BUCKSPORT — Imagine a coastal city with four times the land mass of Ellsworth — about 400 square miles — but populated by 8 million more people.
That’s Nigeria’s largest city of Lagos and the native country of Father Benedict Faneye, who now lives in Bucksport.
On Nov. 20, Father Bene was appointed as a new parochial vicar in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland’s Stella Maris Parish. As part of the five-county parish, he and several other priests serve Hancock County’s Catholic churches and far-flung chapels from Bucksport to Stonington to Northeast Harbor.
Lagos is Nigeria’s former capital, but remains its commercial hub and primary port.
“It’s right on the [Atlantic] ocean in southwest Nigeria,” said Faneye of his West African home city. “Growing up it wasn’t as bad as it is now.”
Faneye first came to the United States in 1992.
“Growing up, one heard so much about the U.S. It was difficult to tell what was real and what was made up,” Faneye said. “So, coming here, there was such a curiosity to clear up a lot. I asked lots of questions.”
The priest recalls being warmly welcomed by Americans. He now has dual American and Nigerian citizenship.
“I felt well received right from the moment I landed at the airport. I was taken to visit the Washington Mall Monument, White House and several other places of interest around the city,” he remembers. “I truly considered all that part of my education. Those who received me at the time did not treat me in any way different from others. They were so gracious.”
The fourth of five children, his mother owned and ran a restaurant while his father worked for a supply business and was on the road much of the time. So he lived with and was brought up by his grandparents.
“For most of us in West Africa, we tend to live with extended family,” he related.
When it was time for him to start school, the 6-year-old boy was sent to live with a guardian a few miles from the family homestead. The thinking was “if you stay home, you’re going to be spoiled,” Faneye said. “Everything is there for you. In my family, discipline was number one.”
Raised a Catholic, although his mother was Anglican, Faneye’s grandfather, John Ogunjimi Faneye, was a founding member of the local parish the family belonged to and the church organist.
“So on Sunday morning, he was leading our following,” Faneye said. The elder Faneye was “devout.” “Going to church on Sunday, there was no question about that.”
His religious upbringing eventually inspired Faneye to join the Dominican Order, also known as the Order of Preachers. As a boy, his imagination was fired by the priest’s habit, leather belt and rosary hanging from a clip near the hip.
“I was putting my school rosary around my waist like a belt when I was at home,” Faneye said.
Faneye graduated from high school in June 1984. In December of that year, his grandfather died, but the church elder had already written to the Dominican Order on his 19-year-old grandson’s behalf and he was accepted.
“He did his work. He took me where he needed to,” said Faneye, whose “journey” with the Dominicans began.
The odyssey has taken him back and forth between Nigeria and the United States many times.
Faneye’s native language is Yoruba, which is spoken mainly in western and southwestern Nigeria. He was one of two Dominican brothers granted scholarships to do theological work in Washington, D.C., in 1992.
As a Catholic priest from Africa, Faneye says he has been mostly well received. Only one bad experience occurred following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.
The priest was in New York trying to get a train to go to Hoboken, N.J. He wasn’t sure which direction to take, so he asked an African-American man for help.
The man told him to “get away,” Faneye recalled. “I said to myself, ‘Welcome to America.’”
But a Caucasian man nearby pointed out the right way.
“I try not to hold on to these things,” Faneye said. “I always try to be mindful of who I’ve been called to be and show that love to people.”
“The Lord tells us in the Book of Ezekiel if you see a person going down the wrong path, you’re responsible to bring them back,” the parish priest said. “But, if you teach them the right way and they still don’t reverse course, ‘you’ve done your part.’”
Just last week, Faneye published a book titled “Love and the Practice of Virtue.”
“I had initially set my mind on writing a book on some of the moral issues that young people struggle with, especially in the Church, using sexuality as my focal point,” Faneye said.
However, his own journey, ministering to people and helping them with their daily struggles, became the focal point.
“Basically, many struggle with choices [such as] whether to live their own lives or reach out to an ailing parent, knowing fully well there might be no end in sight,” said Faneye. “That is a life-changing decision. It is a total giving of self. I witnessed it.”
Faneye went back to Nigeria in 2005 but returned six years later to serve as a chaplain at Washington Hospital Center in the Washington Archdiocese.
In 2014, Faneye was assigned to Harrisburg Diocese in Pennsylvania until his latest assignment in Downeast Maine.
“When the call came for help, I was the one it came to,” Faneye said. “I really want to be here.”
The reception from Mainers has been warm.
“People have been so gracious,” Faneye said. “It’s been a wonderful experience here. I’ve been really touched by it.”