May 10, 2013

A ‘miraculous journey’

Seed for priestly vocation planted early in Tanzania, takes root in southern Indiana

Deacon John Kamwendo smiles after being ordained a transitional deacon by Bishop Christopher J. Coyne at the Archabbey Church of Our Lady of Einsiedeln in St. Meinrad on April 14, 2012. He will be ordained a priest at SS. Peter and Paul Cathedral in Indianapolis on May 18. (Photo courtesy of Saint Meinrad Archabbey)

Deacon John Kamwendo smiles after being ordained a transitional deacon by Bishop Christopher J. Coyne at the Archabbey Church of Our Lady of Einsiedeln in St. Meinrad on April 14, 2012. He will be ordained a priest at SS. Peter and Paul Cathedral in Indianapolis on May 18. (Photo courtesy of Saint Meinrad Archabbey)

(Editor’s note: At 10 a.m. on May 18, three men are scheduled to be ordained priests at SS. Peter and Paul Cathedral in Indianapolis: transitional deacons Doug Marcotte, Martin Rodriguez and John Francis Kamwendo. This week, The Criterion features a profile of Deacon Kamendo. Last week, we published a profile of Deacon Rodriguez. Deacon Marcotte was featured in the April 26 issue.)

By Natalie Hoefer

On the surface, Deacon John Kamwendo’s life seems more like a textbook than a story—the 43-year-old transitional deacon has one associate degree, two bachelor’s degrees, two master’s degrees and a doctoral degree. His educational path took him to six institutions from his native Tanzania to South Africa and finally to Indiana.

But look deeper and there’s a story nearly everyone can relate to—the story of one searching for God’s will, questioning which path to take and praying for guidance.

Deacon Kamwendo spent most of his youth on a farm in Chiumbati, a small Muslim village in the southern Lindi region of Tanzania. Despite being from the only Christian family in the village, the only trial Kamwendo endured involved waiting for his Muslim friends to finish their afternoon prayers before hitting the soccer field.

The first seed planted for his vocation to the priesthood came in third grade. A priest stopped by his religion class to make sure the children were being properly catechized for first Communion.

“I was good in answering the questions, and the priest said, ‘Oh, you want to become a priest. You will be a priest.’ That really struck me. It stayed in the back of my mind,” said Deacon Kamwendo, the fifth of seven children.

His older sister, Veronica, reminded him of this encounter when it came time to decide where to go for his secondary education—public high school or minor seminary.

“She asked me many times to go to a priest and inquire about joining the [minor] seminary,” he recalled.

But one does not simply join a minor seminary in Tanzania.

“It’s a very competitive process. I prepared for three months. Sixty boys applied, but they only accepted four. I came from a remote area, from a poor family. You must be competent in academics, health and your spiritual life,” Deacon Kamewndo explained. “I don’t know how it turned out that I made it.”

What did God want?

When Deacon Kamwendo graduated from the minor seminary in 1993, he went directly to St. Augustine Major Seminary in Peramiho, Tanzania. After five years of formation, he completed a year of pastoral service.

And here began the questioning.

“I decided not to go back to the major seminary. I felt like I needed time off. It was a very tough decision,” Deacon Kamwendo admitted.

Helping others seemed to be in Deacon Kamwendo’s blood. He spent the next two years earning an associate degree from a teaching college in Tanzania. After graduating, he taught high school physics, chemistry, biology and math from 2002-04.

But there was still that nagging curiosity—was God calling him to the priesthood?

Deacon Kamwendo decided to take a yearlong sabbatical from teaching to complete his bachelor of sacred theology studies as a lay student. After earning the degree, he felt called to explore theology further, but still as a layperson.

That exploration took him to Stellenbosch University in Capetown, South Africa.

Between 2006 and 2008, Deacon Kamwendo earned a bachelor’s degree in special education and a master’s degree in mission theology—simultaneously.

“That was very difficult, earning a bachelor’s and a master’s degree at the same time. I do not recommend it,” he said with a laugh.

It was now the summer of 2008. Deacon Kamwendo had started working on his doctorate in mission theology. But still, the confusion persisted. What did God want of him? What was he being called to?

Prayers are answered

Two events occurred that summer that proved pivotal—and providential—in Deacon Kamwendo’s discernment.

First was a pilgrimage he made with Stellenbosch University’s Association of Catholic Youth to the Ngome Marian Shrine in South Africa, the site of reported apparitions of the Blessed Mother to a Benedictine nun between 1955 and 1971. The site was designated an approved place of prayer in 1992 by Bishop Mansuet Biyase, then bishop of the Diocese of Eshowe.

“When I was there, I asked Blessed Mary to open the doors for me so that I could do something in my life, a career in which I would have joy and peace,” he said. “I loved the job as teacher, but there was no peace there.”

The second event of importance that summer is one that Deacon Kamwendo attributes to his prayers at the Ngome Marian Shrine.

“There was a call from [Indiana University], which has a partnership with Stellenbosch University. They said there was an opportunity to work with disabled children at Bradford Woods summer camp. There weren’t a lot of opportunities to do practical work in South Africa,” he said. “I thought it would be a good experience to work with a big group of kids with disabilities and different challenges, using good equipment.”

