History of the Church in Mid-West Nigeria

ORIGIN AND DEVELOPMENT OF THE CATHOLIC CHURCH

IN THE PRESENT ECCLESIASTICAL PROVINCE OF BENIN CITY

l. LOKOJA (1884-1893)

It was in 1882 that Monsignor Jean-Baptiste Chausse SMA, the Prefect-Apostolic of the Catholic Church in Lagos, and Father Theodore Holley SMA, of Abeokuta fame, sailed up the River Niger to assess the possibility of bringing knowledge of Christ to the people who lived east and north of Yoruba land. The report they sent to their Superior General, Fr Augustin Planque SMA, in Lyon, must have impressed him because just two years later Rome setup the Prefecture of the Upper Niger, covering all that territory in modern Nigeria, north of Lokoja, an important trading centre at the confluence of the two biggest rivers in West Africa, the Niger and the Benue. The Evangelisation of that vast territory was assigned to the Society of African Missions (SMA).

In November 1884 SMA Fathers Jules Poirier, Filippo Fiorentini and Pierre Piolat arrived by boat in Lokoja, where they set up their temporary headquarters from which they hoped to evangelise the towns and villages north of the two rivers. Father Poirier was the first Prefect-Apostolic. He had some missionary experience in Topo in the Lagos area and he had hoped to develop Lokoja in the same way as he had done in Topo by establishing a Christian community and then establishing a farm to solve the food problems, before spreading out to the neighbouring villages.

But things did not work out that way. In Lokoja the people were mainly Moslems and in no way disposed to the Christian faith. Besides, their resources were very limited both in money and personnel. The missionaries were few and the few that did come were struck down by ill-health and even death. Fathers Fiorentini and Piolat died in 1885 and 1886, respectively. Three others were assigned to the prefecture in 1885 – Carlo Zappa, Johann Baptist Voit and Andrew Dornan. Fr Dornan died in less than a year at the tender age of twenty-eight. By the end of 1886 only three of the first six of the missionaries survived. Fr Poirier had succeeded in getting four OLA (Our Lady of Apostles) Sisters to come to Lokoja but two of these also became victims of the fevers that swept West Africa at that time. So in 1891, just seven years after the SMA arrived there, two Rev Fathers, two Rev Sisters and twelve redeemed slaves left Lokoja for Asaba, where Carlo Zappa had established St Joseph’s Catholic Mission in 1888.

II. ASABA (1888-1938)

It was largely in response to the insistent entreaties of one Sir James Marshall, an official of the Royal Niger Company with its Headquarters at Asaba, that Fr Poirier decided to send Fr Zappa to Asaba in 1888. On Pentecost Sunday James Marshall and his equally devout assistant, Judge O’Kane, returned from Mass at Onitsha on the eastern bank of the Niger. They were pleasantly surprised to meet Fr. Zappa waiting for them. Sir James immediately led Father to the site which he had purchased for them – the site which has remained the Head-quarters of the Catholic Church in Asaba to this present day.

Even in Asaba the early missionaries did not find it easy. The response was slow. Because of the high-handed activities of the Royal Niger Company, white men were unpopular and in many minds the missionaries were associated with them. However, the Fathers and the OLA Sisters impressed the barriers. The care for the sick shown by the teaching of catechism, were established but were not well attended. Then there was the physical factor. Sickness among the missionaries was widespread. Mosquitoes were everywhere. At that time there was no quinine or medicine to treat malaria. By 1898, just 10 years after their arrival in Asaba, of the 21 SMAs who arrived there, 7 had died, 7 had to return home and only 7 survived. Despite the problems, Fr Zappa was determined to press on and young priests and sisters continued to come from Europe. By 1900 there were fifteen priests in the Prefecture and Fr Zappa made maximum use of them. Since the departure of Fr Poirier for Europe in 1893 he was now in charge of the Prefecture. He set off, on foot, to the nearby towns, west and north of Asaba, and soon he had mission stations in Issele-Uku, Ibusa, Illah, Ogwuashi-Uku, Okpanam and Onicha-Olona. By 1896 he had established a mission in Agenebode, in the Afenmai District. And in 1897 there were three OLA Sisters in that same Agenebode. This town, on the banks of the Niger, was to become the centre from which the faith would spread throughout Afenmai. In 1904 Fr Eugene Strub, of Asaba fame, wrote home stating that “little by little, obstacles that were thought to be insurmountable were overcome. Progress once started never halted. “

In 1906 Msgr Zappa re-opened Lokoja and from there many outstations were established – Okene, Kabba, Oka and even Zaria. Zappa had his sights set on Ishan country for some time and Fr Clement Bannwarth opened a residential station in Ubiaja in 1908 while Fr Joseph Corbeau of immortal Ishan fame opened Okoni, close to Uromi, in l912.

It was later that he turned his attention to the southern banks of the Niger – this time on the creeks of the Niger Delta. Forcados was opened as a centre by Fr Georges Oilier in 1913 and Fr Luigi Cavagnera established the mission in Warri in 1917. Msgr Zappa died in Asaba in 1917. By his extraordinary zeal and tireless energy, by his diplomacy in dealing with the Royal Niger Company, the local chiefs and the people he loved so well, he was able to leave behind him a well-established, vibrant Church in at least three-quarters of the vast area entrusted to him.

