By Luke Onyekakeyah
Ordinarily, the Roman Catholic Church owned junior seminary known as the St. Peter Claver’s Seminary (SPCS) Okpala, should be celebrating its 86th year anniversary, having been founded in 1939 under Rev. Fr. Mohan’s supervision, according to available records. Going by this historic landmark, the seminary would be celebrating Diamond jublee+26 anniversaries. From the date, the seminary predated the Owerri Catholic Diocese. The Motto of the seminary is In Virtute et Scientia, meaning, In Righteousness and Knowledge. By the special grace of God, the SPCS (1972-77) is set to celebrate its golden jubilee anniversary on December 29 at Assumpta Cathedral to mark their 50th year adventure to the seminary.
The Owerri diocese dates back to the Vicariate Apostolic of Owerri, which was created on February 12, 1948, when the Vicariate Apostolic of Onitsha-Owerri was split. Vicar Apostolic of Owerri (Latin Church) was under Fr. Joseph Brendan Whelan, C.S.Sp. 12 Feb 1948 – 18 Apr 1950. On April 18, 1950, the Vicariate was elevated to a diocese of Owerri, with Joseph Fr. Brendan Whelan, C.S.Sp.as the first bishop (Roman rite). The bishops that succeeded Joseph Brendan Whelan, C.S.S.P include Mark Onwuha Unegbu 25 Jun 1970 – 1 Jul 1993; Anthony J.V. Obinna 1 Jul 1993 – 1993, who later became the Metropolitan Archbishop of Owerri (Roman rite). Anthony John Valentine Obinna was the Metropolitan Archbishop from 26 Mar 1994 – 6 Mar 2022. He was succeeded by Lucius Iwejuru Ugorji, the incumbent, since 6 Mar 2022. The Auxiliary bishop is Moses Chikwe (2019- ). The suffrage dioceses are Aba, Ahiara, Okigwe. Orlu, Umuahia. The other priest of this diocese who became bishop is Augustine Ndubueze Echema, appointed Bishop of Aba Diocese in 2019. Bishop Echema is a member of the class of 1972-76 which is celebrating the golden jubilee. The patron saint of the seminary, Peter Claver (1581-1654), volunteered for the Spanish colonies and was sent to the New Kingdom of Granada, where he arrived in the port city of Cartagena in 1610. He was required to spend six years studying theology before being ordained a priest. He lived in Jesuit houses at Tunja and Bogotá. When he was in Majorca studying philosophy, Claver was encouraged by Alphonsus Rodriguez, the saintly doorkeeper of the college, to go to the missions in America. Claver obliged, and in 1610 he landed in Cartagena, Colombia. After completing his studies in Bogotá, Peter was ordained in Cartagena in 1616.
The journey of the 1972 -72 set through St. Peter Claver’s Seminary began in January 1972 at St. Mary’s Junior Seminary, Umuowa, Orlu, Imo State. It was not an easy road. After completing Class 2 at Umuowa, the class was transferred to St. Peter Claver’s Seminary, Okpala (as was the arrangement then), to continue Class 3 and finish up. It was at the point of finishing up that the entire class was expelled by the rector, the late Rev. Fr. Lambert Nwigwe. It was a nasty experience that trounced many of us innocent teenagers at the time. The Class of 76 set was trained on the moral high ground by which the seminary is known. We followed all the rules and regulations as stipulated without any critical deviant behavior and looked forward to finishing up in flying colours. But one night, we were handed a very raw deal. Our class was vilified by our rector, the late Rev. Fr. Lambert Nwigwe (May his soul rest in peace), who expelled our entire exam Class 5, just weeks to our final WAEC GCE examination. The following morning, we all packed our tinker iron boxes and went home and had to come from different homes to take our November/December GCE of 1976. That incident badly affected the performance of most of the members of our class and even derailed the vocation of many. What happened, one may ask. It was one evening that we went to the refectory to eat. On getting there, the food was miserable watery beans and also little. We found it extremely offensive. How could we eat the tiny watery beans and then go to burn night lantern (there was no electricity at Okpala seminary, we used bush lamp all through to study at night). Not impressed with the food served us, we quickly decided to boycott the food. We abandoned the food and left for night studies. Later during our night studies, the rector, Fr. Lambert Nwigwe, appeared at the door. Everyone was afraid. He asked: who are those who refused the food? Everybody kept quite. He asked again, who are those who refused the food. Nobody answered. He asked for the third time, who are those who refused the food? There was no response from anybody. He then said you are all hereby expelled. Tomorrow morning, you should pack your things and go home, and he left. That was it, final and irrevocable declaration.
