If God calls you to be a missionary don’t stoop to be a King

On Saturday, the Catholic Church in the Archdiocese of Lagos remembered the celebration of the first Mass in modern times in Nigeria. The celebrant was Fr Francesco Borghero, a member of the Society of African Missions (SMA). It took place in the home of an Italian trader in the city. At the close of the 150th Anniversary Year, His Grace Archbishop Alfred Martins celebrated Mass in St Leo’s Catholic Church in Ikeja (itself built by SMA priests in the 1980’s). A veteran of 46 years in the Archdiocese of Lagos, Fr Eddie Hartnett (from Cork City) was given the task of preaching on the occasion.

Herewith is a shortened edition of his 45 minute homily, (part of which he sang).


Your Grace, Archbishop Alfred Adewale Martins, the Metropolitan Archbishop of Lagos, Your Eminence Anthony Cardinal Okogie (in absentia), Bishop Albert Fasina, the Bishop of Ijebu Ode Diocese, Monsignor Christopher Ajala, the Vicar General and Administrator of Abeokuta Diocese, Rt. Rev. Monsignor John Aniagwu, the Vicar General of the Archdiocese of Lagos, Episcopal Vicars, Major Religious Superiors, Very Rev Fr Maurice Henry SMA and Very Rev Fr Reginald Nwachukwu SMA, Rev. Monsignori, Brother Priests, Religious Sisters, Catechists, Family Vocation Members of the SMA, Friends of the SMA, and all you people of God.

Welcome! E kaa bo! Sannu De Zua! Nno o! Mi ku tho zonlin! Bienvenue! You are all welcome o!

The 150th Anniversary celebration is really three celebrations-in-one:

  • The 1st Holy Mass in Lagos on the 9 March 1862;
  • The celebrant of that 1st Mass, Fr Francesco Borghero SMA, was the first SMA Missionary to arrive in Nigeria;
  • The coming of the Catholic Church to Nigeria in the Modern Era.

We are familiar with the Words of Jesus in Luke 9:12 “If you put your hand to the plough … do not look back”. I am sure we will be forgiven if we look back a little after 150 years! We also hope to talk about “the present” – today and tomorrow!

I am very conscious of the part played by many missionary societies, the Religious Orders and the diocesan clergy, in the evangelization of the peoples of Nigeria. They are part of the History of the Catholic Church in Nigeria.

For the duration of today’s celebration, the SMA Religious Superiors have given me the authority to make everyone present here today honorary members of the SMA. So I salute you one and all. Congratulations and Celebrations. E ku odun ojo oni o!

These celebrations started one year ago today in the SMA Apostolic Communities throughout Nigeria, and many Diocesan ceremonies have also taken place. These ceremonies marking the 150th Anniversary of the First Holy Mass by the First SMA Missionary Priest in Nigeria, are not only for the SMA Fathers, but they are for the Catholic Church throughout the length and breadth of Nigeria.

The first Catholic Bishop ever in Nigeria was Bishop Jean Baptiste Chausse SMA, who was consecrated Bishop on 12 July 1891; the first indigenous Nigerian Priest, Rev Fr Paul O. Emechete, was ordained on 6 January 1920, by Bishop Broderick, SMA. Today we have over 20 million Catholics in Nigeria. These events all look back to the beginnings of the Catholic Church in Nigeria, in the Modern Era, and especially to the 1st Holy Mass ever celebrated in Lagos. To God be the Glory! Amen!

The President of the Catholic Bishops Conference of Nigeria, His Grace Most Reverend Ignatius Kaigama sent a Letter to every Bishop in Nigeria, informing them of the 150th Anniversary Celebrations. We are happy today to have with us as the Chief celebrant, His Grace Alfred Adewale Martins, the Archbishop of Lagos. We are grateful. E pe fun wa o!

We begin now in the ancient Kingdom of Badagry, where they pride themselves in saying that Christianity first came to Nigeria through the Atlantic Sea Front at Badagry. This town, on the south west corner of Nigeria, was one of the Slave ports in history and the descendants of the slaves began returning to where the slaves left Nigeria “on the road of no return.”

