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June 11 will forever be etched in the mind of Father Emmanuel Akalue. On that day, the native Nigerian joined 83 men and women from 33 counties and swore his allegiance to the United States of America, thus becoming a U.S. citizen. The Naturalization Oath of Allegiance to the United States took place at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Field Office in Orlando.

“Today is a great day because I become an American,” said Father Akalue, parochial administrator of Our Lady of Grace Parish in Palm Bay. He immigrated to the United States in 2002. “I am grateful to God for this. I am excited to participate in the democratic process and to vote for who I like. I really feel at home now as an American.’”

Watching the ceremony from the sidelines – a group of parishioners from St. John the Baptist Parish in Dunnellon, where he previously served, as well as Our Lady of Grace. They broke out in applause and joyful cheers once they heard the beloved priest’s name called as a new citizen.

“We are very excited,” said Ray Quinn of Our Lady of Grace Parish. “His exuberance wears off on us. We are very happy for him because this entrenches him more with us somehow.”

“Today is very wonderful,” said John Deakins of St. John the Baptist Parish. “Here we have a very dynamic priest who is a Nigerian citizen and now he has decided to become an American citizen. To me, that is the greatest compliment he could make to America. We are so elated for him. We love him very much.”

Father Akalue’s path to citizenship began several years ago. The process involved a series of tests on the applicant’s understanding of the English language as well as knowledge of U.S. history, principles and government. Applicants must also undergo background checks and interviews – not only to determine the moral character of the applicant but his/her allegiance to their new homeland. The procedure culminates with the Oath of Allegiance, administered by an agent of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).

Noemi Guzman, program manager for Immigration & Refugee Services for Catholic Charities of Central Florida, Inc., said the office provided assistance in the preparation of the Naturalization application and provided guidance throughout the process. As a new citizen, Fr. Akalue will now be able to enjoy all the benefits of a U.S. citizen, including the right to vote and run for office, apply for a U.S. passport and freely re-enter the country after travel, and the right to immigrate family members.

“Today is a blessed day,” Father Akalue said. “I ask God to bless Bishop Noonan, Bishop (Thomas) Wenski and the late Bishop (Norbert) Dorsey for the opportunities I have had in the diocese. God bless also all of the parishes I have served. I have served many wonderful people. I look forward to serving my fellow Americans.”

By Linda Caldwell