As a young priest in his native Nigeria, the Rev. Philip P. Tah buried two uncles, both suicides. While the Roman Catholic Church in the United States no longer denies funeral services to suicides, such was not the case in his West African homeland. Summoned before his bishop, Tah made a most original argument: His uncles did not hate life but rather, loved it so much that they died rather than live it less than fully. The bishop did not censure him.
Tah — whom I first met as a congregant of Sacred Heart Church in Hartsdale where he was parochial vicar — is like that, a man of charisma, courage and compassion.
“The best way to lead is to live by the advice you give to others,” says this U.S. Army captain, now on active duty ministering to soldiers and their families as a chaplain at Fort Stewart in Savannah, Ga. “I talk to myself. I inspire myself.”
With a master’s degree in philosophy from Catholic University Leuven in Belgium, Tah is a big believer in the Nietzschean concept of fine-tuning your inner motor from time to time.
“Sometimes you have to redefine yourself to keep loving what you do,” he says.
That inner directedness has led him to found Fountains of Compassion to help his strife-torn native village of Kakwagom, about 137 miles from the capital, Abuja, in southern Nigeria. Having been in the United States for 11 years, Tah is a confirmed Westchesterite. “Hartsdale is my home. New York is my state,” he says with a characteristic gleaming smile. But when he saw the suffering in the land of his birth, he knew he could not deny it. He always knew he would minister to the needy, he says. He didn’t think it would be in the place where he started.
In October of 2010, tribal factionalism and land disputes led to the burning of 496 homes in Kakwagom, 94 percent of its housing. Among the affected were Tah’s parents, teachers who had raised him and his siblings (four brothers and a sister) to walk the talk of their Roman Catholic faith.
“I always wanted to serve and I think that had to do with my education and the orientation given me by my father,” Tah remembers. “I wanted to go to college and study political science.”
Then one day, his mother said to her second child (and second son): “Have you ever considered becoming a priest?” He was ordained on Oct. 13, 1996 by Carlo Maria Viganò, then the apostolic nuncio to Nigeria (and until recently the apostolic nuncio to the United States).
Now 14 years later, he was staring at the devastation that politics had wrought. “When I got there, looking at the destruction, I couldn’t believe it.”
Tah had arrived with two tons of clothes and $17,000 in donations. “If you saw the people scrambling for the clothes: They had lost everything.”
A former high school principal in the Nigerian town of Obubra, Tah used the money to buy textbooks and pots, pay vocational training and to keep the students in the local coed boarding school, which had been looted but was otherwise unscathed. As pensioners, his parents were relatively well off. But Tah was determined they would have their own home again. So while he was parochial vicar at Sacred Heart, he took a second job as a chaplain at Westchester Medical Center in Valhalla — going without sleep four nights a week for three years. Even today, 40 percent of what he earns goes back to Kakwagom, he says over lunch at Sapori, up the street from Sacred Heart. Tah eats sparingly, which would seem impossible in such an Italian restaurant. But Tah, a slight, ascetic man, lives life close to the bone.
It is, nevertheless, a life rich in ideas. Not content to give a man a fish, when he could teach him how to fish, Tah hit upon the idea of providing the villagers with tools and machinery to rebuild their homes. One machine in particular can turn out 3,000 brick blocks in a day, he says, enabling the villagers to build three houses in a week. Working with the newly formed Sacred Heart Planning Team for Fountains of Compassion, Tah thought to raise $50,000 with three events. So far, $45,000 has been raised.
Such, he says, is the generosity of the Sacred Heart parishioners and the support of former pastor, Msgr. Robert Larkin. (Tah also expresses gratitude to the United Nations Women’s Guild/Westchester Group, which gives his organization $2,000 every year.)
Having seen Tah in action — preaching sermons, offering counsel, comforting the grieving — I would say their generosity is a measure of the great love he has shown others.
“When he came to Sacred Heart Church, he was like a breath of fresh air,” says parishioner Helen O’Shea, an assistant teacher at the Hitchcock School in Scarsdale. Because Tah was always preaching about love, often in the face of tragedy, O’Shea thought at first that maybe he didn’t have much life experience.
“Come to find out, though, he had had many hardships. But he kept expressing hope. That’s Father Philip — love and hope.”
To reach the Rev. Philip P. Tah, call 516-690-4949 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.