Bishop-elect Gabriel Mendy, C.S.Sp., will make quite a homecoming when he returns to Gambia where he was born and raised, began pursuing the priesthood and was ordained for the Congregation of the Holy Spirit, or Spiritan Fathers. His four brothers and two sisters, and their children, reside there. He will become the first native son of the West African nation to serve as the bishop of its lone diocese, Banjul.
The scale of the Church in Gambia is modest, a fact perhaps best exemplified when the bishop-elect, who was appointed by Pope Francis Nov. 30, told me he already knew every priest in the country. That’s not as unlikely as it sounds when the number is about 35, give or take a couple.
Right about now you may be wondering why the newly appointed bishop of Gambia would be the topic of a Catholic New York column. It’s a reasonable question. The answer is that since September the bishop-elect has been on sabbatical at St. Christopher and St. Margaret Mary parish on Staten Island, where he had expected to remain a while longer. He has been serving as vice rector and professor at the Spiritan International School of Theology in Enugu, Nigeria.
In fact, Staten Island has become kind of a home away from home for Bishop-elect Mendy, who was ordained in 1997.
From 2006 to 2016, he did summer duty at Our Lady Star of the Sea parish, first during the pastorate of Msgr. Jeffrey Conway and more recently under Father Thomas Devery. For several of those years, he was a student at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, where he earned a doctorate in systematic theology.
One of his charges was to encourage parishioners to sign up for Eucharistic Adoration from Monday to Friday afternoons in a parish chapel.
The bishop-elect, who is 50, said he learned a lot from the priests at Our Lady Star of the Sea, especially “their commitment and dedication to pastoral ministry and the teamwork they had.”
“I enjoyed my time there. I loved the people, and they appreciated me,” he said.
He returned to Our Lady Star of the Sea for a Mass of Thanksgiving Dec. 9, and celebrated one at St. Christopher the next day.
Father Joseph McLafferty, who served at Our Lady Star of the Sea during the bishop-elect’s years there, is now pastor of St. Christopher and St. Margaret Mary.
This week, Father McLafferty shared some impressions of the new bishop. “There is a real pastoral sense about him,” he said. “He is very open to what people need. He comes to people where they are at.”
The pastor said Bishop-elect Mendy found his place almost immediately when he came to Our Lady Star of the Sea, a very large parish. “He’s good with people,” Father McLafferty said.
He also said the bishop-elect was well informed about world affairs. “I always like talking to him about the world, he’s very up to date,” Father McLafferty said.
The bishop-elect noted that Catholics are a distinct minority in Gambia, where they make up perhaps 15 percent of Christians in the Muslim-majority land.
There is good potential for the growth of the Church in Gambia, but finding resources to fund the expansion will be a challenge, the new bishop said.
Father McLafferty accompanied Bishop-elect Mendy on a visit to Cardinal Dolan at his residence last week. The bishop-elect was impressed that the cardinal met with him in person, and also gave him gifts (miters, cassock, ring and pectoral cross) that will come in handy when he is ordained a bishop Feb. 3 and then installed as spiritual head of the Diocese of Banjul the next day.
He said he is extremely grateful for the cardinal’s kind gestures. “I promised to keep him in my prayers and to remain in touch with him.”
Bishop-elect Mendy said his appointment came as a surprise, but he seems ready for the challenge. “It’s not something you expect. I welcomed it, I’m happy about it. The Holy Father considered me worthy.”