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125 years of Catholic Church in Eastern Nigeria

SINCE the day Reverend Father Lutz from France stepped his feet on the soil of the ancient city of Onitsha in 1885, the history of the people of Eastern Nigeria has not been the same.

Our history changed for the better. I do reflect, from time to time, on the heroism of European missionaries who left the relative comforts of their homes to come to Igboland and the rest of Eastern Nigeria from the 19th Century in order to bring the Good News to our people. Some died on the high seas. Some died of diseases like malaria endemic in the tropics.

Some were killed by our people who innocently thought that they were strange and dangerous beings because the Europeans looked totally different from them. Yet, the Christian missionaries persisted because of their immense love of God and humanity.

Father Lutz, Bishop Joseph Shannahan, Bishop  Joseph Heery and other early missionaries are a perfect example of what the Bible calls agape love, or sacrificial love. May their souls rest in the bosom of the Lord.

These authentic men of God did not just bring us the Gospel. They spearheaded the abolition of improper cultural practices like the killing of twins and the”osu” and “ohu” caste system. They brought us modern healthcare. The impressive hospitals they established in places like Onitsha, Ihiala and Adazi, all in Anambra State, several decades ago still provide our people with quality services.

The Holy Rosary Hospital at Emekuku, Imo State, and St Luke’s Hospital, Anua, Akwa Ibom State, are among the numerous medical facilities established by the Church in Eastern Nigeria which have been of immense benefit to our people. Many people abandoned by their families and communities because they were afflicted by diseases like leprosy were treated in hospitals like these ones free of charge.

I hesitate to imagine what Eastern Nigeria would have been without the Church. If not for Caritas, the Catholic charity, millions of our people would have perished during the civil war due to acute hunger. The Federal Government imposed an economic and food blockade against Eastern Nigeria because, as it argued, “starvation is a legitimate instrument of war”.

Caritas cargo planes were strafed relentlessly, day and night. I personally benefitted greatly from the tones of dried milk, corned beef, salt, egg yoke, dried milk and other critical things made available by Caritas.

The contribution of the Church to the educational development of Eastern Nigeria remain unparalleled. The missionaries used their limited resources to build schools all over the place, and products of these schools were competing favourably with their counterparts anywhere in the world. Generations of our best teachers, professors, lawyers, medical doctors and other professionals were trained in places like Christ the King College, Onitsha. I am a proud Old Boy of the great CKC.

Up to 1970, many of the schools in various places in the Southeast were either established or managed by the Church. Like in other parts of the world, it has always been a thing of pride to associate with a Catholic Church owned or run school.

Without the Church, there is no way Eastern Nigeria could have made the stupendous progress it has recorded in education, especially from 1945 when the Second World War came to an end.

The Yoruba people of Western Nigeria, for instance, have a historical head start over the Igbo in education principally because major Yoruba towns and cities like Lagos are located on the coast; the white people who brought formal education to Nigeria came through the sea. Yet, within only two decades, the Igbo, to use Professor Chinua Achebe’s language, “had wiped out their educational handicap in one fantastic burst of energy”. By 1965, the Igbo were competing favourably with the Yoruba. In fact, there were more Igbo PhD holders among the Igbo than among the Yoruba, though the Yoruba had more professors.

It is regrettable that the government took over Church schools in Nigeria, beginning with, of all places, East Central State (today’s Southeast). The forcible acquisition practically sounded the death knell of sound and solid education throughout the country. Hitherto, we received a kind of education which combined high academic standards with high morals and discipline.

This was in line with the tradition of Catholic education everywhere in the world. It is, therefore, with joy that we note that some state governments have begun to return some of these schools to their proprietors. We look forward to having schools like CKC, Onitsha, and College of Immaculate Conception, Enugu, as well as St Patrick’s College, Calabar, return to their days of glory.

We also note with delight that the Catholic Church has demonstrated great keenness on the development of higher education, particularly since the liberalisation of the ownership and management of tertiary institutions in Nigeria. It has far more private universities than any organisation.

Some of the higher institutions it owns directly or indirectly are Madonna University which is the first private university in the country, Catholic University of Nigeria, Tansian University, St Augustine University, Renaissance University, Bishop Godfrey Okoye University, etc.

It does, indeed, gladden the heart that the Catholic Archdiocese of Abuja, which in the mid 1990s established Loyola Jesuit College in Abuja, the most competitive secondary school in Nigeria, is working hard on building a Jesuit university in the Federal Capital Territory. The role of Opus Dei, a prelature of the Church, in the establishment and management of such famous new institutions as The Lagoon Secondary School in Lagos and The White Sands Secondary School, also in Lekki, Lagos, as well as the Pan African University in Lagos, is well appreciated.

On the occasion of the 125th anniversary of the Catholic Church, it behoves the three Dioceses in Anambra State to seriously consider starting a famous university in the class of Pan African University, all the more so with the Archdiocese of Abuja about to establish a Jesuit University. After all, each of the dioceses is headed by a scholar of repute.

We note with pride that the Church in the Onitsha Archdiocese and the Eastern Nigeria has remained faithful to its principal role: saving souls by reconciling man with his creator through preaching and practising the Good News.

There are a lot of big churches everywhere, and many others are springing up rapidly. The churches are always full. Our seminaries, convents and monasteries are full of young men and women eager to serve God with all their being.  Our people are the bedrock of Catholicism in every part of Nigeria. Bishop Shannahan described Eastern Nigerians as “natural Catholics”.

We gave the Church Blessed Iwene Tansi, the first West African to be beatified. We gave the Church Dominic Cardinal Ekandem and Francis Cardinal Arinze. We produced Rt Rev Godfrey Okoye, the extraordinarily dynamic first Bishop of Enugu Diocese who had earlier served as the Bishop of Port Harcourt and led a holy life. We gave the Church Michael Eneja, the late Bishop of Enugu who led a saintly life right from the time he was in Onitsha as a young priest and inspired a generation of young people into going to the Ministry

Mr. Chike MADUEKWE, a lawyer, writes from Anambra State.


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