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Religious leaders in Appalachia: Father Bede Aboh

Updated: Mar 5, 2021

The Catholic Center at East Tennessee State University serves as a hub for young students to come together in community of their faith, as well as the home of Father Bede Aboh, who has served as the chaplain for the Catholic young adult community over the past five years. 

“These five years have been the longest I have stayed in any place,” said Aboh. “I just can’t keep a job.”

The third of eight siblings, Aboh was born on May 27, 1962 in Nigeria. Due to his father’s political standing, they were a relatively well-off family and owned houses in both the country and the city.

His parents put the education of their children at the forefront of their priorities. Aboh himself values education. After several years he obtained two bachelor’s degrees, one in philosophy and the other in theology. He then went on to get a master’s in philosophy and theology, as well as a doctorate in philosophy.

Aboh was influenced to join the priesthood from a young age. His family was faithfully Catholic and attended church services nearly every day before school and recited the rosary together as a family each night. In addition, the family lived next door to a convent where the nuns would invite the children over to practice singing for the upcoming Mass. Aboh also served as an altar server during primary school. 

He was asked by the local monsignor - a man in high authority of the church - to consider joining the seminary when he was 9 years old. When Aboh expressed skepticism on joining the church, the monsignor gave him a pamphlet describing the location of the exam he would have to take, as well as the topics to be studied. 

“When I went to school my best friend and two other guys in our class had the same form,” said Aboh. “They were all excited, so that was part of what convinced me to take the exam.”

Aboh did take the exam, which was held at a local cathedral, and learned two weeks later that he had passed along with many others. Another test was scheduled in order to weed out who all were fit for the task of joining the seminary. The second exam was at the seminary itself, which was secluded and several miles away from his home. 

After the exam, the boys were all sent outside to play soccer. In the early evening all the boys showered and the results were called. Aboh passed this exam as well, with many of his friends. As they prepared to take the bus home, they encountered a seminarian who asked them whether they had passed. When they told him they had, he told them to go to the chapel and thank God for allowing them to pass.

“We went into the chapel with him and then he prayed for us and we prayed,” said Aboh. “I felt good after that. I felt like I had taken this thing for granted. If I had failed how would I have felt? So we went and took a bus and went home where I told my mother that I had passed.”

Aboh finally joined the seminary at the age of 11, just after his father left for the United States to complete his master's degree at Michigan State University. 

Soccer played an important part in Aboh’s childhood. He played well, becoming captain of his team in seminary, as well as receiving the title of ‘best goalkeeper’ two consecutive years in a row.

Aboh spent six years in junior seminary and remained for the following year to teach. He also spent that year as the chauffeur and office boy to the rector, so he stayed busy. Teaching was a passion for Aboh. He recalls competing with his friends to see who could go the longest by only teaching from their memory. After the year of teaching, Aboh went on to senior seminary where he majored in philosophy. He then joined another seminary for a bachelor's degree in theology.

On Aug. 13, 1988, Bede Aboh was ordained a priest. Out of the many friends he joined seminary with as a child, only one other made it to the finish line to priesthood but passed away in a car accident only five months after becoming ordained.

“The first time I realized the joy that I brought people by becoming a priest was after some weeks when I was watching the ordination tape,” said Aboh. “It had interviews on it, including my mother. She said that it was the happiest day of her life, so it meant a lot to me from that.”

Aboh was very close with his mother, Patricia. At the age of 33, she had a mastectomy due to breast cancer that had metastasized. She passed away from cancer in 1994, while Aboh was studying in Rome. Due to the loss of his mother, he considered leaving the priesthood. At the time, he was scheduled to leave for Germany to learn the language. Aboh assured the rector in charge of him that he would return from the funeral and catch up with his studies.

“Whenever I would come home, I would have new bedding and my room would be cleaned,” said Aboh. “This time I came, and my room was as I left it. That’s when I realized that she was truly gone. I wanted to leave so I told my bishop because I needed to get out of Nigeria.”

Aboh had worked for a diocese in Germany during the summer months while he was in Rome, so he applied as the associate pastor. He worked there for the following two years where he would occasionally substitute as a religion teacher for the fourth graders. 

Several things happened in his family that caused Aboh to begin to doubt his faith in God. He told his bishop that he needed to sort himself out and get away. In 1999, using the funds he had accumulated during his time in Germany, Aboh applied for the master’s in theology program at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Aboh was still unsettled, feeling haunted by the death of his mother. After his first semester he decided to leave Pittsburgh, transferring his credits to John Carroll University in Cleveland, Ohio. When he went to the school to get registered, he met a hospital chaplain.

“I thought that the best thing was to be near these patients to see how they feel,” said Aboh. “I want to know their reason for still loving God. I wanted to know if my mom still loved God when she died.”

After inquiring about applying, the chaplain took him over to St. Luke’s Hospital, where they told him that their last available position had been filled. The next morning Aboh received a call from the secretary at the hospital saying that one of the applicants had dropped out, and that if he wanted the position, he could have it.

“It was so hectic,” said Aboh. “I would go for my studies in the university and go to the hospital and work in the parish. Sometimes I would only sleep for two hours each night, but I was young, so I was able to put up with it.”

In 2001, after finishing his Clinical Pastoral Education and his master’s, he got a job in East Tennessee. Aboh got a job as a hospital chaplain with the Alexian Brothers in Signal Mountain, Tennessee. That same year he met the bishop of the Knoxville diocese and immediately struck up a friendship.

“Bede is a source of unity,” said Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky. “He has an engaging personality that makes people comfortable. I can go on and on talking about how much I appreciate his friendship.”

Kurtz asked Aboh to come for the Knoxville diocese, which Aboh did after turning in his letter of resignation in Nigeria. He also resigned from the Alexian Brothers with 11 months' notice for them to find another Catholic chaplain to fill his shoes. 

“My time with Father Bede was always very positive,” said Father Dustin Collins, pastor of St. Mary’s Catholic Parish in Johnson City, Tennessee. “He’s always present and approachable if you need anything and is always there for advice.”

On Sept. 9, 2005, he began to work for the Diocese of Knoxville, 31 years to the day that he joined the seminary back home in Nigeria. 

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