By Kodilinye Obiagwu
The ‘T’ shaped interior of Our Lady of Assumption Catholic Church, Ogidi, Anambra State, wasn’t quite filled up; but everyone was there. The bishops, archbishops, reverend fathers, the bereaved family and sympathisers were all there. It was the vigil mass for Ezinne Roseline Chidi Okonkwo, mother of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) gubernatorial aspirant, High Chief Obiora Okonkwo.
The ambience was lively but mournful. The Metropolitan Archbishop of Onitsha Srchdiocese, Valerian Maduka Okeke, wasn’t waiting for the church to be filled as he strode out, assisted by four other bishops and nearly 100 priests, to celebrate the mass.
The Bishop of Awka, Most Rev. Paulinus Chukwuemeka Ezeokafo, sounding as exhorting as an Old Testament prophet, delivered the inspirational homily, extolling the virtues of living a worthy life. Rev. Fr. Izunna Okonkwo, the in-house priest, in his vote of thanks, capped a quiet service as the night crept on the town, which was beginning to bustle with returning kinsmen and strangers.
At the funeral service the next day, Friday, the mood expectedly was funereal and it would have been considered a sin, a sacrilege, to laugh, especially with the huge casket in front of the altar.
The magnificent, shiny white coffin, with a bronze crucifix on it, hugged the remains of Ezinne Roseline Okonkwo.
The Okonkwo family, dressed in white and COVID -19 protocol-compliant, sat up front, sombre and speaking in low tones while nodding their heads to acknowledge friends. Obiora sat, poker-faced, eyes scanning every face, as his siblings protectively stared at the coffin.
The mood up front was slightly lifted by the surreal backdrop of flowers, a lighted altarpiece, and the purple cassock of the horde of priests.
At the funeral mass, their numbers had multiplied. It took nearly 30 minutes for the procession of the over 150 priests and 25 bishops to snake into the church. A few latecomers among them sneaked in through the back door, and the priests completely occupied a wing of the church.
No single group in the church outnumbered the priests, urging a congregant to say “there is a priest for every three persons in this church.”
The Archbishop of Benin City and president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Nigeria (CBCN), Most Rev. Augustine Obiora Akubeze, celebrated the funeral mass.
A curious observer of the number of archbishops, bishops, priests, reverend sisters and officials of the Catholic Church hierarchy would have pondered why they were out in such numbers. Apparently, the numbers would have been higher, as reports indicated that some bishops missed their flights or were held up by unavoidable domestic schedules.
Roseline Okonkwo wasn’t just a devout Catholic, she was Nne Fada, (mother of a priest). Her son, Izunna, a priest in the Onitsha Archdiocese, said his late mother was not just the mother of a priest, but mother of priests.
In his tribute, Izunna stated that his late mother was indeed a mother of “all religious men and women, no wonder your house was home for so many priests that crossed your path, a trait you bequeathed to your children.”
According to him, his mother “sponsored some of them directly, and influenced sponsorship of others through your children.
“Perhaps, that’s why you had the grace of being visited by bishops and many priests during the period of your illness.”
And at her death, they rallied round her.
Like Izunna, Obiora, his elder brother, is as close as he dares to be to the church. He is a strong benefactor of the Catholic Church in Abuja and Anambra. A devout Catholic and a Knight of the Order of King Leopold, he once noted that life in Anambra was actually guided by biblical principles.
“The first development that came into the state that made Anambra what it is, including education, hospitals, came from Anglicans and Catholics,” he said. And, incidentally, he has added to that developmental process.
In Ogidi, for example, he built and donated a school and brought in the Catholic religious order of Sisters of Divine Mercy to manage it. The students are on partial scholarship from him by way of subsidised fees.
He is an active participant in the administration of the church in Anambra at various levels, while building and donating structures. He was for a long time the political and economic adviser to Archbishop Okeke.
His relationship with the Catholic Secretariat of Nigeria started around 2015 when, one afternoon, he walked into the Catholic Secretariat, Abuja, determined to fulfil a yet uncertain mission.