There was silence in the class. We knew we had entered into trouble because Fr. Nwigwe was such a no-nonsense disciplinarian whose pronouncements were final. There was no room for begging or pleading with him. No priest among the other reverend fathers could beg him on our behalf to rescind his decision. And so it was our fate. The next morning we packed our boxes and went into different directions heading home. Going home and coming without adequate preparation to take the GCE was not easy. We managed to take the examination and only a handful of us made it at that first sitting. Most of us had to re-take the subsequent GCE examinations as private candidates to be able to get five credits that qualified one for future academic career.
The saints that passed through that fire and survived and now celebrating include Bishop Echema, Dr. Luke Onyekakeyah, Hon. Nic Ndedigwe, Barr. Anselm Eleonu, Mr. Brendan Nwaozor, Dr. Simon Jude Ohaji, Rev. Fr. (Dr) David Ihenacho, Dr. Kenneth Ihenacho, Rev. Prof. Anthony Nwachukwu, Rev. Fr. (Dr) Emmanuel Nwaogeugwu, Rev. Fr.(Dr) Charles Anuolam, Prof. Cyril Ibeh, Dr. Anthony Ndukwe, Dr. Remigius Ekweariri, Mr. Sebastian Onu, Dr. Tony Ihenacho, Engr. Ethelbert Anyanwu, Dr. Alex Emenogu and Chief Sylvanud Oham, Navy Commodore Francis Manujibeya (rtd), Maj. Reginald Isiguzo, Monsignor Anselm Nwaorgu, Mr. Donatus Njoku, Mr. Peter Nwaorgu, Mr. Venantius Ugwuanyi, Felix Ekechukwu, Mr. Bernard Merenini, Theophilus Madufor.
The others are Chief Thaddeus Mgbe, Mr. Ernest Nwaneti, Rev Fr (Maj) Ishmeal Iwuala, Engr. Geoffrey Edoziem, Mr. Timothy Osuji, Dr. Reginald Ikpeawujo, Hon. Alex Ojiri, Rev. Fr. (Dr) Ambrose Ugwuegbu, Rev. Fr. (Dr) Godwin Amah, Engr. Peter Amuchie, Chief Bob Onwuliri, Rev. Fr. Anselm Ekeson, High Chief Canice Dandy Orji, Sir Pascal Uche, Mr. Raymond Osuji,
Barr. Nicodemus Okoroha, Pastor Emmanuel Nwogu, Pastor Emmanuel Durueke, Rev. Fr. James Ahanekwu, Rev. Fr. Oliver Okolie, Mr. Alex Igwe ,Sir Tony Nkwocha, Rev. Fr. Aloysius Achonwa, Rev. Fr. John Obilor, Andrew Osuji. A few of our classmates have joined the church triumphant. They include Vincent Iwuji from Umuaka, Casmir Opara, Matthias Okere, Joseph Akaiazu, Sylvester Okparaebo and Very Rev Fr. Dr. Hyacinth Njoku.
The foregoing shows the products that emerged from the once vilified class in 1976. The products include eggheads in different professional fields, professors, engineers, physicians, media gurus, politicians, pastors, and a host of others. The class also produced the presiding bishop of Aba Diocese in the person of Augustine Echema. The class passed through the crucible of seminary training whose watchword is discipline. There was Rev. Monsignor Clement Chigbu (our first rector at Okpala), Rev. Monsignor Clement Obielu (who taught us German language), Fr. Nwokeneme, Rev. Fr. Christian Mary Ihedoro, CMF, Rev. Fr. Matthew Iwuji.
We cannot forget our senior prefects who also handled us in different subjects, namely, Francis Uwahemu, Rev. Fr. Casmir Chimeziri and Rev. Dr. Cyril Akalonu and Godwin Enwerem of Radio Nigeria, Abuja. All these great brains contributed immensely in molding us and making us what we are today. Now that we have Bishop Augustine Echema among us, the Holy Spirit of God has become our portion and will continue to flow around us. We can now wine and dine with the bishop anything we get to Aba. We pray that God Almighty will give the new bishop the grace and strength to carry out his onerous duty as shepherd of the flock of Christ. Shalom.