BLOOMFIELD, NJ — Almost four months into his tenure as the administrator at St. Valentine Church in Bloomfield, the Rev. Andrew Onyemaobi is already working on big plans for the future.
His current project is relaunching the religious education program, which was shuttered when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down everything that required people to gather in close quarters. The 2020-2021 school year saw the church’s students join the program at St. Thomas the Apostle Church in Bloomfield, but now Onyemaobi wants to bring them back.
“I want to get 80 to 100 back,” he said in an interview with The Independent Press on April 8, referring to the number of children he wants to register in St. Valentine Church’s religious education program. “We don’t know how many yet, but there are new parishioners with little kids who have asked when it’s starting.”
The hope is that, in the fall, students will be able to attend class in person again. There’s room in St. Valentine Church’s school building to spread out to maintain social distancing, and Onyemaobi said people who aren’t comfortable coming back in person will be able to participate remotely. But the goal is to be in person.
“With the space we have, we want to bring back who we can,” he said. “Being in the same physical space is much better. We have an entire school here to use. I can’t wait to normalize it again.”
People in the church community who have been there longer than Onyemaobi, who started at St. Valentine at the end of December, have been helping him get the ball rolling on the program again, among other things.
“The people have been great; they’re making my work easy,” he said. “I’m enjoying it. I can ask anyone for help, even if it’s just moving some boxes.”
Bloomfield isn’t entirely new territory for Onyemaobi — his first church after being ordained was St. Thomas, where he was from 2009 through 2014. Many people recognize him from there, even though it had been several years since he was in town.
“I’m old cargo,” he joked. “I know the area and all the streets. A lot of people say, ‘I know you!’”
As social-distancing restrictions have relaxed and the number of people who have been vaccinated has slowly risen over the last few months, so has the number of people going to church each weekend. Cut to two Masses per weekend from the normal four because of the pandemic, the regular schedule has returned. Church services have also been livestreamed online, and Onyemaobi said people have been watching.
“The first thing I did was open up,” he said. “Now when I open, we have people coming. Every Sunday the number has increased. Since February, it’s been more and more.”
The church’s annual festival was canceled in 2020 because of the pandemic, and it probably won’t happen this year either. People have asked about it though, and Onyemaobi hopes the answer will eventually be yes.
“My wish is to bring back everything that gets people here,” he said. “I’m their servant, so I want to give them what they want. They’ve all been responsive to our needs. I appreciate their trust in me. I’m grateful to the people for their encouragement since I came.”