A young Baptist Minister came to see me one day in the Parish House at Badagry. He told me that they were taught in Theological College that the Catholic Church was the First Church to bring Christianity to Nigeria in the 15th to the 18th Centuries: to Warri, Benin, Borno, and Katsina! Is the story from Badagry a correct one? I answered that he was right as regards the beginnings of Christianity in Nigeria in the early centuries; but Badagry were right in saying that Christianity first came to Nigeria in the “Modern Era” when the Methodist Church first arrived there in September 1842. Then the CMS Church – the Anglican Church – came in December 1842; the Baptists in 1850 and the Catholic Church in 1862.

The Methodist Church and the Baptist Church were here in Nigeria twenty years before the Catholic Church in the “Modern Era”

The late Fr. Joe Kenny, OP, a great Arabic scholar and historian, wrote a book on “The Catholic Church in Tropical West Africa”, which dealt with the arrival of the Catholic Church in Nigeria in the early Centuries. Another great Dominican, Fr. Joe Kenny, died recently. May His soul Rest in Perfect Peace! I went to see him early last year, and in our discussion on the History of the Catholic Church in the early centuries in Nigeria and again in the “Modern Era” Fr. Kenny OP remarked that the ‘mandate’ to bring the Catholic Church to Nigeria and establish it after fading out for many years before that, was given to the SMA Fathers. Sure, there were some Catholics in Nigeria, but no one was given the ‘mandate’ to re-establish the Church, except the SMA Fathers. When they came and celebrate the Eucharist in the area that was entrusted to the care of the SMA Fathers, which was the “Vicariate Apostolic of Dahomey” and later called the “Vicariate Apostolic of Benin Coast” then that date in History was taken as the beginning of the Catholic Church in Nigeria in the “Modern Era.” Fr Francesco Borghero SMA arrived in Lagos on 8 March 1862 and celebrated the First Mass in Lagos the following day. “He was the first SMA Missionary to arrive in Nigeria although Rev. Fr. Irenee Laffitte SMA, made a stopover in Lagos as a visitor on his way to Ouidah in September 1861. The visit of Fr. Borghero SMA was a planned Missionary Breakthrough.”

Fr. Francesco Borghero SMA celebrated the 1st Holy Mass in Lagos Island on 9 March 1862 in a house belonging to the Carrena family, who were Italian like Fr. Borghero. A journalist captain, Richard Burton writing in the 19th century says that the “the Carrena House was one of the Finest in Lagos, fronting the water, near the Wesleyan Mission House, then the Wesleyan Chapel … … then the Church Mission House

This description locates the place of the 1st Mass on Lagos Island, where the Cathedral Parish of Holy Cross stands today. The First Mass was not celebrated in the area of Elegbata as some people mentioned. Elegbata did not feature for a number of years later.

Fr. Borghero said of Lagos: “This City is the most important on the Coast and the natural centre for a mission.”

It is worth noting that Fr. Borghero never met the Catechist and Prayer leader, Pa Antonio or Padre Antonio as he was fondly called. The story of Pa Antonio asking Fr. Borghero to recite the Rosary in the Portuguese language, and then recognizing him as a Catholic Priest and then welcoming him to Lagos is not recounted in Fr Borghero’s Diary. It is a “Lagos Story” made up from some “gossip” or other. Even then Lagos was a well known place for ‘isokuso’ or ‘gossip!’ Fr. Bouche SMA was the first Priest to meet Padre Antonio in 1868, and he went to his house, and he was surprised that the gossip that people were saying about Pa Antonio was untrue. He did not celebrate the Mass in his house or keep a tabernacle there! He only baptized people when necessary, and celebrated the funerals of the Catholic members.

In a letter to Fr Augustin Planque SMA, the SMA Superior General, Fr Bouche praised Pa Antonio for his prayer leadership and devotion to the Catholics.

Fr Borghero celebrated the first Mass in Badagry on 2 October 1863 and first Mass in Epe on 17 April 1864. The first Mass in Abeokuta was celebrated on 15 May 1864. We hope that celebrations will be held in Badagry and Epe to honour the 150th Celebrations in these towns.

We often say that Nigeria is for Nigerians and Lagos is for Lagosians! Lagos Na wa o! If you are born in Lagos or grow up there, it confers on you a lifelong capability for “Survival” from which one always benefits! Fr Borghero was a ‘survivor’ having been to Lagos in those years.

