THE HISTORY OF THE CATHOLIC CHURCH IN OGOJA

 

The diocese of Ogoja is the one of the oldest of the Dioceses in the Calabar ecclesiastical province which forms one of the nine provinces of the Catholic Church in Nigeria. Evangelization started in the province on December 5, 1885 when Fr. Lutz (a long bearded man) a dynamic Holy Ghost father from France arrived Onitsha. He worked among the people until he died in 1895. Fr. Lejeune succeeded him. After him came Fr. Joseph Shanahan who became Bishop in 1920 and a great Apostle of southern Nigeria and the Cameroons. Under him the catholic faith reached Calabar, Ogoja and other parts of the Cross River area, Tiv land now Benue State and the Cameroons.

 

Bishop Shanahan who had worked for a long time among the people of Igbo land, was consecrated Bishop in 1920 by Pope Benedict XV. At his consecration, the Bishop requested for a mission in Tiv Land. The Pope gave the permission for the mission to be opened. Bishop Shanahan appointed two priests, Fr. Douvry and Fr. Mellet to carry out his mission. The two priests began their journey in a Canoe from 1921, being the eve of Pentecost, (Father Douvry had earlier resigned his position as the Rev. Vicar Apostolic in the Cameroons). In Ogoja, the fathers said mass the next day 16th May 1921, being Pentecost Sunday, in the open air. In the meeting with the elders of the town, the fathers were given land to build a church, a house, and a school. The decided to stay on in Ogoja and negotiated for land since the weather and the road were not good enough for them to continue to Tiv land (Benue State)

 

Later, the fathers stayed permanently at Ogoja and went occasionally to Tiv land to do missionary work. Soon afterwards the fathers erected grass thatched roofed quarter and an evening assembly hall, where they could meet often with the people. From this centre, fathers carry their evangelical work to Obudu, Tiv land, Ikom, Kakwagom and its environs. The fathers encounter a lot of difficulties. An obvious one was the language barrier, interpreters were not easy to come by, the fathers asked for permission of the British administration to open catechetical school, which would produce interpreters and catechist to help with the work. Permission was granted and a formal school was begun.

On June 3, 1921, Mr. John Ayogu, Later Bishop John Cross Ayogu of Enugu (who died just before the Nigerian civil war in 1967), was installed as the first school teacher by the fathers. The school and church were name St. Benedict, after Pope St. Benedict XV who gave approval for the establishment of this mission. The fathers went from village to village begging both the young and old to enlist as pupils. Girls were not willing or anxious to listen to such pleas from the fathers. They preferred to stayed at home and do domestic duties or work in the farm with their mothers. Women education in western form did not begin therefore till the 1940s.

 

The foundation of St Benedict School was established as a nucleus of Christianity. From here, faith was to spread to the environs of Ogoja. In spite of the fact that bad roads and rivers were barriers to easy penetration of the hinterlands, the fathers went further Obudu, Okuni, Bansara, Ntamante, Mbube and other places. By 1922, similar catechetical schools had been established in the places mentioned above.

 

When the Holy Ghost fathers could not cope with the work in southern Nigeria, Bishop Shanahan appeals to the Maynooth College in Ireland for priests to help out with the work. So in 1930, some volunteers arrived the scene(this were Frs. Michael Kilmartin, Hugh Colen, James Moynagh, later Bishop of calabar, Cornelius, Cieran Ryan, Patrick Costelloe, later superior general of St. Patrick society, and father Thomas Mcgettrick). The increasing strength of the volunteers was responsible for the opening of Okuni on the cross river as a residential station in 1934. Near the administrative centre Ikom, okuni had been as an outstation of calabar in 1916. Later it came under Ogoja when the cross river stations up to Afikpo were giving to the direction of Fr. Mellet. For the fear that the stay of the maynooth priests would be a short one since they were volunteers, Monsignor Withney found the St Patrick’s missionary society in kiltegan, Ireland in 1934, with Msgr.James Moynagh as its first prefect apostolic.

