Legal tussle over Catholic Church land

on   /   in Special Report 6:14 pm   /   Comments

By Innocent Anaba

Despite the pendency of suits in courts, hoodlums have continued to lay siege to the Our Lady’s Devotional Centre and Chaplaincy in Nkpor area of Anambra State, as the Roman Catholic Mission of the Onitsha Archdiocese is locked in a tussle with Mrs Patricia Ikemefuna, daughter of the donor of the land upon which the church is built.

Sunday Vanguard gathered that  mass no longer holds in the church as the premises had been taken over by miscreants.

The latest invasion of the place of worship, it was gathered, happened on February 19 after a visit by the cabinet members of Igwe of Nkpor, HRH C.N. Ibegbusi to see things for themselves and perhaps help to resolve the dispute.

*Burnt bungalow at the vicarage

*Burnt bungalow at the vicarage

On December 18, last year, the vicarage was torched while the priests in charge of the church lost books and other valuables.

Sunday Vanguard gathered that one of the priests narrowly escaped being killed in the fire as he had to jump from the window of the one storey building with injuries, as the fire had engulfed the door.

The donor of the vast land, Mrs Juliana Onuorah, who is also the owner of the popular Our Lady Bread in Onitsha, from court papers, particularly the ones filed by the Registered Trustee of the Roman Catholic Mission of the Onitsha Archdiocese against Mrs Ikemefuna in suits No.HID/170/2013 and HID/1226/2013, had, sometime in 1979, while in hospital bed in Germany, asked God to save her life and promised God that if she recovered and returned to Nigeria, she would do the following:-  (a) Build a church “called Basilica” in honour of Our Lady at Nkpor; (b) Develop St. Theresa’s life by way of love; (c) Employ people who would be praying for workers and sinners and (d) Build Mount Calvary at Nkpor.

The church, in its statement of claim, said: “On 14/1/1980, in order to actualise the solemn vow made by  Onuorah, the then Archbishop Cardinal Arinze in a letter of 14/1/80, set up a committee of three, after she had given the church the land.

“Onuorah, in a hurry to get her solemn vow actualised, wrote to the then archbishop a letter 4/4/ 1980 requesting the archbishop that the committee set up should hasten action to bring her proposals and plans for the shrine and pious institution into fruition in the shortest possible time. The 1st defendant (Mrs Ikemefuna) is not the owner nor is she in lawful possession of all the parcels of land delineated in Survey Plan No. LS/AN/L.143/90. On 4/3/ 1980.

Onuorah said she would have all the lands in the project fenced and a composite Survey Plan for the lands prepared to enable her execute just one instrument to incorporate all for the Church of the Archdiocese of Onitsha and she equally mentioned that all the pieces of land involved in the project were acquired by her at various times and thanked the archbishop for accepting the gifts of hers and more especially for taking measures that her vow to God and her dreams about the shrine and the church and pious institute are realized”.

According to the church, the land currently houses a church building, Stations of the Cross, Mount Calvary, Catechist’s house, Father’s house and a cemetery which is now known as Our Lady of Assumption Parish Nkpor.

It is praying the court to declare that the plaintiff (church) is the owner in possession of the parcels of land shown in Survey Plan No. LS/ONIL.143/90 and further shown in dispute Plan No and verged RED and, therefore, entitled to the grant of statutory Certificate of Occupancy. But Mrs Ikemefuna, the daughter the donor, in suits No HID/165/2013 and HID/738m/2013 against the church and some priests, including the Archbishop of Onitsha, denied that her mother gave the church the land, contending that her illiterate mother was deceived into giving away the land, as the deeds, letters and documents purported to have been written by her were written by the church, which failed to interpret to her the meaning, as she could neither read nor write.

She had asked the court to declare that her mother did not give any part of their property to the church in any way, because the property of Our Lord’s Complex is owned jointly. She also prayed the court to restrain the church and priests, whether acting jointly, severally or through proxies of agents from further trespassing into or further interference with their property called Our Lady Industries and Education Complex or any part shown in plaintiffs survey plan No. CU/SC/A/2012.

One of the suits before the Onitsha Division of Anambra State High Court by Mrs Ikemefuna was struck out for lack of jurisdiction.

While accusations and counter accusations are going on, Justice Chukwudi Okaa of an Anambra State High Court sitting in Ogidi ordered parties in the suit by Registered Trustee of the Roman Catholic Mission of the Onitsh Archdiocese against Ikemefuna to maintain the status quo in respect of Our Lady’s Devotional Centre and Chaplaincy in Nkpor.

Meanwhile, the church, having joined issues with the Ikemefuna and other plaintiffs in suit No HID/165/2013 Justice Chukwudi Okaa, on September 4, 2013, granted to the defendants leave to enter the land in dispute and carry out a survey .

While the order was yet to be complied with, counsel to the plaintiffs, P Ewah, on 6/9/2013, petitioned the Chief Judge of the state, demanding the transfer of the suit to another judge on account of likelihood of bias on the part of the judge.

Counsel to the respondents, Chief Chukwuemeka Asigbu, denied the claim by Ewah in a counter petition, but urged the CJ to transfer the matter to another judge. The case is yet to be re-assigned.

While it appears that the court cases have been stalled, petitions have continued to fly around with accusations and counter accusations of invasion of the church by hoodlums.

Counsel to the church,  Asigbu,  in a petition dated 19/12/2013 addressed to the Inspector General of Police, alleged that Mrs. Ikemefuna had continued to order the blockage of the church gates, thereby denying parishioners and priests access.

Ikemefuna, in her counter petition, accused the church of oppressing her and her family and using some church members to attack her and her workers.

Meanwhile, on the latest attack on the church, the police in Ogidi have been accused of not doing enough to stop the onslaught on the place of worship.

Asigbu told Sunday Vanguard, “When  hoodlums attacked the church two weeks ago, one of my colleagues, Mr Ononye, went to the state Police Commissioner to complain that young men from Abia State, about 90 of them, had invaded the place of worship. The lawyer said right in his presence, the CP called the Ogidi Divisional Police Officer, who said that at the time the complaint was being made, the church was quiet, as there was no disturbance of any sort at the church.”

But a top police officer at the Division said “The church did not contact us. It is not true that we were informed of the alleged latest attack on the church. If the church called the DPO as they claimed, we would have acted. The previous times they called us, we responded”.

On the police claim of a court order stopping  priests from entering the complex, priest, also a lawyer in the matter, said, “The said order only relates to the Our Lady’s Complex and we have taken steps to have it vacated.  In addition, the church is on a different land and not in any way effected by the order. Again, if not for  the frivolous petitions against the court that had stalled the case, the application for the vacation of the order would have been heard and determined long ago.”

Timely re-assignment of the case so that parties can use the courts to resolve the matter instead of resort to self help is the one way to ensure that law and order is not breached, while the police must ensure that the place of worship was not disrupted, pending the determination of the various cases in court, whichever way they may go.

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