By Vincent Ujumadu – Awka
It was a cheering news last week in the Catholic Church, especially the Awka Diocese when the announcement was made that Bishop Peter Okpaleke, who was rejected by the Ahiara Diocese in Mbaise, Imo State, was named the Bishop of the new Diocese of Ekwulobia in Anambra State, Ekwulobia Diocese was carved out of Awka Diocese by Pope Francis and consists of Akpo, Ekwulobia and Achina Regions in the present Aguata, Orumba North and Orumba South local government areas.
To many Catholics, it was a big relief for the amiable Bishop Okpaleke who, in spite of what he passed through in Ahiara Diocese, remained focused in the service of God for the past eight years.
Okpaleke, who hails from Amesi in Aguata local government area of Anambra State, was to succeed the late Bishop Anthony Chikwe in Ahiara, but the people of Mbaise insisted on having an indigene as their local government. For five years, Bishop Okpaleke never stepped foot on his Cathedral and only remained Bishop of the Diocese in name.
On June 9, 2017 the Catholic Pontiff summoned the parties in the dispute to Rome at the end of which the Pope gave the protesting priests 30 days to write a letter of apology and accept Okpaleke or risk suspension from the church. That ultimatum expired on July 9 of that year and the people of Mbaise never bulged.
To date, Ahiara Diocese has not got the indigenous Bishop they were clamouring for, while the man they rejected has got another diocese.
SouthEast Voice recalls that the Catholic Laity Council of Ahiara Mbaise, the highest non ordained body in every Diocese, rejected the appointment of Bishop Peter Okpaleke soon after he was named by Pope Benedict XVI in 2012.
Initially, the rejection was thought to be something that could fizzle out after some time, but this was not to be. Fueled by many priests in Ahiara Diocese and particularly engineered by the priests of the Diocese residing outside the country, the issue, which had never been witnessed in the history of the Catholic Church in Nigeria, lingered for years.
The ugly experience has, however, been put behind as the Holy Father erected the new Diocese of Ekwulobia by splitting the Diocese of Awka in the Metropolitan See of Onitsha Ecclesiastical Province and appointed Peter Okpaleke as the first Bishop of the newly erected Diocese.
The Cathedral of the new Diocese is St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, Ekwulobia, which for years had been undergoing massive renovation and expansion.
Describing the appointment of Bishop Peter Okpaleke as the first bishop for the diocese as awesome, the elated Bishop of Awka Diocese, Most Reverend Paulinus Ezeokafor said: “This piece of news is pleasant, filled with joy and gladness as it is a great relief to me”.
Announcing the appointment at St. Patrick’s Catholic Cathedral, Awka, Ezeokafor said : “We wrote a lot of letters in the past asking the Vatican to give us two more dioceses, Ekwuluobia and Adazi.
It was turned down. They asked us instead to apply for an auxiliary bishop, which we did and Bishop Jonas Benson was appointed as an auxiliary bishop in the year 2014.
“We did not stop there. We continued to push because here in Awka Diocese, we have the highest number of priests and Awka is too big for person to handle even with an auxiliary bishop. It was not easy. We are glad for this great news and we thank Pope Francis for this appointment as it is a great relief.”
Rev. Fr. Alphonsus Obiekezie of St. Matthew’s Catholic Church, Amawbia said the news of the creation of Ekwulobia Diocese from Awka and appointment of Bishop Okpaleke as first bishop of the Diocese was a welcome development.
According to Obiekezie, there is great joy among bishops, the clergy and lay faithful over the appointment, adding “Okpaleke is the man who the cap fits.”
He added: “Bishop Okpaleke fits in all respects into the office of Bishop; a good administrator, good preacher, naturally and academically intelligent, versatile, approachable and above all, experienced. Also, the creation of the diocese would reduce the vastness of Awka Diocese, thereby reducing administrative burden.
President Awka Diocesan Council of Nigeria, Mr. Joseph Igwebuike said it was God’s intervention that the Catholic faithful had been waiting for, adding that the creation of the diocese was necessary for grassroot evangelization, noting that it would help to reach the faithful living in the interiors without much difficulty.
The laity chairman while thanking God, prayed God to grant Bishop Okpaleke health of body and soul to pilot the flocks entrusted in his care.
He then, praised God that such development happened during his tenure as president, Awka Diocesan Laity Council.
Awka Diocesan Chancellor, Rev Fr. Francis Chidume, the Episcopal Vicar of Ekwuluobia Region and the Parish Priest of St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, Ekwuluobia, Rev. Fr. Ignatius Onwuatuegwu and the Administrator of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Rev. Fr. Matthew Attansey all expressed gratitude to God for the creation of Ekwuluobia Diocese and the appointment of Bishop Okpaleke as its first bishop.
Also, the Order of the Knights of St. Mulumba, has congratulated the people of Ekwulobia and the Bishop of the new Diocese. In a message to Okpaleke, the Onitsha Metropolitan Grand Knight, Sir Boniface Orakwe said: “Congratulations my Lord for your elevation to the position of the first Bishop of Ekwulobia Diocese. God has rewarded your patience and humility. May He bless all your endeavours in the new diocese”