Lagos has its own Oriki or Praise name:

Eko Akete,                  –           Lagos
Ilu Ogbon,                   –           Capsule of wisdom
A Ro’mi sa,                 –           Bedecked with unending stretches of water
Legbe legbe,                –           swinging precariously,
A ro de de,                  –           from side to side
Ti ko le ja,                   –           never to crash
Oba ma pa ’lu Eko re o!          –         May the good Lord never destroy Lagos
Eko o ni baje o!                       –         Lagos will never spoil (never be destroyed)

Lagos was a Station Church of Porto Novo in 1862 and remained so for some years. Fr Noche SMA who came to relieve Fr Borghero in Lagos died suddenly and there were difficulties in establishing an SMA team in Lagos in the early years. In the first 50 years of Mission, we know of at least 49 SMA Priests who died after one year on Mission, and 83 SMA Priests died before they reached 30 years of age.

Chief Harrison, the Secretary to the Akran of Badagry queried me one day, and asked if the Missionaries who came after the early Missionaries had heard the stories of what happened to their predecessors? ‘The First Missionaries came and they died after a year or two. More came and they died, still more came and they died too. Did they not hear the story of those who came before them, and yet more came again and again! I can never understand this!’ I told him that I find it very it hard to understand too! If I knew the story of the early SMA missionaries before I went to the Seminary, I am not sure that I would have come here too.

Today, there are 37 Nigerian SMA Priests and 3 Deacons, and we have 236 SMA Seminarians from all over Africa and beyond. In Nigeria today we have 60 SMA Missionaries on mission all over the country, coming from different African and European lands, including my own country.

Bishop Marion de Brésillac founded the SMA Fathers on 8 December 1856. Less than three years later, June 1859, he and all his companions died in Freetown, Sierra Leone, after spending just six weeks in the country. They died from Yellow Fever.

Originally a diocesan priest he worked for two years in his home town before he got the call to go on Mission in India. He joined the Paris Foreign Missionaries (MEP). Before he went to India, he wrote these resolutions, which still come back to inspire every SMA over the years:

  1. “To be a Missionary with all my heart
  2. To neglect nothing for the advancement of God’s work
  3. To seize every opportunity for preaching God’s Word
  4. To use every means I have – to contribute towards the formation of a native clergy – and it is there that I implore your blessing, o my God

The SMA Fathers now work in seventeen African countries, often teaching in Minor Seminaries and Major Seminaries where diocesan Priests are trained for the priesthood. The Founder of the SMA from the beginning associated the SMA with the promotion and training of the indigenous clergy where ever the SMA go and work in Africa.

There are other SMA members besides Fr Francesco Borghero SMA in the challenge to establish the Catholic Church in Nigeria in the Modern Era:

Fr Jean Marie Coquard SMA in Abeokuta;
Monsignor Carlos Zappa SMA and Fr (later Bishop) Thomas Broderick SMA in Asaba and the Upper Niger;
Fr Cermenati SMA in Okenne and Kaduna;
Bishop Jean Baptiste Chausse SMA in Lagos;
Bishop P J Kelly SMA in Benin City;
Fr Julius Poirier SMA, Prefect Apostolic of the Upper Niger;
Fr Theodore Holley SMA in Oyo, Ibadan, and Abeokuta;
Fr Kevin Carroll SMA in Lagos, Borgu, Gitata, and Ilorin to name but a few!

I must also mention Monsignor Stephen Adewuyi in Yewa Land. The older SMA missionaries often spoke of Monsignor Adewuyi in the same way as they spoke about the first SMA missionaries in Nigeria. Monsignor Adewuyi was a real missionary, always reaching out to new areas of evangelization, gifted with languages and a humble touch with the people he loved so well. He was often seen as a match-maker for young people! His name and fame have been passed on from one generation to another. He was at one stage asked to be the Bishop of Porto Novo and even forty years after his death, some Catechumens mentioned his name as the Archbishop of Lagos!

After Lagos, the Church opened up new Missions in Abeokuta, Lokoja, Asaba, and Ibadan before the year 1900. After 1900, Shendam, Ubiaja, Ondo, Ekiti, Ilorin and Ijebu-Ode. And in 1920 in Kano, Kaduna and Jos.