Bishop Thomas Roderick, SMA. (1918-1933)

Bishop Thomas Broderick, SMA continued the policies of his predecessor. He ordained the first Nigerian priest in the person of Fr Paul Emechete in Asaba on 6th January, 1920. Later in 1926 he transferred the Seminary, established by Msgr Zappa in Ivianokpodi in the Agenebode area in 1907, to Asaba. Among the young seminarians were Pedro Martins, Anselm Ojefua, Stephen Umurie, Anthony Sanusi and Joseph Erameh. Bishop Broderick established a Training Centre for catechists in Ibusa in 1927 and in the adjoining compound

he established St Thomas’ Teacher’s Training College in 1928. This was a very significant move because it meant the Catholic Church was fully committed to education and the establishment of schools throughout Mid-West Nigeria, as it was then known. It was the first Secondary school throughout the Region and the rapid but solid expansion of the Catholic Faith was due in no small measure to the products of St Thomas’ that were soon to be found in schools in every town and village. So, when Bishop Broderick died in 1933, the Church had a well established form of evangelisation in the training of catechists and teachers.

Bishop Leo H. Taylor, SMA. (1934-1939)

In comparison with his predecessors (Msgr Zappa and Bishop Broderick) and his successor (Bishop P J Kelly), the Episcopacy of Bishop Taylor in the Vicariate of Western Nigeria, as it was officially called since 1911, was comparatively short. He returned to Lagos in 1939 as he had been appointed Archbishop of the Lagos jurisdiction. During his tenure of office in Asaba Bishop Taylor continued with the proven policies of his predecessors. However, greater emphasis was now being laid on the schools as tools of evangelisation. During his Episcopacy the numbers attending the Catholic primary schools increased from 6,300 in 1932 to 12,375 in 1939. The increase in the number of primary schools necessitated an increase in the number of trained teachers. So the enrolment in St Thomas’s, Ibusa increased from 16 in 1928 to 60 in 1939.

However, the increased attention given to education did not diminish the attention to normal pastoral care and the Bishop could be seen going along on his bicycle, travelling from station to station to administer the Sacrament of Confirmation. The most significant feature of his Episcopacy was the transfer of the Head-quarters of the Vicariate from Asaba to Benin City in 1938. Bishop Taylor did this because he felt that it was more appropriate and more convenient for administrative purposes to have the headquarters of the Vicariate close to the civil headquarters which was Benin City at that time.

III. BENIN CITY (1940-1973)

The first resident priest in Benin was Fr. William Lumley, SMA, later Msgr Lumley of Jos fame. He took up residence in 1928, Previous to that Benin was an outstation of Sapele. Bishop Patrick Joseph Kelly SMA was appointed Bishop as the successor to Bishop Taylor in 1940. His Episcopacy was a long one of thirty-three years, and a very fruitful one. There was progress on all fronts. Catechists were his top priority. He trained the catechists personally in his own compound. During the Confirmation visits he insisted on examining the candidates – hundreds of them – himself. He built up the indigenous Church. In 1940 there were three indigenous priests; in 1973 there were 50 and hundreds of seminarians and Sisters. Likewise the number of Catholic Schools continued to multiply throughout the Diocese. (The Vicariate of Asaba-Benin became the Diocese of Benin City in 1950). He established the first Secondary School, Immaculate Conception College, Benin and St Patrick’s, Asaba in the mid-Forties and he was the Proprietor of up to 40 secondary schools in 1972. But Bishop Kelly was above all a man of prayer. He was an SMA to the core and it was fitting that he should spend the later years of his long life at our Provincial Mother House in Cork City, Ireland. He died there on 18th August, 1991, at the age of 97.

MODERN TIMES

When Bishop Kelly retired in 1973 the Vicariate of Asaba-Benin which he inherited in 1940 had become the Diocese of Benin City (1950). Subsequently, Lokoja (1955), Warri (1964), Issele-Uku (1973), the Prefecture of Bomadi (1973), Auchi (2002) and Uromi (2006) were created. In 1994 the Ecclesiastical Province of Benin City was created with Archbishop Patrick E Ekpu as its Metropolitan. On the installation of His Grace, Bishop Anthony Gbuji preached the homily. Among other things he said: “We owe immense gratitude to the missionaries of the Society of African Missions and to the Sisters of Our Lady of Apostles. They planted and watered with untold sacrifices and courage the seed abundantly blessed by God which we now reap with great joy. To those of them now in our midst we express deep gratitude and may God grant eternal rest to those who have slept in the Lord.”

Today the SMA presence in the Province is confined to the SMA parish, Cable Point, Asaba and SMA House, Uromi, the former Tyrocinium, opened in 1957, with Fr. Matthew Walsh as Regional Superior.

Fr James Higgins SMA
St Patrick’s Parish
Cable Point, Asaba.
15th August, 2006