That is where we will get the priests."
On Friday, the Springfield-Cape Girardeau Diocese announced changes to priest assignments for the coming year, including Nwokoye's move from St. Mary's to the Newman Center at the university.
The diocese also announced the appointment of the Rev. David Hulshof and the Rev. Rahab Isidor to St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Cape Girardeau -- which had openings after the Vincentian priests who had staffed the church for decades announced plans to withdraw.
Despite those changes, Moore said there will continue to be Sunday Masses offered at Old St. Vincent's Church in downtown Cape Girardeau. There has been no talk of consolidation or any major effect on priestly work down in local schools or hospitals, she said.
At St. Mary's, director of religious education Ellen Shuck said the fact that no parishes have closed in this area shows the strength of the Catholic faith here. Shuck said she believes most parishioners will accept the changes to the Mass schedule at St. Mary's.
"People generally understand and realize the limits of priests, and we love our priests," Shuck said.
The church has active laity who come forward when needed, and those people will be able to fill any gaps caused by the lack of an associate pastor, she said.
"The Catholic Church has encountered many ambiguous times, but although its doors may have creaked and groaned at times, they have always swung wide and remained open," Shuck said.
As for Nwokoye, the new assignment at the Campus Catholic Ministry will be a change from the work he has done at St. Mary's.
"Here in the parish, we have a set routine and everything is laid out. We work with people who have been in the parish for 30 or 40 years," he said.
At the college, his parishioners tend to rotate every four years or so.
"I see it as a creative ministry," he said. "You always have to bring in something new to make the Gospel more interesting to college kids and teenagers."
Though excited about the new challenge, Nwokoye said he will miss St. Mary's.
"It's always a sad thing when you leave your family," he said. "The way we see the ministry is as a family. But a priest does not make a parish, the people make the parish what it is."
335-6611, extension 128
Answering the call
In a world where classmates are heading off to be doctors, lawyers and stock brokers, 19-year-old Nathan Eftink chose a slightly different path.
In August, the 2006 Notre Dame Regional High School graduate will leave for Maryville, Mo., to attend seminary -- a post-high school choice that fewer and fewer young men are taking each year.
Eftink, who lives in Sikeston, Mo., began weighing the decision as early as his sophomore year in high school. He made several trips to a seminary in St. Louis, which encouraged him to pursue the option.
"What really got me was the service to people," Eftink said. "I'm definitely aware of the issue of fewer priests, but that really didn't hinder or push me into seminary. The call was already there."
Eftink said his family was both excited and proud of his decision. His father has two cousins who are priests, so the choice is not new to the family.
He plans to attend his freshman year and then decide whether to continue at seminary.
"I'm kind of just riding by the seat of my pants," said Eftink. "I'm really excited and just want to see where it goes."
* The Rev. J. Friedel, current director of Catholic Campus Ministry at Southeast Missouri State University, will become pastor of St. Peter the Apostle Parish in Joplin, Mo., and also serve as diocesan director of vocations.
* The Rev. Dave Hulshof, current diocesan director of vocations, will become pastor at St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Cape Girardeau.
* The Rev. Rahab Isidor, who will be ordained later this month, will serve as associate pastor at St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Cape Girardeau.
* The Rev. Patrick Nwokoye, associate pastor at St. Mary Cathedral, will serve as director of Catholic Campus Ministry at Southeast Missouri State University.
* The Rev. Edward Eftink, pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish in Jackson, will retire but serve as administrator of that parish.
SOURCE: Springfield-Cape Girardeau Catholic Diocese