In May 2017, Rev. Fr. John Kiplimo Lelei was appointed Rector of St. Thomas Major Seminary, Nairobi. VIRGINIA KABUGU spoke to him about his life’s journey in priesthood and his new appointment.
Tell us about yourself
I am Rev. Fr. John Kiplimo Lelei from the Catholic Diocese of Eldoret. I come from a family of eight children. My parents were blessed with four children before my mother passed on. My father married a second wife to take care of us and they were also blessed with four children. I am the last child of my late mother.
Until recently, I have been working at St. Mathias Mulumba Seminary as Vice Rector and Dean of Students. I have been teaching since December 2003. From 2003 to 2008, I served as a visiting lecturer, meaning that I was working from the parish. In August 2008, the bishop asked me to join the team of formators as a resident lecturer. I was appointed Vice Rector and Dean of Students until May this year when I was asked to come to St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary, Nairobi, as the Acting Rector.
Why did you choose to join priesthood?
It is a very interesting story. When I was in primary school, there was a priest from Turbo Parish who used to visit us. As he was celebrating mass, questions would go through my mind. Can Africans also become priests? Can they also celebrate Mass? I had never seen an African priest. I was then in class six. But the idea soon disappeared.
Later in high school, the idea came back, this time motivated by a priest who used to celebrate Mass for us. I had joined the Young Christian Society (YCS) and was an active member and chairman of the movement. During Mass, the priest would talk about vocation to priesthood and I took interest. I remember there were two priests who came to our school. One of them was Rev. Fr. Patrick Scanlan (RIP), the then Vocations Director and we started talking. At Form Three I went home when schools closed and told my father that I wanted to be a priest and he asked; a priest? Like the white man who prays for pupils in our primary school? Then he fell silent. The following year when I was in Form Four, the idea came again. The first time my father thought I did not know what I was saying but he sought information from one of his great friends. He was my primary school teacher and a good man. He advised that priesthood was good but my father was not satisfied, so he went and consulted my other relatives who encouraged him. After Form Four in 1979, I joined the seminary despite my parents not being Catholic.
Did you encounter hurdles while joining the seminary considering that your parents were not Catholics?
My parents did not know the whole idea of Catholic priesthood. In fact, they were not even Christians. It was something unheard of and hard for them to understand and only got advice from friends and relatives. When I talked to the Vocations Director, he was happy about my decision. By then our bishop was Archbishop Emeritus John Njenga and I did not have any objection from my local Church either. But from the family side, my parents, sisters and relatives could not understand.
Tell us about your new appointment
The appointment came as a surprise to me because having served for thirteen years; it was time for me to go back to the diocese. In fact I had talked to my bishop the late Bishop Cornelius Korir, to take me back to the diocese. As I was sharing with him, he told me to hold on. The next day I received a call from the Chairman of the Seminary Episcopal Commission (SEC), Rt. Rev. Maurice Crowley, asking me to go and see him the following day. I called the Rector and told him of the call I had received from the SEC chairman. He asked me to oblige to the call of the Chairman. I left early in the morning and arrived at my destination by midday. The bishop was busy in office but he welcomed me as we already knew each other. After a short while, he said: “John, I have a request. I have no Rector at St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary. I’m requesting you to be one. For sometimes I kept quiet. “Think about it and get back to me” later.
We went for lunch and afterwards I drove back to St. Mathias Mulumba Seminary as I thought of the offer. At around 5 o’clock as I was approaching the seminary, I got a call from the bishop asking: “Your answer please?” I said yes, bishop.
What does this appointment mean to you?
Of course it is a new challenge because it is a new position and one does not know how to handle it. Many people are involved and they have a lot of expectations from you, so it is a challenging position which I think is also meant for growth. Nairobi is a different place and new environment. It has many privileges and challenges. The cost of living is high.
What challenges do you foresee?
At St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary, we have a piece of land, but agriculture does not do well here like in other national seminaries. I am happy the seminary is already producing vegetables and rearing cows. When I settle down, we will explore other options to utilize the land that we have. We can also venture into chicken rearing. The main challenge remains procurement of foodstuff.
What is your vision for the seminary?
My vision is the vision of the Church – to train priests who are formed holistically, (intellectual, social and spiritual), so that they may become good ambassadors of the Gospel.
What should the seminarians expect from you?
I hope they will see in me a listener, a father, a teacher, a collaborator and someone who will encourage them in their vocation.
What advice would you give to young priests who are going out to start their mission?
The workload is great, they are stepping into a fertile ground, and they need to translate what they learn in their spiritual formation and social life in the real world they are going. What they learn may not necessarily be accepted at face value but they should adapt themselves to the situations they will find themselves in. They should remain faithful in their vocations as priests. Challenges and frustrations will always be there but they should remain faithful to Christ who has called them. They should support each other and create time for solidarity with other priests through prayer, spiritual nourishment and sharing.
What message do you have for the team you have left behind at Tindinyo?
We are mere workers in the vineyard of the Lord. I have to move on. Others will come; they will do double what I did and move on. We are mere workers in the vineyard of the Lord. When I was a seminarian here at St. Thomas Aquinas, there were many professors and they left. Some are still alive, others have died. All of us have some duty to contribute to the growth of the Church. Of course Tindinyo had become like my home because I was there for many years.
How should priests and the laity relate with each other?
We come from families and as priests, and we remain part of our families. When we become priests, we are not uprooted from our families; we are not uprooted from our Christians at home, we are still part and parcel of our communities. There is need to collaborate and work together to fulfill our mission and duties. The Christians do give us a lot of support, not just material but also moral support, encouragement and even counseling. It is good to know that Christians are talented differently and among them are talents of different kinds. We priests may not have been trained in some of the fields and it is good to seek their support. They may not be trained in theological formation, but they have a lot of information in terms of management of finances, farms, investment and administration and there is need for us to work together.
What are your closing remarks?
I thank the Christians for supporting the bishops in training of priests through payment of school fees. We realize there are Christians who may be more gifted than others and can even sponsor some seminarians through the dioceses. Gone are the days when Rome used to send money to train priests. Our Rome is now here in Kenya. We are the resources so let us learn to share. I also thank the bishops for this appointment and for the good work they are doing in the country. I appeal to Christians to continue supporting the bishops and the Church in Kenya.
1958 – Born at Soy in Uasin Gishu County. The parents migrated to Kipkaren
River in Ng’eng’ire. Grew up there and joined primary school
1968 – Joined secondary school
1979 – 1981 – Joined St. Augustine Seminary Mabanga (St. Mary’s Molo Seminary was not there yet) to study philosophy
1981 to 1985 – Joined St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary to study Theology.
Worked at various parishes in the Catholic Diocese of Eldoret then went for further studies in Vienna, Austria. Remained in Vienna for six years and studied for Masters and Doctorate in Theology – Liturgy.
2002 -2003 – Joined St. Mathias Mulumba Seminary, Tindinyo, to teach liturgy and physiology.
2008 – 2017 – Appointed Vice Rector at St. Mathias Mulumba Seminary
May 2017 – Appointed Rector, St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary, Langata (Nairobi)