Strong Catholic upbringing leads to 40 years of priesthood for Harrisonburg pastor

Father Silvio Kaberia prepares to give the homily at the 1 p.m. Mass in Spanish on Dec. 10, the 2nd Sunday of Advent.

For Father Silvio Kaberia, one of the most important parts about being a parish priest is being available.

“Being present, people seeing you,” said the pastor of Blessed Sacrament, Harrisonburg. “You are in the office, you are in the church, in the sacraments; when they need the sacrament of confession you are available, and not just on Sunday.”

On the second Sunday of Advent Dec. 10, the trim man known for an infectious laugh and easy smile celebrated 40 years of being available to the faithful in his native Kenya and in parishes throughout Virginia.

“I love celebrating the sacraments, especially the sacrament of the Eucharist [in] the Mass and confession, and the anointing of the sick,” he said. “I love those three sacraments.”

Surrounded by the faithful

Growing up in the Diocese of Meru near Mount Kenya as the second of eight children, he found that people devoted to the Catholic faith were always available to him, starting with his parents. His father was a forester; his mother stayed home and tended to the children. His father died in 2015. His mother still lives in Kenya; he calls her every Monday afternoon at 3 p.m.

Every night, the family said the rosary after dinner. “There was no negotiation,” Father Silvio said.

Religious sisters from a nearby convent would stop by every so often. In middle school, Catholic and Protestant children broke into separate groups for prayer. He often led his classmates in their daily devotions. As an altar server, he met young, dynamic priests who seemed to enjoy life – men who showed him that “the priesthood is very good, not something boring.”

All of this led to his ordination on a very cloudy day. Thousands of people had come to see him and three other men ordained, so the ceremony was held outdoors. About an hour before it was set to start, the skies opened up. It rained for hours.

“About 2 p.m. exactly, it stopped raining and the bishop said, ‘Let’s go, quick!’” Father Silvio recalled. As the bishop gave his final blessing a couple of hours later, the deluge returned.

“It was a sense of joy when you see all those people who persevered for 4-5 hours, waiting for the ordination and still they were so joyous,” he said. “It was an emotional occasion to see how the people are supportive, how they loved their priests.”

After ordination, he spent two years studying philosophy at a university in Pamplona, Spain, becoming more fluent in Spanish. Since about half the members of his Shenandoah Valley parish are Hispanic, those language skills serve him well.

His education in theology and philosophy has helped him appreciate two favorite saints, St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine. “The Holy Spirit used them, with their knowledge, to make the Church what it is today,” he said. Another favorite is St. Francis, for his humility.

As a new priest, Father Silvio was assigned to teach in a minor seminary at the high school level. “Some of them became priests, some became professionals in different fields,” he said. “It was a nice time.” He taught in a major seminary for a few years, worked in two parishes in Kenya and then became deacon general to his bishop.

Road to Richmond

An unexpected meeting on a visit to the United States led to more than 20 years of ministry in the Diocese of Richmond. Late one afternoon, he wanted to get a look inside the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, Richmond, but found the building was locked. A man who had just come out of the diocesan offices that were then across from the church saw him and struck up a conversation. That man was the late Bishop Walter F. Sullivan. He made himself available to talk with Father Silvio from time to time and eventually asked him to be a priest in his diocese.

“I’ve come to know you and would love to work with you,” Father Silvio said the bishop told him. With the approval of his bishop in Meru, he became one of the first international priests to come to the Richmond diocese and has been fully incardinated. “So, that was God working his own way,” Father Silvio said.

Before his current assignment, Father Silvio served at the cluster parishes of Good Shepherd, South Hill; St. Paschal Baylon, South Boston; and St. Catherine of Siena, Clarksville, and also at St. Luke, Virginia Beach.

Father Silvio Kaberia (center) was joined at the reception on the 40th anniversary of his ordination by Father Armando Herrera, (right) the current parochial vicar at Blessed Sacrament and by Father Joseph Goldsmith, a former assistant at the church. (Photo/Joe Staniunas)

He became pastor of Blessed Sacrament in 2012. Hundreds of his current parishioners surprised him with a reception on Sunday, Dec. 10, the 40th anniversary of his ordination. It was also a celebration of the one-year anniversary of the ordination of parochial vicar Father Armando Herrera. It was another gray, rainy day, but this time, everyone was inside.

“I can’t count how many blessings the Lord has given me,” Father Silvio told the crowd. “You have become my brothers, my sisters, my family. I feel very much at home.”

One member of that parish family, Beverly McGowan, could tell Father Silvio would always be available to shepherd his people. Within a few days of arriving at Blessed Sacrament, he was called to minister to a family of a man who had died in a car accident. Since he was so new to the region, she drove him to the house, where he spent hours praying with and counseling those who had lost a husband and father.

“I think he’s a very special priest who cares pastorally about his congregation,” McGowan said.

Parishioner Donna Lou Shickel said Father Silvio knows everyone in his church and feels bad if he forgets a name. He is 8,000 miles from home, “but he is here for us, Christ in his Church,” she said. “We love him to pieces.”

The respect and affection are very much returned. Blessed Sacrament is known for its active social ministry, with a huge food pantry serving 850-1,000 families a month. “You realize how the parishioners are very powerful, they’re taking care of the people,” Father Silvio said. “It’s how the Church works.”

Father Silvio Kaberia turns 66 on Christmas Eve. He said he will be celebrating his birthday in the best way possible, in the place he has come to love so much in his 40 years as a priest: at the altar with Christ, available to all in the Eucharist.


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