 

The prefecture of Calabar consisted Ogoja and Calabar until 1938 when Ogoja too became a prefecture with Msgr. Withney, the founding father of St. Patrick’s society, as the apostolic prefect. He planned to build the cathedral or the seat of Ogoja diocese Okpoma (the foundation still stand today at Okpoma). Msgr. Withney took ill and had to go home to Ireland in1939 .Fr.Thomas Mcgettrick who was a parish priest at Anua at that time succeeded Msgr. Withney as a Prefect Apostolic of Ogoja prefecture. When Fr. Thomas Mcgettrick went home on leave between 1940 and 1941, Matthew Maggrath acted as the prefect. with the increase in number of priest and Christians, parishes were open with St. Benedict Ogoja as the mother parish.

 

Ogoja became a diocese in 1955 and Fr. Thomas Mcgettrick became the first Bishop of the diocese, whose fangs stretched to Abakaliki in present day Ebonyi state. On the 17th of March 1957, the first church ever in ogoja  was dedicated, ST. PATRICK’S CHURCH KAKWAGOM. Since the mid 1960s Ogoja has produced many indigenous priests who have worked hand in hand with St. Patrick missionary society priests at evangelizing Ogoja.

In 1965, ten years of the existence of Ogoja as a diocese, it was bless with indigenous priests, the first was Fr. Joseph Edra Ukpo, Ordained on 25th  April, 1965 and second Rev. Fr. Micheal Okoro, Now bishop of Abakaliki, December 1965. A year later another priest Rev. Fr. Michael Elemi was ordained. In 1973, two more indigenous priests were ordained; late Msgr. Patrick Idiku, who later became the Diocesan Adminstrator and Fr. Atemgweye Unimna, who leads the pack as the oldest priest in the diocese today . From 1975, a steady number of indigenous priests have been ordained.

Women religious orders too have contributed in no small measure to the success of the Christian missionary work in Ogoja. The sister of the Holy child Jesus (SHCJ) came to Ogoja in late 1940s to work among women and girls in schools. The sisters of the Medical Missionary of Mary (MMM) came almost at the same time to work among the sick in the hospitals, clinic, maternity homes and leprosaria. In March 1936, bishop James Moynagh had petitioned Rome for permission to erect a congregation of native sister for the prefecture under the title of the handmaids of the holy child Jesus. In the early fifties, the sister of the handmaids of the holy child Jesus (HHCJ) came to work among women, children and families. The first Ogoja girl Agnes Bisong ( now Sr. MaryThomas Bisong) had join this society sisters in 1950. Since then a good number of girls have become sisters.

The diocese of Ogoja is the one of the oldest of the Dioceses in the Calabar ecclesiastical province which forms one of the nine provinces of the Catholic Church in Nigeria. Evangelization started in the province on December 5, 1885 when Fr. Lutz (a long bearded man) a dynamic Holy Ghost father from France arrived Onitsha. He worked among the people until he died in 1895. Fr. Lejeune succeeded him. After him came Fr. Joseph Shanahan who became Bishop in 1920 and a great Apostle of southern Nigeria and the Cameroons. Under him the catholic faith reached Calabar, Ogoja and other parts of the Cross River area, Tiv land now Benue State and the Cameroons.

 

Bishop Shanahan who had worked for a long time among the people of Igbo land, was consecrated Bishop in 1920 by Pope Benedict XV. At his consecration, the Bishop requested for a mission in Tiv Land. The Pope gave the permission for the mission to be opened. Bishop Shanahan appointed two priests, Fr. Douvry and Fr. Mellet to carry out his mission. The two priests began their journey in a Canoe from 1921, being the eve of Pentecost, (Father Douvry had earlier resigned his position as the Rev. Vicar Apostolic in the Cameroons). In Ogoja, the fathers said mass the next day 16th May 1921, being Pentecost Sunday, in the open air. In the meeting with the elders of the town, the fathers were given land to build a church, a house, and a school. The decided to stay on in Ogoja and negotiated for land since the weather and the road were not good enough for them to continue to Tiv land (Benue State)

 

Later, the fathers stayed permanently at Ogoja and went occasionally to Tiv land to do missionary work. Soon afterwards the fathers erected grass thatched roofed quarter and an evening assembly hall, where they could meet often with the people. From this centre, fathers carry their evangelical work to Obudu, Tiv land, Ikom, Kakwagom and its environs. The fathers encounter a lot of difficulties. An obvious one was the language barrier, interpreters were not easy to come by, the fathers asked for permission of the British administration to open catechetical school, which would produce interpreters and catechist to help with the work. Permission was granted and a formal school was begun.

