CATONSVILLE – More than 150 million Americans are expected to cast ballots this year. Father Isaac Makovo will be among those voting in a presidential election for the first time. While his journey from Kenya to becoming pastor of St. Agnes in Catonsville and St. William of York in Ten Hills is distinctive, it is a given that priests who immigrate here from other countries will become American citizens and able to engage in our electoral process.
“I am an archdiocesan priest,” Father Makovo said. “I’m not an order priest, who is in transit most of the time. I’m here for good.”
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Father Isaac Makovo joins local members of the Kenyan community following his priestly ordination in June 2012, joy that was tempered by his mother and sisters being denied visas to travel to the U.S. for the rite. (CR file)
Father Makovo was raised in Mombasa County, where his mother and three sisters still reside. It has more than 1 million people, and what he described as a “laid back” way of life, which he found in stark contrast to the pace here, albeit one since tempered by COVID-19.
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“Sometimes I feel sorry for people, because it seems like they are more or less becoming like a machine,” Father Makovo said, of over-scheduled families. “They’re in a vicious cycle, always doing things. It seems that there’s never time to reflect.”
Mombasa is in eastern Kenya, on the Indian Ocean, south of the equator. When he entered St. Mary’s Seminary in 2008, a sweater was his warmest outerwear. Sandy Korzick, a parishioner of St. Francis Xavier in Hunt Valley, rectified that by taking him shopping at Macy’s, an act of kindness consistent with what attracted him to the Premier See in the first place.
“They literally built a church there from nothing. What they did for that parish was amazing,” Father Makovo said of St. Stephen in Bradshaw’s partnership with its namesake in Mombasa, which began in earnest with a 2005 mission that included Deacon Frank Laws.
“The people are very poor, beyond the poverty we experience here,” Deacon Laws said, “but their faith is so vibrant and the people are so generous with the little that they have. He (Father Makovo) embodies the enthusiasm and hospitality of his countrymen.”
That sister parish partnership included the involvement of Father Joseph Oketch of the Apostles of Jesus, an adviser to the young Makovo who introduced him to Father Gerard Francik, then the director of vocations for the Baltimore Archdiocese.
“He already had connections here,” said Father Francik, now pastor of Sacred Heart in Glyndon. “His sense of faith was rooted; it had been there a long time. He wasn’t a new convert, whose enthusiasm might vanish. He was older, more mature.
“That, and his smile and spirit radiated the presence of the Lord.”
According to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), as of 2012, 17 percent of all priests in the U.S. were foreign born. That ratio has presumably grown, as 30 percent of the ordinands it surveyed in the class of 2018 were born outside the U.S.
Born on the third of July in 1977, the 43-year-old Father Makovo is among a growing segment of the priesthood in the U.S.
According to Father James Proffitt, director of clergy personnel for the Baltimore Archdiocese, foreign-born candidates for ordination must be on a path to citizenship. Part of that is pragmatic, to stave off the possibility of deportation.
Father Makovo, who initially came to the U.S. with a student visa, was ordained in May 2012. This is not his first election in the U.S., as he became a naturalized citizen April 24, 2018, at St. Philip Neri in Linthicum Heights, where he was in residence as an associate pastor.
Parishioners were invited, students from the parish school sang the National Anthem and a video of President Donald Trump welcoming new citizens was played after Father Makovo pledged an oath of allegiance to the U.S.
“It was a big deal,” said Father Makovo, the only person naturalized at the ceremony.
Kenya holds democratic elections, and Father Makovo began voting there as soon as he met the age requirement. Just as stark political party lines have been drawn here, his homeland has seen votes cast along tribal lines and violent disputes.
In general, clergy are advised to stay out of partisan politics and not to endorse any candidate or party. Out of respect for Father Makovo’s privacy, The Catholic Review requested an interview with him with the understanding that it would not ask who he would vote for in the presidential election.
Back home in Kenya, AIDS patients suffer from being stigmatized. Here, Father Makovo is puzzled by the paradox of an “individualized” society, as some families abandon members experiencing homelessness while many nonetheless step up to help strangers.
“America, all over the world, is (viewed as) the only country which will come to your rescue no matter what,” Father Makovo said, of a spirit he sees in the students at St. Agnes School. “That boils down to the lowest level. Walk in to our school here, tell the kids here that somebody needs help, and they will come together to fix the problem.”
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