The story of the Catholic Church in Ibadan

Early attempts to establish a Church presence

The story of the SMA, and indeed of the Church in Ibadan, begins with the arrival of two French SMA priests, Fathers Jean-Baptiste Chausse and Theodore Holley who came from Oyo to Ibadan in 1884 with a view to opening a mission there. However, their efforts were thwarted by the opposition of the Alafin of Oyo [one of the major kings of the Yoruba people], who did not allow them to stay.

Ten years later, Father Joseph Pied SMA visited Ibadan. He approached the Baale [local chief] looking for a piece of land to establish a Catholic Mission. The Baale at first refused to give him a permanent site so Fr Pied put up a bamboo shelter and was soon joined by another SMA, Fr Barbaglia. They began to make contact with the people who found them strange at first but gradually came to like them because of their concern for the people, especially the sick. With the support of the people the Baale eventually offered them a piece of land at the summit of Oke Are, hoping that they would refuse it.

Oke-Are Hill

At the time Oke-Are was almost uninhabitable because of the thick, impenetrable scrubland [bush] that covered the hill. People were reluctant to pass the place at night as it was regarded as the place where ‘spirits’ lived and some people offered sacrifice there. Despite this the two priests accepted the offer and grew to like the place, offering as it did a cool breeze and a panoramic view of the whole city. And from that decision we trace the birth of the Catholic Church in Ibadan. Fr Pied laid the foundation of a spacious building which at various times served as church, minor seminary, training college for teachers and catechists, until the present buildings were erected. Eventually, ill health forced Fr Pied to leave Ibadan.

His successor, Fr Isidore Klaus SMA from Zurich in Switzerland, felt very much at home in Oke-Are. He liked the people, “the people of Ibadan are a very likeable people” he wrote, “it took me only two days to get to like the.” During those years ‘home’ for Fr Pied was a bamboo hut which he had built, as it was for his successor, Fr Klaus, and for Fr Oster who had joined him. When storms occurred the hut was in danger of being blown right off the hill and when it rained the priests were forced to sit up all night with umbrellas held over their heads to protect themselves from the rain pouring through the leaking roof!

Fr Klaus was succeeded at Oke-Are by Fr Joseph Gorju SMA. It was he who built the first church in Ibadan which was opened in 1900 and is still there to this day. It was funded from money collected by Fr Klaus from Catholics in Switzerland.

Move to Oke-Padi [Hill of the Priests]

Because of the difficulty of access and distance from the people, progress was very slow at Oke-Are. When the SMA Vicar General, Fr Paul Pellet, visited Ibadan in 1905 it was decided to seek a new site for a church and school nearer to the centre of the city. Ill health forced Fr Gorju also to leave Ibadan. His successor, Fr Lois Friess SMA, a man with a forceful and energetic personality, is the one responsible for the move down into the city. He found and developed a site for a Catholic Mission near the banks of the Ogunpa stream where St. Mary’s Cathedral at Oke-Padi now stands. A school was opened and on the first day eighty pupils enrolled, a number not attained by the school at Oke Are in ten years.

Growth of the Catholic Church in Ibadan

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SMAs who served in Ibadan Memorial Stone, Oke Are Minor seminary. Double click on the photo to read the names and dates.

From these small beginnings the Church in Ibadan began to grow and spread and the SMA was essential to that development, sowing the seeds of such thriving institutions as St. Theresa’s Minor Seminary and Ss Peter and Paul Major Seminary whose first rector was Fr Maurice Maguire, SMA. A number of educational institutions: Fatima College, Ikire, Loyola College, Ibadan and St. Patrick’s College, Basorun had SMA priests as their founding Principals.

Many of the original parishes in Ibadan were founded by SMA priests, among them St. Cyprian’s, Oke Offa (1931), St Joseph’s, Oke Ado (1950), Seat of Wisdom at the University of Ibadan (1956), St. Gabriel’s, Mokola (1958), St. Leo’s, Challenge (1959) and St. Patrick’s, Basorun (1961). All the existing parishes in Ibadan today are rooted in one or other of these early parishes which, in turn, trace their roots to the Chapel on Oke Are Hill.

St Leo’s, Challenge

Since its foundation in 1959, St Leo’s parish has been in the care of the SMA. Its present Parish Priest is Fr Fintan Daly SMA. Fr Fintan went to Ibadan in 1964 and taught for 24 years in St Theresa’s Minor seminary, on the site of the original land given to Fr Pied. For the past 26 years he has served in different parishes, noted for the number of outstation churches he founded and are now parishes in their own right. Challenge also serves as the Headquarters of the Bight of Benin District-in-formation [the SMA unit that takes care of Nigeria, Benin, Central African Republic and Niger]. Its present Superior is Fr Reginald Nwachukwu SMA.

