For the final time, Martin Ahiaba paced the Tennessee Colony Coffield prison unit in Palestine, Texas. He recalled the last two years he spent making ends meet as both a guard and later a parole officer. He came face-to-face with compassion and experienced what it would truly mean to be a priest one day. He did not look back as he left. All he could think about was that he would finally be joining the seminary for the Diocese of Tyler.
Born in 1972 to Mr. Augustine S. Ahiaba and the late Mrs. Cecilia A. Ahiaba, Fr. Ahiaba grew up in Igala land, Middle-Belt Nigeria. Married in 1966, his parents converted to Catholicism from the African Traditional Religion (ATR). His father is a retired Nigerian Army staff sergeant, and his mother raised and catechized ten children as a housewife. Growing up in the military barracks provided young Ahiaba with the opportunity to travel all over Nigeria and serve as an altar boy in its chapels.
“The Middle-Belt region used to be the Northern part of Nigeria where Islam is the dominant factor in inter-religious dialogue. Half of my family are Muslims, and the other half are Christians. We lived amicably together. There is not much fighting and intolerance, but as you move towards the North, there are more disturbances by the Boko Haram terrorists often disguised as Fulani-Herdsmen,” Fr. Ahiaba said.
Upon his father’s retirement, they moved back to his hometown of Agala-Ate, Dekina LGA, where they experienced a military takeover of the elected political government.
“There was coup after coup. Some were deadly, some peaceful. Those military dictatorships gave me a sense of intolerance towards any kind of injustice,” Fr. Ahiaba said.
Religion became a source of social stability when the Irish and French-Canadian missionaries, known as the Holy Ghost Fathers and Brothers or Spiritans, evangelized the Dioceses of Idah and Lokoja. The vocation to the priesthood grew strong, especially by those who lost their lives to malaria and martyrdom.
“I followed them from one village to the other and later joined their seminary in 1993 when I left college at 21. I was a member for almost nine years before I discerned out. I didn’t see myself in that life,” Fr. Ahiaba said.
He decided to finish his theology degree at the Catholic Institute of West Africa (CIWA), Port Harcourt, Nigeria, then a master’s degree at Katholieke Universiteit, Leuven in Belgium. After earning his licentiate in biblical studies, he was at a crossroads. He had an opportunity to study a Ph.D. in scriptures at the Catholic University in Washington, D.C., or move to the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, California, where a friend invited him to the seminary.
After meeting with Cardinal Roger Mahony, Fr. Ahiaba began studies at St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo with the Archdiocese of Los Angeles from 2005 to 2008.
“But because of the residue of the sexual abuse crisis that came up in the seminary, I could not continue. I just could not understand what was going on, so I discerned out again. I didn’t find a place that I wanted to continue my discernment,” Fr. Ahiaba recalled.
He turned to his spiritual director, who said, “If you want to get a balanced view of America, go to Texas. It’s in the middle, and you have a lot of Nigerians in Houston and Dallas. Go to that place, and you will find a lot of support.”
From 2008 to 2009, he joined the discernment program to be placed in Houston or Dallas.
“The vocation director told me that because I did not get the recommendation from Cardinal Mahone, they would not allow me to join. What do I do? I thought. It’s okay. You can go to school and wait for some time, maybe some years. Then, if you want to be a priest, come back.”
Fr. Ahiaba moved back to the Holy Spirit Fathers in 2009 as a Ph.D. student at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to study Systematic Theology with a specialization in interreligious dialogue. After witnessing the conflict between Christianity and Islam in Northern Nigeria, his dissertation proposed applying a pneumatological approach to the inter-religious conversation instead of the Christology currently in use.
With nothing else to do but edit his dissertation, he pursued a chaplain residency at Christus Spohn Memorial Hospital in Corpus Christi, Texas, from 2012 to 2013. He completed five units of Clinical Pastoral Education and became a Board-Certified Chaplain under the National Association of Catholic Chaplains. He then took a year off to visit his family in Nigeria. All the while, the priesthood lingered in his heart.
“Then I saw an ad online for the [St. John Paul II Campus Ministry] center that they needed a campus minister. I applied for the job and was interviewed by Fr. Paul Key and Deacon Shaun Black. Because of how I answered their questions, they asked me, ‘Are you still interested in the priesthood?’ I said, ‘Well, I’ve been going up and down, but nobody has hired me. I’ve been here waiting, and that’s okay.’ Then they said, ‘You know what? We are not going to give you this job. We think you have more to offer than the job description we have for you. How about we send your file to the bishop?’ I said, ‘Well, I’m all for it.’”
