By Jay Nies
He was a teenage refugee in the Democratic Republic of Congo when a missionary priest from Italy singled him out as a candidate for the Priesthood.
Father Hillary Andebo would eventually follow that priest into the mission field, visiting the sick in hospitals and nursing homes in Jefferson City and offering Mass and the sacraments to the people of Immaculate Conception parish.
Nine years into his stay here, Fr. Andebo, a priest of the Arua diocese in Uganda, suddenly got the opportunity to complete his Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) studies at a Catholic hospital in Wisconsin.
He left Jefferson City July 30.
“It’s not easy to leave, especially when it’s so abrupt,” he said. “When you get to know the people, it’s like you’re home, with family.”
He will serve his internship and complete his CPE credits at Aspirus Langlade Hospital in Antigo, Wisconsin.
He hopes to finish the work in two years. Afterward, he either will return to his home diocese in Uganda — which has four hospitals, one of which is Catholic — or continue serving in the United States.
He would like to return to Jefferson City, either to work or just visit his friends.
There was no time to plan for a farewell reception.
“I don’t have much to pack,” he said a few days before leaving. “Just me and the books and a few other things.”
Out of exile
Fr. Andebo, who speaks three languages, grew up in rural Uganda in eastern Africa.
His father is Catholic, his mother a member of the Church of Uganda, which is part of the Anglican Communion.
They agreed to raise their children Catholic, Fr. Andebo being the first of eight.
Civil unrest and violence forced the family to flee their homeland in 1980, when Fr. Andebo was 14.
He and his siblings got separated from their parents, with Fr. Andebo spending four years with relatives in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
A priest from Italy who had ministered to the people in Fr. Andebo’s diocese and knew their language went into exile with them, visiting as many of the people as he could and offering Mass.
One day, the priest asked how many children in the choir had completed the seventh grade before leaving Uganda. Four boys and one girl put their hands up.
The priest then called young Hillary forward and talked to him about attending a middle school to prepare boys for high school seminary studies.
“I said, ‘Seminary? Yes. I can go!’”
With his parents’ permission, Fr. Andebo entered the prep school about 100 miles away.
“It was hard for my mother, because me being a priest would mean losing grandchildren,” Fr. Andebo recalled. “But she said, ‘You’ll be doing God’s work? Go ahead and do God’s work.’”
“Here I am”
He got to return to Uganda in time to start high school.
During his second year, he became fearful of how much of a priest’s ministry is devoted to persuading people to accept God’s grace.
“I said, ‘I’m not talkative, I don’t debate well. I cannot do that kind of work,’” he recalled.
Then he opened his Bible and read about Moses telling God to choose someone else because he could not speak well.
He read about Isaiah crying, “I am of unclean lips!” God sent him anyway.
“Then we have Jeremiah saying, ‘I’m too young! I don’t know how to speak.’ And God told him, ‘I’ll put the words in your mouth.’”
He read about Jonah running away from God’s call.
“But God got him,” said Fr. Andebo. “So I thought, ‘Okay, I will continue.’”
God then began opening doors for him, making his studies and discernment increasingly satisfying.
He kept in mind how that Italian missionary priest had singled him out. Fr. Andebo believed that it was God Who had called him through that priest.
“And if it was God calling me to do the work that needed to be done, He would help me stay focused and allow me to be ordained to do the work,” he said.
On July 17, 1999, in Fr. Andebo’s home parish, Bishop Frederick Drandua ordained him, another seminarian from the parish and two from neighboring parishes to the Holy Priesthood.
The bishop asked him to plan the Ordination Mass. Fr. Andebo chose for a responsorial psalm: “Lord, here I am, I come to do your will” (based on Psalm 40:8-9).
He composed a tune and arranged for it to be sung in Lugbara, the language of his people.
He can be heard singing it in a video posted on the Diocese of Jefferson City Facebook page and YouTube channel.
