Father Theo Ebulueme, pastor of Holy Name Church in East Nashville, loves to be with people – whether at big, boisterous events like the parish’s annual International Festival, or in quieter moments, like at the hospital bedside with a grieving family.
“I thank God for blessing me with these people,” Father Theo said of those he has served as a priest for the past 25 years. “They support me and I’m very grateful.”
Father Theo, a priest of the Diocese of Nnewi, Nigeria, has served in the Diocese of Nashville since 2004.
“Every country and every parish is different,” he said. Throughout his ministry in the priesthood, he has served as a parish priest in Nigeria, a missionary in Cameroon, a hospital chaplain in Nashville, associate pastor at Immaculate Conception Church in Clarksville, and as pastor of Holy Name since 2015.
“Holy Name is a small parish, and people become like a family,” he said. “Sometimes I give people a call if I don’t see them for a few weeks. … I’m just checking in on them, I’m not prying,” he says, followed by one of his big, infectious laughs.
Father Theo and parish volunteers have been doing more checking in on parishioners than usual lately. “When the tornado hit, it affected all of us,” he said, noting that the March 3 tornado directly impacted a number of parish families in the neighborhood, and therefore affected the whole parish family.
Now, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, “We’re trying to do as much as we can to reach out and remain in contact with parishioners,” through phone calls and Facebook, he said.
“Seeing people together brings me a lot of joy, in the pews and socializing after,” Father Theo said. Whether it’s at coffee and donuts after a regular Sunday Mass, or a more elaborate parish celebration, Father Theo loves to bring people together.
In addition to the two Sunday Masses he typically celebrates with the Holy Name community, he also celebrates a Sudanese Mass every Sunday at Holy Name, and a Mass at St. Edward once a month for the Nigerian Catholic Community.
“When we get together,” he said of the Nigerian Catholic Community, “we talk and laugh, and speak in our own language; it brings you back to where you come from.”
Growing up in Nigeria, Father Theo’s family lived near his parish, where he served as an altar boy. “Serving around the altar gave me a lot of joy,” he said, and he began to wonder if he might be called to the priesthood.
He entered junior seminary, and as he got more immersed in his studies, his call to a priestly vocation became stronger. “Along the way I doubted,” but with the support of family, friends, priests and prayer, he realized that “when you are called, you say yes.”
A vocation to the priesthood, Father Theo said, “is a call, not a career. It’s a way of life, not a job.”
For Father Theo, the opportunity to spend his life “acting in the person of Christ” was sealed on his ordination day, July 22, 1995.
After serving in Nigeria and Cameroon in the early years of his priesthood, in 2003 he came to the United States to study Theology at the Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio. After reaching out to several dioceses in the U.S. that might need his assistance, he was welcomed to Middle Tennessee by former Diocese of Nashville Bishop Edward Kmiec in 2004 and was assigned to work in hospital ministry.
Visiting patients and their families in the hospital, “you’re there in so many roles,” said Father Theo, “sacramental, prayer, being present with them, all these things are consoling.”
“Your ministry of presence matters a whole lot.”
Through his five-year experience working in hospitals, Father Theo began to think he could help more if he were able to offer some professional counseling support to families dealing with suffering, high stress, and grief. While a chaplain, he completed his masters degree in counseling psychology.
In 2009 the late Bishop David Choby assigned Father Theo to be associate pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish in Clarksville. During that assignment, Father Theo earned his doctorate in counseling from Trevecca Nazarene University. Today, he brings his counseling knowledge and experience into his ministry in different ways, especially to serve those grieving in any way, affected by a death or divorce, among other life issues.
Throughout his 25 years as a priest, Father Theo has always tried to meet those he serves with an open heart. Serving his parishioners by administering the sacraments or offering a ministry of presence to those in need, “it brings me joy doing that in the person of Christ.”