On June 3, 1921, Mr. John Ayogu, Later Bishop John Cross Ayogu of Enugu (who died just before the Nigerian civil war in 1967), was installed as the first school teacher by the fathers. The school and church were name St. Benedict, after Pope St. Benedict XV who gave approval for the establishment of this mission. The fathers went from village to village begging both the young and old to enlist as pupils. Girls were not willing or anxious to listen to such pleas from the fathers. They preferred to stayed at home and do domestic duties or work in the farm with their mothers. Women education in western form did not begin therefore till the 1940s.

 

The foundation of St Benedict School was established as a nucleus of Christianity. From here, faith was to spread to the environs of Ogoja. In spite of the fact that bad roads and rivers were barriers to easy penetration of the hinterlands, the fathers went further Obudu, Okuni, Bansara, Ntamante, Mbube and other places. By 1922, similar catechetical schools had been established in the places mentioned above.

 

When the Holy Ghost fathers could not cope with the work in southern Nigeria, Bishop Shanahan appeals to the Maynooth College in Ireland for priests to help out with the work. So in 1930, some volunteers arrived the scene(this were Frs. Michael Kilmartin, Hugh Colen, James Moynagh, later Bishop of calabar, Cornelius, Cieran Ryan, Patrick Costelloe, later superior general of St. Patrick society, and father Thomas Mcgettrick). The increasing strength of the volunteers was responsible for the opening of Okuni on the cross river as a residential station in 1934. Near the administrative centre Ikom, okuni had been as an outstation of calabar in 1916. Later it came under Ogoja when the cross river stations up to Afikpo were giving to the direction of Fr. Mellet. For the fear that the stay of the maynooth priests would be a short one since they were volunteers, Monsignor Withney found the St Patrick’s missionary society in kiltegan, Ireland in 1934, with Msgr.James Moynagh as its first prefect apostolic.

 

The prefecture of Calabar consisted Ogoja and Calabar until 1938 when Ogoja too became a prefecture with Msgr. Withney, the founding father of St. Patrick’s society, as the apostolic prefect. He planned to build the cathedral or the seat of Ogoja diocese Okpoma (the foundation still stand today at Okpoma). Msgr. Withney took ill and had to go home to Ireland in1939 .Fr.Thomas Mcgettrick who was a parish priest at Anua at that time succeeded Msgr. Withney as a Prefect Apostolic of Ogoja prefecture. When Fr. Thomas Mcgettrick went home on leave between 1940 and 1941, Matthew Maggrath acted as the prefect. with the increase in number of priest and Christians, parishes were open with St. Benedict Ogoja as the mother parish.

 

Ogoja became a diocese in 1955 and Fr. Thomas Mcgettrick became the first Bishop of the diocese, whose fangs stretched to Abakaliki in present day Ebonyi state. On the 17th of March 1957, the first church ever in ogoja  was dedicated, ST. PATRICK’S CHURCH KAKWAGOM. Since the mid 1960s Ogoja has produced many indigenous priests who have worked hand in hand with St. Patrick missionary society priests at evangelizing Ogoja.

 

In 1965, ten years of the existence of Ogoja as a diocese, it was bless with indigenous priests, the first was Fr. Joseph Edra Ukpo, Ordained on 25th  April, 1965 and second Rev. Fr. Micheal Okoro, Now bishop of Abakaliki, December 1965. A year later another priest Rev. Fr. Michael Elemi was ordained. In 1973, two more indigenous priests were ordained; late Msgr. Patrick Idiku, who later became the Diocesan Adminstrator and Fr. Atemgweye Unimna, who leads the pack as the oldest priest in the diocese today . From 1975, a steady number of indigenous priests have been ordained.

Women religious orders too have contributed in no small measure to the success of the Christian missionary work in Ogoja. The sister of the Holy child Jesus (SHCJ) came to Ogoja in late 1940s to work among women and girls in schools. The sisters of the Medical Missionary of Mary (MMM) came almost at the same time to work among the sick in the hospitals, clinic, maternity homes and leprosaria. In March 1936, bishop James Moynagh had petitioned Rome for permission to erect a congregation of native sister for the prefecture under the title of the handmaids of the holy child Jesus. In the early fifties, the sister of the handmaids of the holy child Jesus (HHCJ) came to work among women, children and families. The first Ogoja girl Agnes Bisong ( now Sr. MaryThomas Bisong) had join this society sisters in 1950. Since then a good number of girls have become sisters.