The success of the first thirty years of Mission was the ordination of the first ever Bishop in Nigeria, (1891) in the person of Bishop Jean Baptiste Chausse SMA of the Apostolic Vicariate of Benin Coast which included Lagos. The success of the next twenty years of Mission in Nigeria in Modern Era, produced the first ever Nigerian Priest in the person of Rev Fr Paul O. Omechete from Benin, ordained in January 1920 by Bishop Broderick SMA.

The first coming of the Catholic Church to Nigeria in the early 15th to 18th centuries were never established enough to produce a Bishop or an indigenous Nigerian Priest! These sign-posts on the road to establish the Catholic Church in Nigeria, came in the Modern Era of Evangelization, that began with the First Mass in Lagos 150 years ago!

At a recent marriage in Lagos I expressed the wish, at the end of the Wedding Mass, to get to know the family of the groom of the day, as we socialized afterwards; the Bride and her family were well known to me for years. When I met the father of the groom, who was a professor in Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile Ife, he said “I know you”. I asked where had we met? I don’t seem to remember now. He replied, “I know you, when you said you are SMA, I know you well he said; when I went to school at Loyola College in Ibadan I was taught by SMA Fathers”, and he began to name some of the SMA Priests for me. Then he said that when he went to the University of Ibadan, one of his professors was an SMA Father, the late Fr Jim Foley SMA. “I know you well Father!” We shook hands as if we knew each other for years.

So many people in Nigeria know the SMA Fathers through Schools, Colleges of Education, and Institutions of Higher learning, either founded by the SMA Fathers or staffed by the SMA Fathers. One member in Holy Cross Cathedral, the Late Pa George often used to say, when we knew the SMA Fathers, the SMA meant “Senior MA!”

In the town of Badagry where I live, the first Grammar School there was founded by the SMA Fathers in partnership with the government, and all the first principals of Badagry Grammar School were SMA Fathers, and their names are still remembered up to the present day.

Other places I could mention are St Gregory’s College and St Finbarr’s College in Lagos, up to St John’s College in Kaduna, over to Immaculate Conception College in Benin City, to St Patrick’s in Asaba, St Thomas Teachers Training College, Ibusa, and St Leo’s Teachers Training College, Abeokuta, to mention but a few.

The SMA Fathers invested heavily in education whenever they went throughout Nigeria. The Topic: “The SMA Fathers and Education in Nigeria” would need another forum, and hopefully that history will be written one day soon.

We thank the people of Nigeria who welcomed the missionaries down the years, and accepted them as messengers sent by God. The missionaries also learnt a lot from the people about God, and for this we are always grateful.

I had just arrived in Ebute Metta in 1970, and was in the Parish office one day, when a young girl (17 years old) came and greeted me. She then sat down and asked to book the Sunday Mass for a “Thanksgiving.” I said that it is always great to thank God. I asked her why she is thanking God today? She mentioned that she had just finished secondary school and done her WAEC Examination. I asked her how was the result in the examination, thinking she might have done very well to come and thank God! She said that she failed; she did as well as she could and she was thanking God because “God had helped her to do her best!” Since then, over the years, I have never seen anyone else to come and thank God ‘because you fail’ in something or to thank God because he helped them to do their best! Sure, God will help you to do your best but no more! Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta once said: “Do your best, it may not be enough for some people, never the less, do your best!” Anyway, what is “failure” and what is “success?” Someone who is a failure today can become a success tomorrow! And someone who is a success today can become a failure tomorrow. Who can measure failure or success?

When we were in the language school shortly after coming to Nigeria, we were given the wisdom of the elders, when they said; ‘if you want to learn a new language, start by learning one or two songs in that language, to get the rhythms and the tune of the words in the language.’ Shortly after I arrived in Lagos, one of the popular musicians, known as the ‘Miliki King’ – Ebenezer Obey – brought out this song and after learning a great lesson in life from the girl who thanked God for helping her to do the best, I decided to learn the song:

“Ko so’gbon to le da
Ko si’wa to le hu
Ko so’na to le gba
T’o le fi te aye lo’run o
Ile aye fun igba die ni o
Omo araye, e se rere o
Do your best and leave the rest.”

