Education and divinity: the path of priesthood for a Gainesville reverend

By on April 26th, 2013

If Anthony Eseke’s house caught fire, there would be nothing of value for him to grab because other than a few pairs of identical black pants and black shirts, he owns nothing.

If anything, while escaping the flames he’d grab the box next to his bedroom desk that holds five college degrees.

Only because it would be a hassle to get them all back.

He does have a television, but even that’s owned by a church.

At 42 years old, he is a professor at the University of Florida and a graduate student seeking a doctorate in mass communications.

Rev. Anthony Eseke, 42, speaks to church members after mass.

Andrew V. Pestano / WUFT

The Rev. Anthony Eseke, 42, speaks to church members after Mass.

He’s also a priest.

Eseke was born in Idah, Nigeria, and his journey led to St. Augustine Church in Gainesville in 2007.

He’s quite popular with his following. He can address 300 of his parishioners and then go grab a bite with some of them.

He gets invited over for dinner regularly.

The Mass schedules are difficult to keep up with, and many parishioners sit in the pews before Mass, silently hoping that out of the door, beyond the altar, “Father Tony” will come through and do Mass that day.

When he was 12, Eseke was sent to minor seminary, a secondary school for boys who are interested in becoming priests.

He spent nine months of the year in the seminary and the rest at home. He learned the normal curriculum of Nigerian students, including religious studies such as Latin and church history.

A sense of maturity and responsibility emerged in him because since age 12, he was almost entirely independent.

At the minor seminary, he was expected to wake up at 5 a.m. daily, he had to keep track of all his finances and he had the choice from an early age to determine his future.

‘Happy’ and ‘spoiled’ are the words Eseke would use to describe his childhood, but spoiled in a positive way. He was the youngest of 11 children.

About 50 different voices can call him ‘uncle.’

With five sisters and five brothers, there was a lot of love, protection and support. When he spoke to his family at the age of 6 about becoming a priest, everyone loved the idea.

His birth wasn’t planned and the pregnancy was difficult. After ten children, people told his mother, Igala, that perhaps it would be best to abort.

Rev. Anthony Eseke gives communion to a mass of about 150 people on April 13, 2013.

Andrew V. Pestano / WUFT

Rev. Anthony Eseke gives communion to a Mass of about 150 people on April 13, 2013.

‘God saw me through 10. He can see me through 11.’

Eseke is grateful to his mother for not only giving him life, but also giving him the advice he feels led him to make the right decision that changed his life forever.

He was always convinced he wanted to be a priest until a great opportunity came to him. He was graduating with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy at Saints Peter and Paul Major Seminary with a GPA that was never reached before.

The opportunity would allow him to become a well-paid professor of philosophy and the ability to skip the master’s program to begin working on a doctorate.

There was so much pressure to take the job that for the first time, he had doubts. He came home one day and confessed to his mother that he’d been rethinking the priesthood.

She stood silently.

He went to sleep and at about 4 a.m. he heard a knock at his door. It was his mother. She told him that she will support him no matter what he does, money is no issue, but he needs to keep in mind that he has always wanted to be a priest.

All the recognition and awards he has received were only earned because becoming a priest was his goal. She doesn’t ask anything of him, but he should think deeply and find in his heart which path he really wants to take – professor or priest.

“For the first time in my life, the words were sinking into my heart as if the Holy Spirit was talking to me,” Eseke said. “I owe my life to her for making the decision to have me, but I also owe my priestly life to her because she saved it at a time of crisis.”

He has bachelor’s degrees in philosophy and theology from the Saints Peter and Paul Major Seminary in Ibadan, Nigeria, a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Ibadan, a master’s degree in public relations from the University of Nigeria and a master’s degree in international/intercultural communications from the University of Florida.

He’s able to be in full-time ministry as well as the doctorate program at the University of Florida and still turn in his academic assignments before his peers.

Eseke describes his life as challenging, fulfilling and academic. His father, Igbo, was a book salesman, so Eseke has been surrounded by literature from an early age.

When he was 14 he read “Things Fall Apart” by Nigerian author Chinua Achebe.

The book is centered around the life of a Nigerian man during the time of British colonialism and when Christian missionaries arrived in Africa, which was followed by the criminalization and demonization of African culture.

For Eseke, the book encouraged a philosophy of critical inquiry and interrogation.

Although he has spent a large portion of his life buried in academics, he has no regrets because he knows it has enriched his ministry.

At his secondary school graduation, he went back and forth from the audience to the stage to pick up awards so many times that he tested the audience’s patience, he said. He received about 70 percent of the available awards.

He also got a Mazda as a graduation present from his family and parish, but now drives a Toyota, his favorite.

His love for football and the University of Florida Gators began with confusion when he first arrived in Gainesville from Nigeria.

Rev. Anthony Eseke shares a joke with Maria Fernanda Pabon, 21, after mass.

Andrew V. Pestano / WUFT

Rev. Anthony Eseke shares a joke with Maria Fernanda Pabon, 21, after Mass.

“I don’t get it. I don’t get it,” he recalled saying about the sport to a crowd of about 200 at Mass.

“It was explained to me and I gradually began to learn the rules,” Eseke said. “I began to like football. I began to love it… Now, I bleed orange and blue.”

He thinks if he was not a priest, he may have been a medical doctor.

Margaret Berry, a member of the church, thinks he may have been a public speaker. She describes Eseke as charismatic, dynamic and faithful.

She remembers one day when a family from a different parish was listening to Eseke speak and one of them leaned over to Berry and said ‘Ooo, who is that?’

“I thought that was cute,” Berry said, smiling.

Eseke has been involved in public speaking since he was 12, when he began writing speeches for his seminary. He believes that his peers in the seminary would have seen him grow to be a speaker, engaging in public discourse.

Mary Kathleen Reyes, a church member and student at the University of Florida, believes he would have been a motivational speaker and describes him as friendly, funny and creative.

She appreciates the insight he can give to his commentary after the reading of scripture, and his ability to think outside the box.

Focused, helpful and warm are three words Julie Schilling, the parish secretary, would use to describe him. She finds one of the most distinguishing qualities of Eseke is how humble he is despite of a lifetime of achievement.

Eseke is her favorite parishioner, and her fondest memory of him is how impressed she was when Eseke first arrived in Gainesville and on his very first day giving Mass, he never looked uneasy.

He was totally in control and knew exactly what to do. Although he was new, he carried the sermon as if he’d been there forever, she said.

Knowledge is an everyday activity for Eseke, but when he isn’t listening to audiobooks about subjects like the evolution of contemporary capitalism, he’s listening and singing along to religious hymns and spiritual songs in the shower and everywhere he goes.

Schilling loves how he always sings.

Rice and black-eyed peas is his favorite meal, served Jollof style, a Nigerian style meaning they must be cooked together.

He’d like to have this meal with the pope, but nothing would inherently change for Eseke because other than the pope having the highest position in Eseke’s profession, it’s no big deal.

When he dies, Eseke wants to be surrounded by his parishioners to whom he has fed the word of God, and they’d happily return the favor being by his bedside as they pray for him, lifting him to the Heavens.

He wishes to be remembered as obedient to the will of the church and accommodative in his life for the good of the church.

His headstone will read:

Andrew V. Pestano / WUFT

“Here Lies a Man of God, who poured out his life for His love.”

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