Reviewing Fr. Ahiaba’s file, Bishop Joseph Strickland proposed that he first live in the diocese for one year before joining the seminary to learn the area and discern if he was really interested. Optimistic, the only question left was Where do I find a job to keep me in this one year?
“I went to Christus Hospital, but there was no job. I ended up working in the prison as a guard for one year. From there, I transferred from being a guard to a parole officer for another one year,” Fr. Ahiaba said with a pause to wipe the tears from his eyes. “I never imagined my discernment life would lead to the prison ministry, but nevertheless, I saw what it means to be a priest/chaplain in prison.”
He approached his work from a pastoral point of view. From dealing with public safety and the victims of harm to meeting with family members of both the victim and the prisoner, Fr. Ahiaba found value in each soul he encountered.
“If you are walking along the street and find a crumpled one-hundred-dollar bill in the gutter, will you go in there and pick it up?” Fr. Ahiaba asked. “…Yes! Because of the value. That is how the human soul is before God. Wherever you are trashed or dumped, he comes down there and picks you up. That is the approach that I see. That you have value. Their life is created in the image and likeness of God. Of course, we do not say that what they did is good; they did not steal candy to get into prison. Some are the most dangerous people in Texas, but still, they have value.”
He began to feel more at home in East Texas, having traveled from Texarkana to Madisonville as a parole officer. He attended Mass at St. Mary Magdalene in Flint, where Fr. Tim Kelly offered him hope and even financial assistance.
By 2016, the diocese finally accepted him, and he studied at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans from 2016 to 2018. “Fr. Justin Braun was the vocation director who helped me enormously (he is now the pastor at Texarkana). I’m grateful to him. I’m grateful to Fr. Paul Key,” he said.
He was ordained to the diaconate in 2017 and returned to the diocese in 2018 for apostolic work in Madisonville, Tyler, Kilgore, Marshall, Lufkin, and Jefferson. Finally, he was ordained to the priesthood on the feast of the Lord’s Presentation on February 2, 2021, at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Tyler, Texas.
Nearly 28 years later, he found himself relating with Jesus’ words about the parable of the workers in the vineyard:
The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out at dawn to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with them for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. Going out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and he said to them, ‘You too go into my vineyard, and I will give you what is just.’ So they went off. [And] he went out again around noon, and around three o’clock, and did likewise. Going out about five o’clock, he found others standing around, and said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’ They answered, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You too go into my vineyard.’ […] When those who had started about five o’clock came, each received the usual daily wage. So when the first came, they thought that they would receive more, but each of them also got the usual wage. […] Thus, the last will be first, and the first will be last.Matthew 20:1-16
“There was a feeling of redundancy, feeling of not being appreciated, feeling of sheer helplessness,” Fr. Ahiaba explained. “But I’ve never stayed idle. It’s a fulfilled life for me, and I thank God for my life. Unfortunately, my mother never lived to see this day, but she is happy that I was hired at last and that I have achieved my heart’s deepest desire…just wanting to serve. God’s time is the best.”
Fr. Ahiaba on discernment and vocations:
“From my years of experience, it is in ongoing formation (and the way priests and religious live their life) that we will understand initial formation (those who are about to enter/those in the seminary). How can you train people in the way of life if that life doesn’t exist in our parishes? Priests need to tell their story, live their story, and be joyful. If priests are lifeless, no one is going to join them. They must give a reason to why you chose to be a priest or religious. We are not sacramental machines that just do the work. You need to give a reason. If the people don’t see it in the life of the priest, forget it. I saw people who left their homes in Ireland and Canada to come to my people. I joined because I saw how they lived, and I saw purpose.”
“What is it about the priesthood that has endured for these 2,000 years… enough for people to give up their lives? We’re talking about the saints, the Church fathers, the martyrs, the virgins, pastors, religious sisters, nuns, and monks. Priests and religious (no matter how imperfect) are signs for the world to remember how all of us will be when we get to the Kingdom of God: No wife, no husband, no children, no possessions, no nothing. Just you, your sandals, and your cloak. Priests are that sign for the world, so we don’t lose hope and don’t get so immersed in worldly things that you miss the final goal.”