September 10, 2017

Lunch time at the rectory has taken on a new flavor recently.  It’s still mostly leftovers and Lean Cuisine, but a couple times a week we are joined by Fr. Benedict Zele, our new priest in residence.

Like Fr. Elizeo before him, Fr. Benedict is a native of Malawi, a small country in southeastern Africa.  He has come to stay with us for two years while he earns a Masters degree in education from Lewis  University.

So how does a priest from Malawi end up at the Cathedral of St.  Raymond?

More than a decade ago, after connecting with another Malawian priest who was in Illinois to get an advanced degree, parishioner Lori  Spesia and her late husband Doug     cultivated a long-standing   relationship with the Diocese of Blantyre in Malawi.  Many of the Spesia family members have traveled to Malawi to work and experience all that the country offers.

In the summer of 2014, it was son John Spesia’s turn to go.  He took along his son Peter, his friend Mike Murray and Mike’s son Michael.  John and Mike came back with the idea of bringing another priest to St. Raymond.  While this situation certainly benefits the priest by educating him so he can better serve his Malawian diocese, there is great benefit to St. Raymond.  Not only do we get clergy help, we all broaden our horizons to understand more about Malawi.  It’s a win-win situation all around.

The Spesias and the Murrays worked through all of the red tape and were able to bring Fr. Elizeo here in 2015.  He graduated in May, 2017,  and now it’s Fr. Benedict’s turn.

Our lunches with Fr. Benedict have been delightful.  It has really   allowed us to get to know this kind, quiet (but getting less quiet) man. 

Much of our chatter revolves around food.  Fr. Benedict seems willing to try almost anything,  and we’ve offered up a list of “gotta trys”.   One day he said he’d like to learn how to cook eggs.

By the time I got to the kitchen that day, he already had five women telling him the best method for scrambling.  There was much discourse on pans and butter vs. oil vs. Pam.  He took it all in and quietly got to work.  Before I sat down, I told him the true test of a job well done is how much egg ends up left in the pan.  “But that takes practice,” I  reassured. A few minutes later he turned to the table holding the pan like a metal lollipop.  Clean as a whistle!

Last week Dani, Mary, Karen, Christine and I were all at table and in came Fr. Benedict.  We made room and he joined us.  There wasn’t much chatter that day, but out of the blue, Fr. Benedict told us that his Malawian parish had outstations—rural posts where the priest go to say Mass.   At these liturgies, it is common for the congregants to bring gifts of food for the priests—he mentioned bread, bananas and    chickens.

We were quite taken with the idea of a live chicken being presented at the offertory.  Father said he had a picture and pulled out his iPhone.  With all of us gathered around, he showed us a video that he’d made.   The video was taken in front of his family home.  We never saw the structure, but we met his family. 

Fr. Benedict had come from saying Mass at an outstation, and he’d turned music on the car radio.  A Zele family dance party broke out.  In the course of the five-minute video, we “met” many of his seven     siblings, nieces and nephews (How many are there?  “I’ll have to count.”) and his parents.  And yes, a chicken made a 15-second    cameo.

It was a joyous scene with three generations of people immensely enjoying each other’s company.  His mom and sisters were wearing brightly colored skirts and white shirts.  His brothers were more quiet in their dress, but not their dancing.   The youngsters were like kids   everywhere—all in for the fun.

For us, his tablemates, this was a sweet insight into Fr. Benedict’s life back home.  While it showed us so many ways we are alike, it also highlighted how very far from home he is.

In Malawi, Fr. Benedict was a science teacher at the seminary.  The teacher in him shows in his conversation and his well-thought-out homilies.  Now he’s back in the classroom—just as the student.

Be sure to make time to meet Fr. Benedict after Mass.  (Don’t worry…he’ll understand your accent.) We are lucky to have his  quiet presence among us.

Eileen Hooks Gutierrez
Director of Development and Project Liaison
815-722-6653, extension 242



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