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Ugandan priest sent back to Africa after struggling to adjust to life on Vashon

Rev. Sylvester Ssemanda, the Ugandan priest who was temporarily serving at Vashon’s Catholic church, is headed back to Africa earlier than expected.

Church officials cited the priest’s difficulty adjusting to life in the United States and his inability to conform with the church’s policies as the reasons for his departure. Some suggested that the priest, who had no driver’s license and little contact with the community, may have had a tough time transitioning from the communal living situation he had lived in for decades in Uganda.

“The adjustment for international priests is never easy, and Father Ssemanda had a particularly difficult adjustment,” said Greg Magnoni, spokesperson for the Seattle Archdiocese. “The archbishop and his staff worked very hard to help him make that adjustment. ... The bottom line is he was unable to comply with the requirements of the archdiocese, despite repeated efforts to mentor him.”

Though Ssemanda’s assignment to St. John Vianney was open-ended, some parishioners said they expected him to lead their congregation until the end of June, when a permanent priest will be assigned to the Vashon church.

Ssemanda had just arrived on the Island three months ago and gained a higher profile in the community after front-page story in The Beachcomber highlighted his arrival.

Some congregation members expressed disappointment at the sudden departure of Ssemanda, who was ordained in Uganda as a priest in 1981.

“I’m very sad that he’s gone,” said Jennifer Charnews, a member of St. John Vianney who teaches faith formation classes to the children of the parish. “The children really appreciated the way he did things. He really connected with them.”

She added that she appreciated the unique perspective the Ugandan priest brought to her faith community.

“It offered us a chance to have a good look at African Catholic culture, and it would have been nice to have more time to get to understand Catholic culture in a different part of the world,” Charnews said.

Fellow parishioner Gary Gray said he, too, was sad to see Ssemanda, 57, go.

“I feel a great deal of loss for the church and the community as well,” he said. “He always had a smile on his face.”

He added that he had seen the priest try to adjust to cultural and archdiocesan expectations since arriving from Africa.

“I felt like he tried very hard to conform to our American ways, and I think he was inspirational to the kids,” Gray said.

Magnoni, the spokesperson for the archdiocese, said he was unable to elaborate on the policies and procedures that Ssemanda did not meet while serving in Vashon’s church.

“The only thing I can tell you is that our policies and procedures for priests are designed for the good and the pastoral care of the people of the archdiocese,” he said.

Magnoni added that sending Ssemanda home to Uganda was a choice Archbishop Alex Brunett, who heads the Seattle Archiocese, hoped he’d never have to make.

“The last thing the archbishop wants at this point is to lose a priest, because we need more priests,” he said.

Still, he said, he was confident the choice was made in the best interest of Ssemanda and the Catholic congregation on Vashon.

Constance Walker, St. John Vianney’s interim pastoral coordinator, concurred.

“I know that Archbishop Brunett cares for priests and parishes in his diocese,” she said. “I trust these decisions. I’m not in a questioning mode, and I believe it was the best for everyone.”

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