I now want to return to the Kingdom of Badagry, to Topo Island in fact, to the place where the First experimental agricultural Farm was established by the SMA Fathers in July 1876 when Fathers Poirier and Baudin with Brother Elias started the Farm with coconut trees, cattle, sheep and goats. The Topo Experimental Farm was a great help to the Catholic Church in the Archdiocese of Lagos and helped to fund many Church projects: the Badagry Grammar School; the Minor Seminary at Oke Are in Ibadan; Mount Carmel School in Ebute Metta and the Boys School and Girls’ Teacher Training College on Topo Island.

On Topo Island, there is a cemetery and Church building. Many of the early missionary and first Catholics of Badagry are buried in that Island cemetery, overlooking the lagoon on one side, and the Atlantic ocean on the other side. A few years back, the OLA Sisters from Southern Nigeria came to spend one day on Topo Island and celebrate the Holy Mass especially for all the OLA Sisters who are buried there. Towards the end of the ceremonies, an elderly Sister came forward to address everyone present and took out of her pocket, what seemed an old letter, and she began to read from the paper:

Sr Monique OLA, died 25 years ago, buried here on Topo Island; Sr Jean Marie, OLA died 23 years ago buried here on Topo Island; Sr Marie Terese OLA died 27 years ago buried here on Topo Island and on and on, she read out names and the ages of the Sisters who were buried on Topo Island. Nearly all of these Sisters died when they were 20 years or 30 years of age. (Editors note: this letter goes back to the early 1900’s)

Then the Sister put the paper back in her pocket and spoke to all the Sisters present: These Sisters who are buried here on Topo Island had a ‘Dream’, and they were ready to pay the price to make their ‘Dream’ come true. Sisters of today, do you have a ‘Dream?’ What is your ‘Dream’, and if you have a ‘Dream’ are you ready to pay the price to make the ‘Dream’ come true? All eyes were down cast in case the old Sister might ask any of us to speak!

I don’t tell my Dreams to others, but I will make an exception today:

I have a dream that

  • Catholics everywhere in Nigeria will use this Year of Faith to deepen their friendship with Christ and find it a great joy to tell others about their friendship with Him;
  • The Priests and Religious will go out every week to teach the Faith and the new Catechism of the Catholic Church – having learnt so much for so many years, the time has come for us to pass on our knowledge of the faith to others;
  • The Church in Lagos will send a team of Priests on Mission to another African country and we will see the Archbishop of Lagos blessing them as they bring the story of the Church in Lagos, after 150 years, to another lands and bring back the story of Catholic Church in another lands and enrich the Catholic eye in Lagos;
  • Being blessed for over 150 years, receiving missionaries, priests, religious, the time has come to receive the blessing of Giving, because “it is blessed to give than receive”;
  • The SMA Fathers when they look into the future of the Society of African Missions will take up a new Apostolate for all the children and youth caught up in “Human Trafficking” Today, after the drug trafficking, the next worst crime in our world today is “Human Trafficking” where very small children are trafficked for their organs and so many of our youths are sent off into slavery and prostitution.

We often say in Lagos, when you cannot find the word or the way to say something, the best way is to use a proverb: “ti oro ba sonu, owe ni a fi n wa”. All that I have been saying can be summed up in this proverb “If God calls you to be a Missionary, don’t stoop to be a king!

My final words in song, are a salute to Fr Francesco Borghero SMA and Monsignor Stephen Adewuyi, both of whom worked with the Ogu people in the Kingdom of Badagry, and appreciated the language and the culture of the people:
Leblanu no we Oto, Jehova sie                                } 2ce
A whlen mi je egbe, gigo n kpa                                } 2ce
Me kpo kpo ni wa sen Oto, Gbigbo Wiwe              } 2ce
Me da’yihon me lekpo                                                           
we miule to kpe do na
Mi na kpa gigo na ’to
Ho do e na se                                                              } 2ce
A whlen mi je egbe, gigo n kpa

God our Father is a merciful God
To have kept us till this day
We glorify you
All Nations come to worship God
In the Spirit and truth
The Creator of the Universe is the one we appreciate
We glorify the Father and say amen
To have kept us till this day
We glorify you!

Previous articleFr Billy O’Sullivan SMA Funeral Prayers
Next articleXX SMA General Assembly Reports