Before entering the seminary, Fr. William Ryan had served in Togo as a Peace Corps volunteer from January, 1973 to July, 1975 in a well-digging program. It was during those years that the seed of his priestly vocation – and, eventually, his missionary vocation – was sown, as he became convinced that God was calling him to offer to the thirsty the “living water” that Jesus speaks of that will satisfy them forever and bring them to eternal life (John 4). He entered the seminary upon returning home, and was ordained a priest for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C. in 1980.
While in the Peace Corps he had become friends with a young Togolese priest, Philippe Kpodzro, who was named Bishop of Atakpamé in 1977 and Archbishop of Lomé, the capital of Togo, in 1991. They kept in touch, and Fr. Ryan made several visits to Togo over the years.
Archbishop Kpodzro invited Fr. Ryan to undertake missionary service in Togo, and in 2002 Fr. Ryan received permission from the Archbishop of Washington to serve as a priest on loan to Togo. Knee problems delayed his departure until July 2006, but during this time the rectory was built with funds that he raised and sent. This building includes living quarters for priests, guest rooms, parish offices, a classroom, and large storage area that has been used for items shipped by containers from the U.S.
For the first few months Fr. Ryan lived at the Archbishop’s residence in Lomé and studied Ewe, the local language. Then in November of 2006 he moved to the village of Atchanvé, which had been chosen as the site of the new mission parish of Our Lady of Guadalupe, where Fr. Ryan would be the founding pastor. The rectory was inaugurated on November 11, 2006 at a Mass concelebrated by Archbishop Kpodzro and Archbishop Michael Blume, the Apostolic Nuncio (papal ambassador) to Togo and Benin. Archbishop Blume was one of the few American nuncios in the world. The occasion drew hundreds from villages in the surrounding area. The date was providential because it was the Feast of St. Martin of Tours. Fr. Ryan had served as Associate Pastor at St. Martin’s Church in Gaithersburg, Maryland. St. Martin’s continued as the sister parish of the mission for ten years, providing generous support, until Holy Redeemer Parish in Kensington, Maryland took over that role in 2018. Holy Redeemer was Fr. Ryan’s home parish growing up, and he attended grade school there.
Atchanvé is located about 2 ½ hours north of Lomé. The mission encompasses a large, poverty-stricken rural area of three dozen villages whose population consists almost entirely of subsistence farmers. It takes about 1 ½ hours to drive from one end of the parish to the other, much of it over very bad roads. The parish was created, when along with another new parish, it was carved out of a larger parish of over 100 villages. The new mission inherited a third of those villages, of which 14 are “secondary stations,” that is, villages where a lay catechist is authorized to preach and to lead the people in prayers on Sundays, and to offer sacramental preparation. Of these catechists, seven are Extraordinary Ministers of Communion, who come by motorcycle to the mission early Sunday morning to pick up consecrated hosts and distribute them in the secondary stations.
In November of 2008, three Togolese nuns from the Notre Dame de l’Église Institute arrived at the mission and took up residence in a convent that had been built for them. One Sister served as director of the St. Paul Medical Clinic, which opened the following month. Another served as Principal of St. Martin’s School, a new Catholic primary school that opened its doors to kindergarteners and first graders in September, 2009, with classrooms for second through sixth grades built, one grade per year, as those students moved up. The third Sister served as parish secretary and accountant.
To go hand in hand with its evangelization efforts, the parish has undertaken development projects at the mission and in many of its villages. Over the years, 11 wells have been completed, including a major solar water project serving the mission itself and two other villages; latrines; a health clinic to serve the needs of the region; and agricultural projects such as the production of cassava flour and palm oil.
When the mission was started, almost all the chapels of the secondary stations were mud structures with straw roofs. Five brick chapels with tin roofs have been built, along with a large, beautiful parish church at Atchanvé that was begun in 2013. The construction of the parish church has been completed, and there only remains some decorating to do on the interior walls.
In 2020, bronze statues of Our Lady of Guadalupe and of St. Juan Diego, to whom she appeared, were sent from Mexico to Holy Redeemer Parish in Maryland were shipped to Togo in a container filled with 600 other items generously donated to the mission by Holy Redeemer parishioners. The statues were placed in front of the church where a grotto is currently under construction.
Our Lady of Guadalupe had been chosen as the patroness of the parish for three reasons. First, the greatest miracle of evangelization in the history of the Catholic Church was due to her. Before her apparition in 1531 in what is now Mexico, there were very few baptisms, mainly due to the cruelty of the Spanish conquistadores, but in the ten years following her apparition it is estimated that 9 million baptisms took place. The mission needed that spiritual help from Mary! Second, since Guadalupe is the only apparition in which Mary appeared pregnant, she has become the patroness of the pro-life movement. It is thus fitting that she be invoked to counteract the anti-life forces in Africa from both America and from Europe – pressure brought to bear accept abortion, contraception, and sterilization on the part of those who seek to reduce or eliminate poverty by reducing or eliminating poor people. Third, Our Lady told Juan Diego she wanted a chapel built where she could show her motherly compassion to those who would come to her with their afflictions. The mission asks her to offer the same motherly consolation to those Togolese who can now come to her with the hardship of their poverty and with their other afflictions.
The mission has baptized about 100 infants and catechumens each year, and most years the Archbishop of Lomé visits the mission for Confirmations. Archbishop Denis Amuzu-Dzakpa, successor of Archbishop Kpodzro, served from 2007-2020, and blessed all of our village chapels. When he blessed the chapel at Kpedzi in 2013, he also presided at the marriage of 42 couples from many of our villages. In 2021 the new Archbishop of Lomé, Nicholas Barrigah-Benissan, confirmed 133 candidates in the parish church and blessed the statues in the grotto after the Mass.
In the past few years, the mission has more and more emphasized education. At the mission itself, a collège (grades 7-10) and a lycée (grades 11-13) have been built, and in five of the largest outlying villages five additional primary schools have been built.
To allow students who graduate from those primary schools in those outlying villages to continue their Catholic education at the collège at the mission, a large girls’ dormitory was built, the sister’s large convent was converted into a boys’ dorm, and a new convent was built for the sisters. For the 2020-2021 school year, there were 54 girls and 51 boys living in the dormitories. All of these students are from very poor families, and the only charge for their room and board is 9 bowls of corn kernels each trimester.
Each year the Archdiocese of Lomé sends some seminarians to the mission for a “pastoral year.” These seminarians work with the students at both dorms, sharing dinner with them Monday through Friday and then reviewing with them what they learned in class that day.
To help ensure the sustainability of the mission far into the future, starting in 2017 the mission began planting several thousand teak trees each year. To supplement this, in 2021 several thousand orange tree seedlings and cashew tree seedlings were planted.
The mission has always sought to promote vocations to the priesthood and religious life. Catherine Dopenyo, the daughter of one the mission’s catechist at the village of Kpévé, made her profession with the Notre Dame de l’Eglise Institute in August of 2021. In December of 2019 and in December of 2020, two young men from the parish – Gabriel Assadi from Anasivé and Simon Amouzouvi from Avélébé, having completed their seminary studies, were ordained to the priesthood and assigned to serve in two parishes in Lomé. Each of them returned, the day after his ordination, to his home village for a joyful celebration of his first Mass.
Each year Fr. Ryan returns to the U.S. to give a report to the mission’s sister parish on the progress being made, and to seek prayer support and material help from other parishes and groups for the many projects of the mission.
For further information and photos on the history and background of the mission, click on the Mission Reports link.
For information on the story of Fr. Ryan’s missionary vocation, click here.