July 18, 2024

PROGRESS: Greenfield priest living full-circle moment serving in America

Father Philip Bempong, who serves St. John's Catholic Church in Greenfield and St. Patrick Catholic Church in Massena.

Father Philip Bempong has resided in Greenfield for five years, and he says it is likely the dream of anyone not living in America to live here.

Bempong came to the United States in November 2019. He wasn’t sure how long he would be here, but five years later, he’s still very happy here serving as priest at St. John’s Catholic Church in Greenfield and St. Patrick Catholic Church in Massena.

Newsweek reported in 2021 that some American dioceses within the Catholic church were looking to expand their clergy. But with a boom in Catholicism in Africa and the opposite happening in seminaries graduating priests, American dioceses have begun to look across the pond for clergy, and Bempong came to American to serve that purpose.

“It’s so beautiful to be here and I’m so happy the people are also happy to have me here,” Bempong said. “It has been wonderful a community. It has been friendly, Greenfield is very peaceful and the people here have been very accommodating, and I really appreciate that. So far my stay here has been really good and I’d like to stay more.”

All Bempong heard from his bishop about moving to Iowa was Des Moines.

“I’ve been in ministry for about 15 years now, and it was in my 10th year that the bishop asked me if I was willing to come help in Des Moines. He mentioned Des Moines, but I didn’t even know Des Moines. I tried to Google it but I didn’t have the spelling correct,” Bempong said. “It was later that I found out that it was in Iowa in the United States. I told the bishop that I am willing and ready to come and work here.”

Within three months, Bempong’s paperwork was complete and he was ready for the move. He didn’t know what it would be like, but to his surprise, he was welcomed nicely.

Little did he know, he would end up in towns much smaller than Des Moines like Greenfield and Massena.

“At the gas station, people recognized me and said hi to me. When I was away for awhile in Ghana and came back, people missed me,” Bempong said. “It’s a small town, so everybody knows everybody, which is very good.”

There are both similarities and differences one finds when comparing Ghana with Iowa.

Differences include the seasons you experience in Ghana. There’s a wet season and dry season, and the climate is quite tropical.

Christianity is the leading religion in Ghana with Islam coming and second and traditional religion coming in third.

Similar to here in Iowa, agriculture holds a large place in Ghana’s economy, although crops grown there differ vastly from here. Instead of corn and soybeans predominantly painting the landscape, there are a multitude of fruits that are grown there, along with corn.

Sports are popular in Ghana, however while Americans enjoy sports such as football, baseball, and several others, soccer is most popular there. Bempong brought a soccer ball with him to America and loves to play, even in his bedroom. Ghana’s national team is known as the Black Stars. Ghanans also get into the sports of volleyball and basketball.

Coming to Greenfield, Bempong has been able to take part in several different experiences of small-town life, such as high school athletic events like basketball games.

Bempong said that not unlike those community activities small town Iowans know and love are funerals back home in Ghana. He said you don’t have to know the deceased to come to a funeral there, and funerals are an entire community affair.

Every country has its favorite tastes. Ghanan food typically utilizes rice and spices such as garlic and peppers. Goat meat is very popularly used in it.

Bempong is the second priest in Greenfield from Ghana. In fact, Father James Ahenkora, who transferred to a parish in Council Bluffs before Bempong came, is also from Accra, the capitol city of the country, where Bempong is from. When they are together, Bempong and Ahenkora are able to speak Twi to each other, which is the native language in Ghana.

There are three children in Bempong’s family, and he is the oldest. They grew up middle class and he attended Catholic education.

Having the experience of ministering to Catholics in America is a unique, full-circle experience for Bempong because of an aspect of his own upbringing.

When he was a youth, the priest in his home parish was a missionary from Ireland. He said they had a “great influence” on not only his upbringing, but his calling to ministry.

“It’s as if God was preparing me. We were all blacks with one Irishman leading us. After 14 or 15 years, I find myself in that same shoes. To be black and have all white parishioners, it’s interesting that God has a will for preparing His children for that,” Bempong said. “I’m sure it was a kind of preparation for me. They did not understand our language and we didn’t understand the English very well. We had an interpreter who would tell us what Father had said in our language.”

When Bempong’s father passed away last year and he went home to Ghana for the burial, Bempong’s parishioners sent him cards, and he was able to take numerous cards home to show his family there. Sending cards is not customary in Ghana like it is here.

Even through a sad event such as the death of his father, Bempong was greatly comforted by the love his parishioners showed him.

“The love was big,” he said. “I received a lot of cards. It was so wonderful.”

Caleb Nelson

Caleb Nelson

Caleb Nelson has served as News Editor of the Adair County Free Press and Fontanelle Observer since Oct. 2017. He and his wife Kilee live in Greenfield. In Greenfield and the greater Adair County area, he values the opportunity to tell peoples' stories, enjoys playing guitar, following all levels of sports, and being a part of his local church.