Bradford Woods is Indiana University’s 2,500-acre outdoor learning and education center in Morgan County.

When it came to applying for a visa to come to the U.S., Deacon Kamwendo believes Mary stepped in again.

“My friends told me I could try, but I would never get a visa because they don’t give them out to many people. You have to have lots of paperwork. I saw so many people denied visas. So I went to the consulate and I didn’t have the paperwork I needed—and they just said, ‘OK’!” he marveled. “That was a miracle. I believe the Virgin Mary has been very helpful and instrumental in my life.”

Deacon Kamwendo arrived in Indiana in May of 2009. The plan was to stay six months.

‘This is like church at home’

“I loved the program [at Bradford Woods]. I wanted to learn more. So I extended my stay another six months,” he said.

It was during the second half of his stay that he attended Mass at St. Charles Borromeo Church in Bloomington.

“Before coming to the U.S., I heard there were empty churches, just old people. But I didn’t find that at St. Charles. That church was always packed with children and adults. I thought, ‘This is like church at home,’ ” he said. “And then I thought, ‘This is a good place to work as priest.’ ”

He then saw the complete answer to his prayer at Ngome Marian Shrine.

“It is here in the U.S. where I found peace by going back to seminary and into the priesthood,” he said.

Deacon Kamwendo talked with Msgr.William Stumpf, then-pastor of St. Charles Borromeo Parish. By August of 2010, he was enrolled at Saint Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology in St. Meinrad.

“[Then-vocations director] Father Eric Johnson told me there was no question I had more than what I needed [educationally] to be ordained, but they needed to get to know me and have me get to know them and know the culture,” he explained.

While taking courses at Saint Meinrad, Deacon Kamwendo also finished his doctorate in mission theology through Stellenbosch University.

“It was very difficult. During that time, I thought I might not be right in the mind,” he admitted.

Deacon Kamwendo’s mother died of asthma in 2001. Then his sister Veronica, the one who encouraged him to pursue the priesthood, died of malaria in 2007, as did his younger brother, George, at the age of 5. Deacon Kamwendo said he is very close to his family; the deaths were a tremendous loss for him.

Then two months after starting at Saint Meinrad, his father had a severe stroke and was paralyzed. Again, he questioned his path.

“I thought maybe I should just go home, finish my doctorate there and take care of my dad,” he said.

‘Meant to be a priest’

As Deacon Kamwendo struggled with that difficult decision, a spiritual director helped him discern that God was calling him to stay in the seminary.

That decision was confirmed for him in a special way in June of 2012. His parish was offering a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. He was interested in participating, but could not afford the trip.

“My pastor at St. Charles Borromeo [Father Thomas Kovatch] announced in the bulletin that our seminarian would like to go but can’t afford to. It only took four people to cover everything!” he said.

In the Holy Land, Deacon Kamwendo received confirmation of his discernment to the priesthood.

“At first when I was there I thought, ‘Oh, this is nice, like a tourist journey.’ One day when we were in Gethsemani, something struck me very hard inside. I cried like a baby,” he said. “At Gethsemani was the moment of revelation saying I need to go ahead with this.”

And so, on May 18, Deacon Kamwendo’s long journey of seeking God’s desire for his life will be fulfilled, and a new journey will begin as a priest.

Seminarian Michael Keucher, who is in his second year of theological formation for the priesthood at Saint Meinrad, is also a member of St. Charles Borromeo Parish. He is impressed by Deacon Kamwendo’s humility and persistent pursuit of God’s will.

“He had been in seminary a long time back home in Tanzania, but discerned the Lord was asking him to take a step back from priestly formation at that time. It takes a lot of courage to enter seminary, but probably even more to leave it if it doesn’t feel right,” said Keucher.

“I’ve learned a lot from [Deacon] John and his spirituality. One of his favorite phrases is, ‘We must keep a low profile.’ This phrase of his has taught me a lot about humility and the priesthood,” Keucher said. “[He] knows the priesthood is fundamentally about gentle and faithful service and not about being in charge, recognized or applauded.”

Monsignor Stumpf, now pastor of St. Michael Parish in Greenfield, views Deacon Kamwendo as a “gentle soul. He is very concerned about other people and has so much compassion for other people. He relates well with other folks. He’s very pastoral. He’ll make an excellent priest.”

Permanent Deacon Marc Kellams of St. Charles Borromeo Parish and parish secretary Sue Campbell also describe Deacon Kamwendo as “gentle” and “warm.”

“When I look at him, I see a man glowing with the Holy Spirit,” Campbell added. “And he is always flashing that great big wonderful smile.

“[Deacon] John has a lot to give, and he certainly is meant to be a priest. There is no other way to explain his miraculous journey.”

(For more information about a vocation to the priesthood in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, log on to

More about Deacon John Kamwendo

  • Age: 43
  • Parents: Francis Elijah and the late Mary Augustine Namalweso
  • Home parish: St. Charles Borromeo in Bloomington
  • Seminary: St. Augustine Major Seminary in Peramiho, Tanzania, and Saint Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology
  • Hobbies: Gardening, drawing, carpentry and hunting
  • Favorite Bible verse: “Lord, you have probed me, you know me: you know when I sit and stand; you understand my thoughts from afar” (Ps 139:1-2).

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