A New Story – changes in the SMA

Oke Are Minor seminary compound today
Oke Are Minor seminary compound today

From its earliest days the SMA Founder held as one of his founding principles the establishment of a local clergy. For Bishop deBrésillac, a local Church must have its own indigenous clergy. He would not accept candidates for the SMA until it was clear that the local church had sufficient priests to carry on. After more than 125 years, with diocesan clergy established in places where the SMA worked, it was decided at the 1983 SMA General Assembly to invite Africans to join the SMA. The Society also agreed to accept Filipino, Indian and Polish seminarians for training as SMA priests. As SMA missionaries these young men would leave their own country to bring the Good News of Jesus Christ to parts of Africa where the Church was not, as yet, well established.

Following the Assembly decision, the process of recruitment and the establishment of Formation Houses in Africa was set in motion. Ibadan was chosen as the location for one of the Formation Houses and immediately Fr Kieran O’Reilly [now Archbishop of Cashel & Emly], who was then a lecturer in the Ss Peter and Paul Major Seminary, together with Fathers Joe Hardy [from France, a former SMA Superior General], Fintan Daly and Eddie Deeney began the process of recruiting candidates. The first candidates to be recruited were Basil Soyoye, Innocent Okozi, Robert Obro, Noel Musa and Augustine Onwuzurike.

Fr Deeney and Fr O’Reilly then began searching for a property in Ibadan within walking distance of the seminary that would serve as a temporary Formation House and rented a suitable property at 20 Oshuntokun Avenue.

Fr Des Corrigan arrives

Welcome to SMA House, Ibadan

In January 1987, Fr Des Corrigan, who had been the Spiritual Director at the SMA Formation House in Maynooth, Ireland, was appointed to take charge of the SMA Formation & Recruitment Programme which was formally inaugurated on 8 December 1987 with a Mass at the neighbouring Diocesan Pastoral Institute. Bishop Felix Alaba Adeosin Job of Ibadan was the Principal Celebrant. Bishop William Mahony, SMA, [Ilorin diocese], Bishop Michael Olatunji Fagun [Ekiti diocese] and the SMA Superior General, Fr Patrick J Harrington and a large number of priests concelebrated. Professor Gabriel Ojo, from Ado-Ekiti, the Chairman of the Nigerian Laity Council was Chairman for the occasion and spoke eloquently of the contribution of the SMA to the development of the Church in Nigeria. During that initial year, Fathers Seamus Nohilly and Colum O’Shea joined Fr Corrigan on the staff.

Fr Corrigan continued to search for a permanent site for the SMA Formation House. After much searching and complex negotiations he acquired the present nine acre site at New Bodija, on 31 May 1988, at a cost of 400,000 Naira [equal to about $100,000 at that time]. During the negotiations to purchase the land, work had started on drawing up plans for the Formation House. The architects were Design Group Associates and the chief architect was Mrs. Irene Olayeye. The contract for the building was put out to tender and was awarded to Ponti and Co. Italaware. On 28 October 1989, the SMA Vicar General, Fr Daniel Cardot SMA, blessed the site and turned the first sod and construction began immediately.

Official opening of the SMA Formation House at Bodija

Classroom, Library & Chapel, SMA Ibadan

On 28 September 1990, the students and staff left the temporary quarters at 20 Oshuntokun Avenue and moved to their permanent home. Fr Billy O’Sullivan joined the staff in September 1990 as Spiritual Director and Director of the Preparatory Programme.

Our photo shows the Lecture rooms, Library and Chapel, a photo taken from the 2nd floor of the Staff block.

On 7 December 1990, the new House of Formation was officially blessed and opened. Bishop Job was the Principal Celebrant and Fr Harrington preached the homily. The different buildings were blessed by Bishops Job, Fagun, Sanusi, Fasina and Fr Harrington.

During those early years, one of the classrooms was used as a chapel and another classroom was used as a library. As there was still no chapel and library, work began to raise funds for the construction of these buildings. The basic design and concept for the chapel was inspired by the beautiful cathedral in Abidjan, Ivory Coast. Construction work of the chapel and the library began in 1993. The blessing and official opening took place on 8 December 1994. On the same occasion, Innocent Okozi, Robert Obro and Augustine Onwuzurike were ordained deacons. The latter is now the Regional Superior for Nigeria, the first African elected to this post. With his election a further chapter is being written in our SMA history.

Over one hundred and twenty SMA priests – from several African countries and from India – have got part or all of their formation in the House. Most of them are now working as missionaries in different parts of Africa, often in difficult circumstances. The list includes two bishops: Bishop Nestor Nongo-Aziagbia, SMA, [Bossangoa diocese, Central African Republic] and Bishop Francois Gnonhossou, SMA, [Dassa-Zoumé diocese, Benin Republic].

As he sat in his wind-swept hut on the top of Oke-Are in 1894, Fr Pied could never have imagined such a development. We are alive to see it as we celebrate the Silver Jubilee of this SMA Formation House and we give thanks to God who has done such great things for the Society of African Missions and we look to God doing greater things in the future as Africans themselves lead the SMA into a new and hopefully an even more glorious future.

“No need to recall the past. No need to think of what was done before. See, I am doing a new deed. Even now it comes to light; can you see it?” (Isaiah 43:18)

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The Library at the SMA House of Studies, Ibadan.

Edited from an article by Fr Tim Cullinane, SMA