Above: Pictured at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in May, now Fathers James Magee (left) and Edisson Urrego (right) were ordained to the priesthood June 3 at St. Catherine of Siena Church in Wake Forest.
Talk to newly-ordained Fathers Edisson Urrego, 41, and James Magee, 30, and commonalities emerge. Each lost his father. Each had a career before attending seminary. And each had at least one grandparent living in his home when he was a child.
There are differences, of course. Father Urrego grew up in Colombia. Catholicism was the norm there. “The culture at the time supported the Faith,” he said. “It was easy to follow. Even the public education system followed the Catholic model … including having Mass in the school.”
Things were different for Father Magee, though. He grew up in eastern North Carolina. “There were like three Catholics in my high school of 800 people,” he laughed.
Despite different paths, both men studied at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary near Philadelphia. And both received the sacrament of Holy Orders Saturday, June 3, at St. Catherine of Siena Church in Wake Forest.
NC Catholics recently spoke with each new priest about his family, journey to the priesthood and hopes for the future.
Father James Magee, III
Fortunate. That’s the word Father Magee uses to describe his childhood.
His mother, he said, was patient when he was rambunctious. His father, a paramedic, instilled in him an understanding about service. And his older sister, Katie, was a friend who, today, keeps the photos and knows family stories by heart.
But what really tipped the scales to “fortunate” was the fact that his grandparents lived in his family’s home. “It was nice … my grandfather was from Ireland so it was a whole, different culture in the house. Family was first,” he said. “My grandparents were devout Catholics and that transferred to the whole family. My grandfather led a strong devotional life.”
Family dinners weren’t just common, but daily. So was prayer before meals, and visits from cousins, uncles and aunts, two of whom were religious sisters of the Franciscan Sisters of Alleghany, N.Y.
He played baseball and the saxophone in high school and, after graduation, took the Civil Service exam. He moved to Norfolk, Virginia, where he worked as a firefighter. He went to Mass every Sunday and prayed the rosary. From time to time he’d use a worn-down rosary that once belonged to his great grandfather.
Today he will tell you he was good at practicing his faith back then, but not necessarily understanding it.
“I understood, intellectually, what was in the Catechism, but I really didn’t take it to heart in the sense of putting the intellectual and the reason together,” he said.
But he began looking deeper into his faith when, because of epilepsy, a seizure forced him to leave the fire department. He enrolled in college at Elizabeth City State University. From that point on things “just started clicking,” he said. “Maybe it’s because I was older with a better view of things.”
Thoughts of the priesthood, which first crossed his mind in high school, came to his mind, but left again.
“I actually got engaged [to be married] in college, so obviously I stopped thinking about the priesthood … [but] after things broke off, I started thinking about it again,” he said.
This time he examined a vocation at a “totally different level.” He read more. He prayed more. He started going to daily Mass. And one Ash Wednesday, as he exited Holy Family Church, Father Jim Buchholz invited him to a vocations dinner.
Despite hesitation, he went to the dinner. He began to feel good about seriously discerning a vocation. After he was accepted to seminary, that good feeling turned to great, he said.
There was still one task, though: telling his parents his plan to enter seminary and discern a call to the priesthood.
“Like any good parents … they were able to tell that something was going on. They were happy,” he said of their response to the news.
During his first semester at seminary, his father, James, suffered a heart attack and died. He went home to North Carolina to help his mother, Blanche, and returned to St. Charles Borromeo that spring.
Despite grief, one of his best memories occurred last year when he was ordained to the transitional diaconate. “During the Litany of Saints, I was lying on the marble floor and the whole church was praying. I felt this whole peace. I felt like my dad was right there.”
Now that he’s a priest, Father Magee looks forward to celebrating sacraments and being with the faithful. “I like parish events. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy. Being able to bring the Gospel to people is an opportunity … being able to serve people.”
Father Edisson de Jesus Urrego Restrepo
When Father Edisson Urrego talks about his childhood in Medellin, Colombia, he often uses the word “grateful,” even when describing challenges.
For him, his early years were tough. His father died when he was three years old, and his mother was a single parent to him and his eight siblings.
“I am grateful to God for the courage and wisdom he gave my mother … she made a lot of sacrifices. She was able to find work and keep the family going,” he said, noting that she made time for school meetings. “This is why it was tough: It was not just losing a parent. It was the lack of time we were able to have with our mother.”
His grandmother lived in the home, too, and required daily care that often fell to him and his sister Patricia. But the experiences, he said, taught him that true love is sacrificial and that it’s important to honor the elderly.
There were many late evenings when he was doing homework and his grandmother couldn’t sleep. Together they prayed the rosary. They had a weekend ritual, too, and his grandmother would ask him about the Gospel when he returned home from Mass to make sure he had attended and listened.
In his early years, during which time he was an altar server, he had thoughts about the idea of becoming a priest.
“At times it was like a drop of water in a bucket inside my head,” he said. “I dismissed it as a teenager because we were very poor and could not afford to send me to minor seminary to complete high school. I didn’t want to put a burden on my mom by bringing the issue up.”
During his teen years his family moved to the United States, first to California and then to Florida. He couldn’t nourish a vocation at the time, he said, because he was distracted by school life and the norms of society. Later, as he began a career in retail management alongside his brother Victor, he focused on earning money to send home to Colombia.
His career brought him to North Carolina where, he said, the pace was slower than Miami. He had been promoted several times by then, and the financial burdens that existed before were gone.
Life was comfortable. He began to engage in his faith. “With the help of God and the constant prayers of my sister Patricia, I experienced a conversion back to the faith. I knew that returning would also mean that I had to respond to the call from God,” he said.
He became active at a parish, St. Ann in Clayton. He volunteered with a migrant workers’ mission in Four Oaks. He also joined a discernment group and, later, began formation at seminary. Today he talks about how Fathers Diego Restrepo, Scott McCue, Paul Brant, S.J., and Salvador Jordan, S.J., played a large role in his life. Monsignor Michael Clay, who vested him during ordination, was also influential.
“The moment of ordination is so mystical and beautiful,” he said. “As a new priest, I am looking forward to celebrating Mass and the sacrament of Reconciliation. There are many who need to know that God loves them and that he is merciful. I want to be that instrument of the Lord.”
When asked what his advice would be to other men discerning a call to the priesthood, he said that silence is important.
“God speaks in our hearts but only in silence can we hear him … seek silence and get away from the noise of the secular culture. Smart phones, tablets, computers, television and the internet are all loud distractions to our senses, and we become incapable to engage others, especially God, in conversation. A healthy dose of quiet time before the Blessed Sacrament can restore us to that original silence and to the present where man finds God.”