Education led Kenyan-born jubilarian to Catholic faith, vocation

Father Gabriel Muteru

Rockville Centre — As a boy growing up in Kenya, Father Gabriel Muteru went to a Catholic school, but not for religion.

“My family was not Christian,” he said, but practiced the traditional religious beliefs of his Kikuyu tribe. Yet his father valued education. “He sent my sisters to school, which was not the custom at that time.”

His father chose the Catholic school as the best for his children. There, young Gabriel discovered Catholicism, and eventually found his vocation to the priesthood.

On Sept. 26, Father Muteru, chaplain at Molloy College here, was to celebrate the 25th anniversary of his ordination at the 12:15 p.m. Mass at Molloy’s Chapel of the Sacred Heart. He also plans to celebrate at a bilingual Mass at Queen of the Most Holy Rosary Church, Roosevelt, at 1:15 p.m. Oct. 7.

Father Muteru was born in Nyeri, Central Kenya. When he was very young, his father, Paul, who had worked for the Kenyan department of public works, retired and moved to a remote area known as Embaringo.

His mother, Mary Joki, also helped operate the farm. So remote was the area that elephants, rhinoceros, leopards, antelope, and hyenas were common sites.

At school, Father Muteru said, he was captivated by Catholicism. “The first day, I learned the three prayers, ‘Our Father,’ ‘Hail Mary,’ and ‘Glory Be,’” he recalled. He insisted on praying at home. One of his brothers and one of his sisters joined in.

In his last two years of high school, he became friends with two classmates who invited him to become a catechist and to participate in youth seminars. Yet he specifically told them not to invite him to seminars on vocations. “I didn’t want to become a priest. When my brother told me he wanted to become a priest, I discouraged him.”

Later his friends applied for the seminary. When they told him they had been accepted, he was happy until they told him they had put in an application for him, and he was also accepted.
He was not interested but his pastor spoke to his father, who was against the idea. Later, the pastor asked a catechist, a member of their tribe, to speak with the father, but he was adamant.

“My son cannot not marry,” his father said. Yet, Father Muteru said, his father did not tell him about the pastor’s or the catechist’s visit.

After a year, while he worked on his family farm, he was notified that he had been accepted at the agricultural college. “My father was excited but I was not happy.” Later, his friends told him he had been accepted to the seminary again.

“I started praying to Jesus” and found himself drawn to the seminary. After traveling to meet the diocesan vocations director and later his archbishop, Father Muteru said, he enrolled in the seminary and eventually was ordained Sept. 26, 1987 for the Archdiocese of Nyeri.

Father Muteru served at a few different parishes before going to Spain for further education in preparation to teach. He taught at the seminary for three years before his archbishop gave him permission to come to the U.S. to study philosophy in 1995.

He studied first at Fordham and later the New School, Manhattan. He began teaching at St. John’s University in 2001. Then he decided to return to parish work. His archbishop also asked him to promote the African missions.

In 2002, he became associate pastor at St. Joseph’s, Garden City. “It was a good place to get started.”

He was transferred in 2007 to Queen of the Most Holy Rosary, Roosevelt. “It is a great parish. I liked the people and I enjoyed serving with Bishop Paul Walsh,” now retired auxiliary bishop, who was pastor. Father Muteru also ministered to the Spanish-speaking community.

Two years ago, he became chaplain at Molloy, though he continues to live at the Queen and offer the Spanish Mass. “I really enjoy serving at Molloy. The administration is very supportive and very affirming of the college’s Catholic identity.

“I celebrate Mass and the students often stay afterwards to talk,” Father Muteru continued. “I send e-mails with reflections and if I don’t write people ask me what happened.”

Noting that Molloy is a diverse community, Father Muteru remarked that “I don’t always know who is Catholic and not Catholic but all the students are friendly, and will talk to me and ask me to pray for them.”

Whatever his assignments, “I love being a priest. Most of all I love celebrating Mass but I also enjoy being connected with people. I marry couples, baptize their children. You become part of people’s lives.”