Fr. Francis Adoboli is pictured with the Council of Catholic Women members of St. John’s Church in Webster on the occasion of his 30th anniversary of ordination to the priesthood on July 13. Two weeks into his American assignment, the women surprised their new priest with a celebration. (Submitted photo)

Jenny Snarski
Catholic Herald Staff

Every priest’s vocation story is personal and unrepeatable. For Fr. Francis Adoboli, the Diocese of Superior’s first international priest from Africa (Diocese of Accra, Ghana), the priesthood was love at first sight – although it took many years and mysterious moments for the call to fully reveal itself.

The fifth of seven children, he said the Adobolis were not a church-going family early on. Fr. Francis does remember that his father “never missed” the Good Friday service, as it was culturally connected with mourning loved ones.

Asked how he discovered his priestly vocation in a family that didn’t practice religion, he reflected, “That is the mystery of it all … When I look back, I attribute so many things to God.”

This includes the inspiration his mother had just before Francis started basic, or elementary school. The Adobolis lived in a compound house, or complex of attached homes. On Sundays, many did not go to church. Those who did attended a variety of denominations.

He vividly recalled the day his mother told the children they would be going to church, even though she was not. After getting them ready, her instructions were to follow their neighbor, Mr. Osei, and his family to the church they attended.

While Fr. Francis never discovered why she had singled out Mr. Osei or if she had even known what church he attended, he sees providence was clearly at work. Even though he didn’t discover it was Catholic until enrolled at the church’s school, the impression that first Mass made on the boy was its own kind of knowing.

“I saw a white man who was in a high place. He wore white garments, and I didn’t understand the language,” Fr. Francis remembered. “I saw smoke in the church, and that smoke was more beautiful than the smoke coming from my mother’s kitchen,” he added acknowledging that without experiencing an outdoor African kitchen, it would be difficult to capture the striking impression made by the solemn sweet-smelling “church smoke.”

The boy made his own impression when he was baptized at the age of 10. In Ghana, children are usually named for the day they were born or after a family member. From the time he started following the Oseis to church and heard one of their children called Francis, the name “came and lived in my heart,” the priest revealed.

“I told myself, when I am baptized, that’s the name I will use,” and so it was. On the day of his baptism, he told the priest and his parents that from then on his name would be Francis.

High school was not an assumed progression for the Adoboli children. A student had to pass a common entrance exam and then pay for the secondary education. Only one was within reach for the fifth child of a working family.

Francis’ brothers attended primary school but then needed to work to help the family; his only sister had been unable to attend even primary school, just like their parents, Fr. Francis explained.

The first year he took the exam he did pass, but his parents unfortunately could not come up with the funds. He wanted to try a second time, but Francis knew more than his academic efforts would be needed. He enlisted the Blessed Virgin Mary’s help, daily visiting the church and praying the rosary.

When Francis received “very, very high marks” on the exam, he shed both tears of joy – that God had listened to his prayers – and tears of sadness that, like the previous year, he might not be able to go.

Francis learned his exam performance qualified for a scholarship, but those were only awarded to registered students and the initial fees would still present a challenge. Francis’ parents were “extremely pleased,” but the young man, not seeing how funds could be found, decided to turn down the scholarship.

It wasn’t until he had walked the five kilometers that Francis realized it was Sunday and no school offices would be open. To his surprise, the headmaster was there and his resolve renewed.

The principal, American missionary priest, Fr. Thomas Potts received the young man, but denied his request. Francis was confused and clarified his refusal of the offer, but the priest, looking between the young man and his application, simply said, “No.”

The priest met with Francis’ parents the next day and arrangements for the deposit were made. That fall when Fr. Potts came to the morning assembly to announce the government scholarship winners, earned by “their extraordinary performance on the common exam,” Francis was overcome with emotion.

“Can you imagine where my heart was?” he asked with a grin. “My heart was literally in my mouth.”

The tears started once his name was finally called, and Fr. Francis doesn’t remember anything else after receiving the award letter. The scholarship extended to all five years.

“My mother was weeping, shedding tears …. We all wept and wept and wept – tears of joy, tears of gratitude. We just didn’t know how to thank God for such a great favor he had done for the fifth child – who, for the first time in the family, had been given the opportunity to access high school education.”

