To say Safford resident Nicodemus Shaghel’s life turned out a lot differently than he planned would be a vast understatement, but he’s finding fulfillment just the same.
When he was a child, he dreamed of growing up and playing professional soccer in his native Nigeria. When he couldn’t turn those dreams into reality, his father urged him to go into the military.
“But I said no, I don’t want to join the military, I don’t like the brutality,” Shaghel said.
Around the same time, Shaghel said he began to feel called to the church. The area where he grew up is 90 percent Catholic and always in need of priests. He set out in search of a religious order.
“I began to have the call in my senior year so I started applying. I wanted to join, but unfortunately my letters were not really accepted,” Shaghel said. “Sometimes they would tell me to think about it, to pray about it. The few that accepted me I didn’t really want to go there. I wanted to make a better choice for myself because it has to do with the kind of life you want to lead, the life that suits you.”
Change of plans
Rather than settle, Shaghel set aside yet another dream and decided to serve his community another way. He went to college and studied English and Christian and Religious Knowledge, figuring he would teach religion to children for 10 years and then enter politics.
“I wanted to understand people, walk in different places and get the people to know me,” he said. “My knowledge of politics was that it was meant for service, but when I was looking at the politicians and how they were behaving, I was saying ‘No, no this is a dirty game, I can not go into it.’ I was afraid that if I went into politics with the intentions I had, I would not live long.”
For several years, Shaghel contented himself with teach high school students “the right way to be,” but he’d shared his one-time ambition with the chaplain at an all-girls school he taught at. Before long, that chaplain was urging him to re-apply to the religious orders that had turned him down years earlier.
“He kept on pestering me and the children started calling me ‘Father’ and I wasn’t even a priest,” Shaghel said.
He finally did apply and this time, he was accepted by several, Shaghel said. He thinks perhaps his college pedigree and years teaching made him a more attractive prospect.
Still, Shaghel said he wasn’t sure if he should heed the voice in his head urging him to seek the priesthood. He decided he’d go to an unbiased clergyman for advice. The missionary he sought out ended up inviting him to join his order.
After four years of studying theology and three years of studying philosophy, Shaghel was ordained on July 11, 2009. The Rev. Shaghel is a member of the Via Christi Society.
Life in Nigeria
For seven years, Shaghel traveled to 96 parishes, performing the regular sacraments of the Catholic Church, such as Masses, baptisms, confirmations, confession, weddings and last rites. He and one other priest drove hundreds of miles a week to see their parishioners and when the rains came, they rode their bikes.
There were some missions, Shaghel said, they didn’t get to visit for six months just because of the distances involved. Lay people would see to his parishioners’ needs as best they could. When he was able to visit, the days were extraordinarily long. He would often perform multiple baptisms at once in addition to seeing to other needs.
“If you go to two missions in a day you’ve done a great job,” he said.
Shaghel also found himself in the classroom, too. He taught at two public high schools in Nigeria while tending to his congregation.
But eventually, since his order is a missionary order, the day came his superiors announced it was time for Shaghel to head to the United States.
“We are always trained that we can walk anywhere in the world, but I never thought of leaving Nigeria any day of my life because I was a teacher,” Shaghel said.
Ever obedient, however, Shaghel soon found himself in Yuma.
He spent two years there, one at Immaculate Conception Church and the other teaching at Immaculate Conception Church.
A new home
Then, he was sent to the Gila Valley. For the last two years, Shaghel has been serving the 400 families who attend St. Rose of Lima and the 100 or so families at Our Lady of Guadalupe in Solomon. He also sees to the needs of the Catholic students who attend Eastern Arizona College.
While caring for three congregations takes a bit of scheduling, Shaghel said his job is much easier now than when he was in Nigeria.
Nowadays, Shaghel said he’ll perform two or three Masses a day in Safford, conduct a funeral or make a sick call before seeing parishioners in his office for marital counseling or to provide spiritual advice. He spends Fridays in Solomon and Sundays performing Mass in both communities.
His job is definitely less stressful now, he said, but still, “if you’re not very careful you will miss your lunch, he said.
He loves that sometimes people will ask to see him who aren’t even Catholics.
One thing he’s discovered over the years is that while people have different perceptions about life, they are the same everywhere, Shaghel said. They share similar experiences and encounter similar problems whether they live in the U.S. or Nigeria.
Shaghel said he tries to get home once a year and the people back home are surprised when he refers to himself as an American. He doesn’t see himself as a foreigner, he said.
The best way to bring the Gospel to people is to “eat what they eat, drink what they drink, live the way they live,” Shaghel said. “You have to try to fit in to appreciate who they are and bring the good of your own culture in.”
Most importantly, Shaghel said he always tells his parishioners the truth.
One of the things he’s come to realize, Shaghel said is that many of Americans’ societal woes are their own fault.
“The problem with America is America. It’s not China, it’s not Iran, it’s not Afghan, It’s America,” he said.
While teaching in Yuma, Shaghel said the students were shocked when he would kick them out of the classroom for being disruptive or not doing their school work.
“Here the children are too powerful and I feel that is one thing that is destroying the country. I walk with children. I protect children. I respect them, but at the same time what I see here...I used to tell my kids in Yuma ‘I don’t think your people are helping you,’” Shaghel said.
Parents are good about baptizing their children, but they don’t require their children to go to church for fear of “offending them,” Shaghel said.
“Why do they insist on other things and not their spiritual and moral life?” he asked.
Shaghel said the Bible makes clear that children should listen and respect their parents.
“I tell the children, even in confessions, ‘Your father provides you food. Your parents provide you shelter, your clothing your medication. They take good care of you, make sure you have a good education. They drive you to your sports and take you to the restaurant to eat...They do all of this for you and as a kid, what will you give your parents in exchange for that?’ Sometimes they are confused and I say they want just one thing from you, respect.”
Shaghel said that unfortunately, American children feel they have a right to those things and they don’t feel they have an obligation to their parents.
“When I was growing up my dad would tell me, ‘Hey Nic, I gave birth to you, not the world, so you have to listen to me and not the world.’ That was a good lesson for me,” he said.
Although this is the first time Shaghel has been on his own, he is getting used to it. He also feels fortunate to have been accepted by the people of Safford and Solomon.
“When you do your best to help them, to empathize with them, they know it,” Shaghel said. “They know ‘He loves us, he cares about us, he is working for us.’ When I came here I told them, ‘I am here as a servant, not as a leader...I’m here to serve your needs.’”