Visit the sick
Early in formation, Fr. Andebo was given a choice between serving in his own diocese or overseas as a missionary.
He chose to serve close to home. Yet, he had never gotten to serve less than 100 miles away from where he grew up.
There were at least five ethnic groups in his diocese. For his first priestly assignment, he had to learn a different language.
In 2005, his bishop asked him to go to the United States to pursue graduate studies in pastoral ministry. The bishop suggested three courses of study: parish work, campus ministry or healthcare ministry.
“I was already in a parish. That’s what I already know!” Fr. Andebo thought. “And I wouldn’t need to come to the United States to learn about campus ministry. I had already done some of that in Uganda.”
Healthcare ministry was another story — something for which he had great zeal but limited pastoral skills.
“It’s what presented me with some of the greatest challenges before and after my ordination,” he recalled. “My bishop was giving me a chance to get the training I would need to actually know what I was doing.”
“God is present”
Fr. Andebo is grateful for all the time he’s gotten to spend with patients.
“Whenever I get a call to visit the sick either in the hospital or the nursing homes or in individual homes, I feel elated — not because of the sickness but because I know they have remembered God.”
Fr. Andebo ministers on behalf of God and His people.
“Thus, my presence is representation of both the loving God and the loving faithful community,” he said.
It’s a ministry that helps him stay grounded in things that matter.
“It keeps one humble,” he said. “There is no need to feel proud or strong or powerful or knowledgeable. You just need to know that God is present and active in our world.”
Fr. Andebo has ministered to thousands of people, some on the road to recovery, others preparing for death.
Some were at peace, others were lonely or afraid to die alone.
“I have found that the most important thing a person who is dying wants is love — someone to be there with them, someone who they love and who they know loves them,” he said.
Growing up, he had mostly seen priests with white skin offering Mass and preaching homilies to people with dark skin.
It was the exact opposite when he arrived in the United States.
“I was the black priest, and all the people I was talking to were white!” he said.
It didn’t matter, he quickly found.
“The people are always good,” he said. “What the Christian people want is a priest who is there to serve them, to love them. I was there to serve them, and they knew that.”
He spent three years in Pittsburgh, working in a hospital and beginning his chaplain studies.
He also visited parishes, giving appeals for overseas missions.
He then made contact with the Jefferson City diocese over the Internet. With Bishop John R. Gaydos’ consent and that of Fr. Andebo’s bishop back home, the priest moved to Missouri.
He became the fourth of many international priests who would come to serve in this diocese.
He worked in and around the capital city and drove to Springfield and Joplin for CPE classes.
He served as a volunteer Catholic chaplain at SSM Health St. Mary’s Hospital and Capital Regional Medical Center and at seven homes for the elderly in Jefferson City.
At each, he would pray with the patients and offer spiritual counseling and the Mass, administer the sacrament of anointing of the sick, hear their confessions and minister to their families.
Most of the people he visited are Catholic, but as his reputation grew, he started getting requests to visit other Christians as well.
He was also associate pastor of Immaculate Conception in Jefferson City. He said it’s about as large as the parish he was serving in his home diocese before coming to the United States. But the people here gather for worship in one church building instead of there being a circuit of Mass stations.
“Back in Uganda, not all of the roads are that good, and they cannot travel when it rains or snows,” he said. “So we priests head to outstations to say Mass in the chapels for them.”
Pray it forward
He found out in late July about the chance to complete his hospital chaplain certification.
Bishop Gaydos and Fr. Andebo’s bishop in Uganda encouraged him to take the opportunity.
Fr. Andebo asks for prayers for God to keep giving him zeal to do what he’s being called to do.
“If you don’t have the zeal, you cannot do the work and you cannot enjoy doing it,” he noted.
His advice to whoever comes after him: “Just do what you can. And also find time to rest.”
Cards and letters of encouragement to Fr. Andebo can be sent to Immaculate Conception parish, 1206 E. McCarty St., Jefferson City MO 65101.