As a scholarship student, Francis also began boarding at the school. This also exposed him to the high school seminary section students with whom he shared meal and prayer time. It didn’t take long for another prayer, another question, to surface in the young man’s heart: “Could it be that God is calling me to be a priest?”

This question felt new, yet also harkened back to that first memory of Mr. Osei’s church – the priest, the language, the robes and the smoke.

“I fell in love,” Fr. Francis said.

Knowing he should approach the school’s vocations director, Francis hadn’t quite mustered the courage when he found himself being called, literally. One afternoon in the dining hall, a senior student announced a list of those who were being summoned to meet individually with that priest.

At first, Francis wasn’t sure if he’d been mistaken for a “rascal” student who had plucked oranges or mangoes from the priests’ residence. Much to his surprise and pleasure, a reprimand didn’t come.

“Francis, you know that the priesthood is written on your face,” the man said.

In a whisper, Fr. Francis added, “I could not believe it … What I wanted! What I was yearning for but didn’t have the courage to ask.”

At that point Francis transferred to the seminary section, without having even applied. He described it as an almost prophetic experience as the priest had “discerned my vocation right to the core.” Rushing back to his dormitory to pack and move his things, the young man looked for a mirror to try and see the “written words” the vocations director had.

During his visit home at the term’s end, he shared the news and acknowledged his yearning to be priest.
Both parents, upon being reassured it was what their son wanted and felt called to, gave their blessing and promised him their prayers.

“Love it and cherish it,” his mother told him.

Fr. Francis enunciated, “God is great. God is an answering God. He is a God of surprises.”

He added that if they had said no, he would not be sharing his story for this article.

Over time, he “came to realize the number of potential seminarians who had been stopped by their parents. Very good Catholics, extremely good Catholics, but they want other people’s children to become priests.”

“God being so good – on July 13, 1991 – 30 years ago, I was ordained a Catholic priest, by the bishop who confirmed me,” Fr. Francis shared. I have never stopped thanking God for that day.”

Wisconsin is not Fr. Francis’ first international assignment, but it will be the longest. He arrived to America on March 19 this year and stayed with fellow Ghanaian Fr. Emmanuel Asamoah-Bekoe in La Crosse, who helped him adapt to American life, learn to drive and get a license, among other things.

On the Fourth of July weekend were Fr. Francis’ first Masses in the Webster cluster of parishes.

“Before I was ordained I had told myself that anywhere in the world that my services would be needed… I would make that place my home. I would not be choosy or selective – so long as it is missionary and apostolic work – and I will do it wholeheartedly,” he said. “Upon my arrival, oh, I’ve met wonderful people. Beautiful people.”

He has deeply appreciated their reaching out to help and get to know him; had felt their genuine interest in him and gratitude for his ministry.

Fr. Francis’s final thoughts were how happy he is, how “extremely grateful for the gift of the priesthood” and how important is the role parents play in a young man’s following that call.

“If a child tells you that he feels called – support him in his discernment, pray for him,” he pleaded. “Children are God’s gift – not your property.”

African priest next in long line of blessings

One look at the directory of priests serving the Diocese of Superior offers a snapshot of how the region depends on missionary priests.

Chris Newkirk, who heads the diocesan Office for International Priests, shared highlights from a recent conversation with Bishop James P. Powers.

The shortage of priests within the Diocese of Superior has been “long experienced,” she said. This has resulted in the long history of using priests on loan from other U.S. dioceses, including from religious orders such as the Franciscans and Precious Blood Fathers.

According to Newkirk, Bishop Powers noted the diocese has “never been self-sustaining regarding the full number of priests to serve in its parishes.”

The diocese’s relationship with international priests began in the late 1980s to early 1990s under Bishop Raphael Fliss. He had been in contact with a bishop in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula who requested priests from India and developed a successful partnership. The Superior Diocese made the same connection, and personal relationships developed between both Bishops Peter Christensen and James Powers with bishops in India.

Now, a new relationship is being built through the presence of Fr. Francis Adoboli from the coastal Diocese of Accra in Ghana, Africa.

Administrative director Dan Blank offered his own “snapshot of some of the excitement that has come with the extreme blessing of these missionary priests.”

“They leave their homeland, families, friends, culture, climate, driving conditions, language …” Blank said, “In order that we can maintain our delivery of the faith with minimal disruptions to our parishes.”

Blank expressed gratitude for the priests, as well as thanking God for the vocations prayer and the blessing of six seminarians for the 2021-2022 year.