In Mbaise, there are Reverend Fathers and Sisters everywhere
By Henry Umahi. [email protected]
It could be said that Mbaise is a land flowing with Reverend Fathers and Sisters. Spread across Aboh, Ahiazu and Ezinihitte Local Government Areas of Imo State, there is no diocese in Africa that competes with Ahiara Mbaise in terms of the number of Reverend Fathers and Sisters it has produced over the years.
Offering insight into Mbaise’s special love for the priesthood and sisterhood, a Catholic knight, Sir Tony Awusaku, told Daily Sun recently: “Over 70 per cent of families in Mbaise have either a Reverend Father or Reverend Sister.”
Investigation also revealed that there are also many families that have both Reverend Fathers and Reverend Sisters. Against the backdrop of the large number of Mbaise sons and daughters working as priests in different parts of the world today, the community is dressed in the admirable robe of ‘Ireland of Nigeria.’
The late Monsignor Edward Ahaji was the first priest from Mbaise. He was ordained in 1947. Thereafter, a floodgate opened. According to Sir Thomas Mmereole Chikere, worthy president of St. Monica’s Commandry 561, Nguru Mbaise, “there are about 650 or more Reverend Fathers in Mbaise and we equally have that number of Reverend Sisters.”
Maintaining that it is a thing of pride to have a Reverend Father or Reverend Sister in an average Mbaise family, he outlined the attraction: “they want to evangelise the church in which they were brought up.”
But because of the lingering leadership crises in the diocese, new priests have not been ordained for about years now yet there are many seminarians.
Fodder for the missionary
Show me an Mbaise man and I will show you a Catholic from Mbaise. The community has about 500, 000 faithful. Explaining the combination of circumstances that ushered in the feat, the Catholic Diocese of Ahiara Mbaise disclosed: “When the Catholic faith was introduced in the land some 100 years ago by Irish missionaries, our people welcomed it, embraced it and zealously guarded it. Mbaise people have always been known for their personal enterprise, religious devotion, adventurism and love of education. It was these characteristics of theirs, among many others, that made them a rich fodder for the missionary at the dawn of the 20th century.”
Journey to Catholicism
How did the Catholic Church invade Mbaise and made it the Ireland of Nigeria? Hear Reverend Father Ben A. Chima: “After the Anglicans had launched their presence in Mbaise about 1911, the Catholics came in two years later. The arrival of the Catholic Church started in 1913 at Umuopara Nguru when one Njoku Akpaka invited the missionary Fathers at Emekuku. By then, the missionaries were operating under the prefecture of the Lower Niger with its headquarters at Onitsha (1889-1920). In response to the invitation, Rev. Fr. Daniel Walsh made his first visit to Umuopara in 1914. In the same year, the Rev. Father celebrated the first holy mass ever held in Mbaise in the compound of Chief Anyamele – a very influential warrant chief. Then a regular monthly visitation from Emekuku to Nguru started. Two outstations were opened at Ogbor and Obeama Nguru the same year. By late 1915, two more stations were opened at Umezie and Ezuhu Nguru.”
Indeed, the august visit, as it were, took the evangelisation effort to a new level, not only in the Nguru clan but also the whole of the Mbaise area. Chikere explained that when Chief Anyamele led a delegation to Rev. Fr. Daniel Walsh, “he requested, among other things, for an evangelical teacher who would teach his people western education as well as establish a Catholic Church in his area. No doubt, the reverend gentleman resident at Emekuku and who was desirous to spread the Christian faith granted the request on the spot.”
Sir Chikere noted that the Catholic Church was preferred because it “starts teaching English at once, instead of the CMS that introduced the teaching of English after 2- 3 years school course.”
Rev. Fr. Chima further said: “In 1916, the outstations at Nnarambia Ahiara and Umuokirika Ekwereazu were opened. In appreciation of the generosity of Chief Onyekwere of Ahiara, who made a donation of a vast piece of land to the missionaries, Nnarambia station was elevated to a nerve-centre of missionary activities within the territory of Mbaise and its environs. Thus, in December 1933, the Ahiara St. Brigid’s Station at Nnarambia was raised to the status of a parish centre, with a resident priest covering the whole of Mbaise, except Enyiogwugwu and Oke-Uvuru, which remained under Emekuku and Mbutu Okahia respectively.
The first priest of Ahiara was Rev. Fr. R. Foreman. This time, April 1920-May 1934, the missionaries in the area were working under the vicariate of Southern Nigeria, which embraced, among other places, the whole of the ecclesiastical province of Onitsha.”