The secretary-general of the Catholic Secretariat, Rev. Fr. Zacharia Samjumi, remembered that day very well.
Narrating the story to a curious congregation, he said, “Obiora Okonkwo met some officials of the secretariat, including the late Monsignor Raphael Madu, who was the then secretary-general.
“Obiora said to us: ‘God has done so much for me and I will like to give thanks to God, particularly as I am half a century now. I will like to build a chapel here for the Catholic Church at the national level.’
“Those present listened and wondered where this was from. They thought that it was a joke.
“The church hierarchy had a sketch, a drawing, for a chapel, which they showed him. After a while he changed it. And what we have now, sincerely, those doing movies or special functions troop to the national secretariat to have those special functions done there.
“In fact, many bishops didn’t know him before. So, when he came out voluntarily, nobody went to ask him.”
With the mass over, the head of the Okonkwo clan, Mazi Osita Okonkwo, offered the vote of thanks, narrating the life and times of his late mother. He could have gone on, but there was need for announcements, and that duty fell on the catechist, Obiora.
Announcing himself as the catechist instantly broke the ice, eased the suffocating and solemn ambience of the funeral mass.
An amused murmur had swept through the church. Some wondered: “What prank is this? Obiora, a catechist?”
“Oh, yes,” he proudly announced, “I am indeed the catechist of St. Michael the Archangel Catholic Church.” That church is located inside his country residence.
That announcement, delivered with a huge satisfied smile on his face, drew a huge response of amusement and appreciation from the congregation.
Obiora, a man with many traditional titles, but better known as the Dikeora Idemili, was warming up. He noted and welcomed his co-aspirants in the governorship race to his mother’s funeral mass and burial. He picked out some of them in the congregation and duly noted that the delegation of co-aspirants was led by his friend, Tony Nwoye.
That drew a rousing applause. More would follow.
After wondering why they came, Obiora noted that he would take their presence as a genuine sign of ceasefire in the battle for who would grab their party’s ticket. He pressed on the ceasefire gambit.
He then pleaded with them to take it easy with him now that he was an orphan. He wondered: “As I am an orphan now, perhaps you guys should just back off and let me alone in the race?”
Some congregants and guests almost choked as they struggled with their face masks to relish the moment.
He rounded off his announcement by reeling out the protocols that would guide guests. Mindful of the need to protect the people against COVID-19 and not to gather people in one venue, Obiora read out the sitting arrangements for guests.
Vehicular traffic was a snare, but drivers patiently queued to drive off as guests quietly sat under their assigned canopies in accordance with the arrangement, after Obiora and his brothers dutifully and gingerly carried their late mother’s coffin out of the church.
The aspirants were from all the political parties. An observer noted that it looked more like a rally of some sorts.
“And it’s a rally by a faithful crowd. This certainly wasn’t a rented crowd. Even Obiora’s enemies could have been here to identify with this quality gathering,” the unidentified observer said.
The condolence register read like a roll call of the political and social elite in Anambra. Expectedly, guests trooped from every part of the country. It was easier to know who wasn’t there than to know who was there.
The state governor, Willie Obiano, sent his deputy, Dr. Nkem Okeke. The presence of former governor, Peter Obi, at the vigil mass and funeral soon took an added significance for many observers.
It was soon discussed here and there that it was unusual for Peter Obi to attend occasions like this in the state. “And for him to come to the vigil mass and the funeral mass means he is breaking even his own rules. And he was there all through till the end. That’s pretty strange and it means plenty.”
Inside the church, the congregation cheered whenever the presence of Peter Obi was recognized. Outside the church, every reporter wanted an interview. Microphones and tape recorders were pushed into his face. With a smile he parried as much as he could. Obi paused before he ventured to express his thoughts on the question of the next governor.
He said: “Anambra people should pray, you and I should pray that God should give the state a governor that they can access and that they can hold accountable.”