By Jeff Renken
Father Vitalis Anyanike speaks quietly sitting behind the cluttered desk in the small office at the Holy Name Church’s rectory. Diplomas on one wall face a photo of his former Nigerian home on the other.
It’s warm for a November morning in Omaha, yet Vitalis wears a wool top coat. He emigrated from Africa 25 years ago, but 70 degrees is still too cool for him.
“I didn’t know too much then, else I would’ve gone to California,” Anyanike said.
Anyanike is the pastor at two churches in North Omaha: Holy Name and Saint Benedict. He arrived four years ago after serving the same duties at the small Nebraska towns of Scribner and Hooper.
His parishioners are more diverse now, which is why he was called to Omaha.
“We have Caucasian Americans, immigrants from Nigeria, Cameroon, Bosnia, Venezuela, Barundi, and we have a growing Hispanic population from Mexico and Guatemala,” Anyanike said.
Anyanike understands their situation. He’s lived through it, too, but his family was always better off financially than most.
Forty-five years ago, Anyanike was born in Ekwulumili, Nigeria. His family had some money. “Not Donald Trump type, but upper-middle class,” he says. But by attending public schools, and being with friends, he didn’t realize how well off his family was at the time.
Throughout his life, Anyanike has used this as an opportunity to help others.
The money came from his father, Ignatius, who was a police officer before being elected local chief. Anyanike describes the position as similar to a mayor in a Nebraska city.
Once elected, the family moved into a 22-room house. But by this time his five older brothers and sisters had moved out. This meant only one younger brother lived in the huge house with him and his parents, which meant more work for Anyanike.
“We were always doing chores in that house,” Anyanike said. “I don’t know why we had so much room.”
Ignatius liked the location though because he could plant a garden.
“People thought he was crazy. Educated people in Nigeria don’t farm,” Anyanike said. “But he loved it.”
Anyanike says he had a very happy childhood. He liked playing soccer and making his mom nervous when he’d go swimming or exploring in the forest.
His favorite days though were spent with his dad at the airport.
“We’d watch the planes take off. And you know there’s this sizzling sound in the air. It’s probably just the air conditioner, but it’s always there, and it’s so nice and cool in the African setting. And we’d just sit, eat ice cream and watch the huge planes. And they’re not even huge, but as a kid they were,” Anyanike said.
After a day at the airport, they’d go buy candy at the supermarket.
“I always saved my candy for Monday at school. I’d break it into small pieces and share it with my classmates. It made me feel special,” Anyanike said.
He also gave to others on Christmas, but with a different tradition than we have in America.
“We would butcher a cow in the street,” Anyanike said. “And I always got to distribute the meat.”
This distribution wasn’t just handing out meat either. Anyanike traveled miles on foot to share it with neighbors.
Anyanike grew up as a Christian, but he didn’t join a church until a couple of his friends became altar servers. It’s also when he decided to become priest because he thought he could help more people than becoming a doctor or a lawyer like his brother.
His family became divided 20 years ago when some of them moved to the United States and some stayed in Nigeria. One brother, Ike, moved to Kansas City a year before Anyanike and his parents arrived. Ike convinced them that there was more opportunity here.
“My parents weren’t too eager to come, but they could afford it, so Ike made all the plans to come.”
After arriving, Anyanike started classes at the Kenrick School of Theology in St. Louis, Missouri.
“I came very close to joining the Marines, but they didn’t have enough seminarians,” Anyanike said. “That was a shock, so I went into it.”
Anyanike says he had an easy transition into America. He had money and a family member who was already here. But he says most people who arrive here aren’t that fortunate. These are the ones he can help.
Anyanike knows the area, and he tries to introduce people and connect them with others from the same home country. Sometimes just talking with them is what people need
“First and foremost, people coming here just want to be understood—the sense of assurance that it will be OK,” Anyanike said.
He tells them that it’s not like back home. Here you get paid for work, and here someone cares. Occasionally he provides financial help, but usually directing them to other resources is enough.
He also provides aid through the Ad Gentes Mission. In 2003, he co-founded the Catholic mission with Sister Lucia Benedict.
Benedict was also born in Nigeria before moving to America. She was attending Villanova University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, when she visited her home country as a missionary. It was on this trip where she first met Anyanike.
After this, she moved to Omaha to help start the mission, because she saw something special in Anyanike.
“He would go to any length to make sure the people he’s serving are taken care of,” Benedict said.
Since then, the two have led mission trips to Nigeria, Burkina Faso and Malawi, where they built schools, health clinics and taught skills like sewing and carpentry.
“He gives too much of himself,” Benedict said. “I tell him to slow down.”
Anyanike has slowed down a little. He’s thankful for Skype to avoid some trips, but he shows no sign of quitting by planning an African art show in Omaha and a trip to Nigeria next year.
“I’ve been successful. I can still do more.”