A recent publication of the Catholic Diocese of Ahiara Mbaise added: “With the arrival of first resident Catholic priest in Mbaise, the task to ensure a total evangelisation of the Mbaise people was effectively launched.
“In 1947, Our Lady of Victory Parish, Amumara Ezinihitte was erected in Amumara, the very heart of the protestant stronghold in Mbaise with Rev. Fr. James O’Toole as her first parish priest. The following year, 1948, two more parishes were opened in Mbaise, namely; St. Patrick’s Parish, Ekwereazu and Sacred Heart Parish, Nguru with Rev. Fr. J. Diagnan and Rev. Fr. Anthony Stiegler as their parish priests respectively. In 1954, St. Charles Parish, Enyiogwugwu was inaugurated with Rev. Fr. M.J. Gilmore as her first parish priest. Three years later, St. Dominic’s Parish Ezinihitte East was erected. Reverend Fr. F.T. Flanagan was appointed her first parish priest. Finally, with the erection of Holy Ghost Parish, Uvuru in 1959, everyone of the five original clans that constituted the Mbaise district: Ahiara, Ekwereazu, Agbajah, Ezinihitte and Oke-Ovoro, was gifted with at least one parish. That became a clear indication that Catholicism had gained the upper hand in the Mbaise area. And so, with the five clans of Mbaise fully established in Catholicism, then came the period of putting out into the deep water for the consolidation of the faith. So, the Catholic Church in Mbaise continued to record a steady and consistent growth.”
Reverend Father Chima also disclosed: “The seed of Catholicism, which had germinated and now grown into a gigantic tree was not planted in the area by the missionary fathers alone. The part of the nuns, especially the Holy Rosary expatriate Sisters continues to remain indelible. Suffice to mention some names as Mother Agnes and Sr. Colman, especially in areas of education of our women. Sr. Colman came down to Ogbor Nguru in 1934. She built the first convent in Mbaise at Ogbor Nguru. From Ogbor, she operated in all parts of Mbaise, Ikeduru, Okigwe and Obowo establishing female schools and organising centres for moral, catechetical and health instruction for women. Till today, her remains a house-hold name in Mbaise. Exemplifying the biblical mustard seed, the church in this district continued to grow steadily, bearing abundant fruits in number of the faithful, parishes and religious vocations.”
Quest for a diocese
As Catholicism grew in leaps and bounds in Mbaise, it began to search for its own diocese. It was gathered that the desire of Mbaise people for a diocese of their own was first brought to light in 1969. However, the outbreak of the Nigeria-Biafra civil war effectively truncated the aspiration. But in 1978, a formal request made for an Mbaise diocese and negotiations began between Mbaise, the Church authorities in Nigeria and Rome. The aspiration of the people was actualised on December 1, 1987 when a letter came from the Bishop’s House, Owerri. The letter, which was signed by the Bishop himself, reads: “I announce to the people of God of the Diocese of Owerri that His Holiness Pope John Paul 11 has erected the new diocese of Ahiara, and has appointed Rev. Fr. Victor Chikwe as its first bishop.”
No longer at ease
At present, all is not well at the Catholic Diocese of Ahiara, Mbaise as the congregants can be likened to sheep without shepherd. In fact, for about six years, the diocese has been without a bishop. It was learnt that things started falling apart at Ahiara in December 2012 when Most Rev. Ebere Peter Okpaleke, from Awka Diocese was appointed bishop for the Diocese of Ahiara following the death of Bishop Victor Chikwe, an indigene who spent 23 years and 10 months in the diocese. However, the Ahiara diocesan clergy and laity rejected Okpaleke’s appointment, maintaining that a son of the soil should fill the vacant position.
A report said: “Their argument is premised on the fact that Ahiara has the highest number of Catholic priests in Africa who are eminently qualified to be made bishop. They contend that Awka, with a small number of priests, has more than six bishops, allegedly because of the influence of Francis Cardinal Arinze at the Vatican. They, therefore, decried what they termed the subtle colonisation by Awka, whose bishops have taken over most diocese in Imo and Abia States.”
However, on May 21, 2013, Fr. Okpaleke was ordained Bishop of Ahiara Diocese but the event took place elsewhere amid heavy security. And while the ordination was going on, youths locked the Ahiara Cathedral in protest. Some protesters, it was gathered, placed a casket bearing the name of the new bishop at the diocesan headquarters.
Meanwhile, Pope Francis appointed John Cardinal Onaiyekan as apostolic administrator of Diocese of Ahiara. It was learnt that because of the crises ordination of priests and deacons had stopped even as other spiritual exercises had been stalled for a couple of years.