 

In 1973, Ogoja was divided into two: Ogoja and Abakaliki dioceses having Bishop Thomas Mcgettrick as the first residential bishop of Abakaliki while Fr. Joseph Edra Ukpo was ordained and installed as the first indigenous bishop of ogoja diocese. Later, Bishop Joseph E. Ukpo was raised to the status of an Archbishop and enthroned on the 14th of February 2004 as the Metropolitan Archbishop of Calabar. The diocese of Ogoja was left without a bishop, like sheep without shepherd; this lead to the election of Rev. Fr. Dr. Patrick Odey Idiku as the Diocesan Administrator as directed by Rome according to the canon law.

 

On the 14th of October 2006, the announcement of a new bishop for Ogoja diocese was made and the news was received amidst joy and gladness to revive the spirit of the diocese. Most Rev. Dr. John Ebebe Ayah, became the third Bishop of Ogoja diocese on the 6th January 2007. The church in Ogoja diocese had grown so large with a total number of about 42 parishes, 95 priests, and many adherents to the Catholic faith.

Bishop John Ayah came into the scene with uncommon zeal and enthusiasm, driven by utmost love and naked desire to elevate ogoja to the next level. He made brave  incursions into the predominantly rural regions. His  cardinal focus was raw and   rugged evangelisation via the creation of parishes and promotion of infrastructural development.  The hyper leap in  the number of parishes in the diocese today, is a testament of his successful vovage. The neatly woven and beautiful architectural designs that dot our parishes today speak volumes. The number ordained priests has risen to 142 and parishes  to 79.

However, on the 5th of July 2014, the Holy father, the Pope  appointed Bishop John Ayah as Bishop of the Catholic diocese of Uyo, where hitherto he acted as Apostolic Administrator, when Archbishop  Joseph Ekuwem was promoted to the Metropolitan see of Calabar, at the retirement of Archbishop Joseph Ukpo.  He was subsequently installed on the 20th of September 2014.

With this inter-diocesan shuffling, the Sea of Ogoja again became vacant. With assiduous, fervent and painstaking prayers laced with enormous mortifications, and absolute trust in God, our prayers received favourable endorsement by God on the 9th of April 2017 ( Palm Sunday)  with the announcement of Msgr. Donatus Edet Akpan as  bishop of Ogoja diocese. The wait is over…

On the  7th of July 2017, history was made as Bishop Donatus Edet Akpan ascended the Cathedral as the 4th bishop of the Catholic diocese of Ogoja.

A new page, a new chapter, a new book was birthed in the annals of ogoja diocese.  The land mass remains vast, thick is the population; from the grassland of Ogoja, Bekwarra and Yala LGAs,  to the elevated  undulating mountains of Obudu and obanliku LGAs, from the Savannah forest regions of  Boki, Ikom and Etung LGAs, to the mangrove swamps and riverine cleverages of Obubra, Yakurr, Abi and  Biase  LGAs, the lines are simply crossing, the dots connecting,  the narrative is the same — unmitigated joy, boundless exhilaration, infinite gladness, crass admiration and absolute acceptance. In  the words of the legendary Charles Dickens there is “GREAT EXPECTATIONS.”.

Bishop Donatus Akpan came in with a rock deep zeal and a firm determination but with a large dose of fatherly disposition to improve on the status quo and take Ogoja diocese to the next level of her centenary. He is blessed with a large capacity for listening and an open mind for collaborative ministry which inexorably leads to delegation of duties.  A policy committee to road map his episcopacy was immediately constituted and on record time, it delivered.  His humane qualities and inspired wisdom led to harnessing not only material but human resources for the development of the diocese.  Bishop Akpan has a tall but realizable dream of building a new Cathedral for the diocese, this can only come to fruition with the support of the entire faithful both at home and in diaspora . For now, the drive is on and all hands are on the plough and no need to look backward.