CONGREGATION OF THE MISSION: CHARISM AND APOSTOLATE IN NIGERIA 1960-2017
(Fr Augustine Abiagom, cm).
In the words St. Vincent De Paul “All beginnings are somewhat strange, but we must have patience, and little by little, we shall find things, which at first were obscure, becoming clearer.” Premised on the above notable quote of the Saint of Charity, the history of the existence of the Congregation of the Mission (Vincentian Fathers & Brothers) in the Nigerian Province in the light of her charisms and apostolates can be traced accurately to the advent of the Irish Vincentian Missionaries to Nigeria, precisely on November 1st, 1960 at the invitation of Bishop James Moynagh of the then Calabar diocese.
Frank Mullan CM, Harry Morrin CM, and Paddy Hughes CM, were the first set of Vincentian priests to set foot the Nigerian soil.
Upon the arrival of the first set of Irish Confreres in Nigeria and the successful completion of their orientation and apprenticeship courses, a temporary house was jointly set up by them in the township of Ikot Ekpene. Around the temporary abode set up by the earliest priest confreres from Ireland were built the presbytery and St. Vincent’s parish church, in 1963 and 1965 respectively. It is good to note that the aforementioned structures were sponsored by foreign aids of the generous people of Phibsboro, Dublin, Ireland. The end of May 1965, witnessed the transition into glory of Fr. Harry Morrin, CM. However, by 1966 there were about seven Irish Vincentians, including Fr Frank Mullan CM who in later years became Provincial. Most of these priest confreres were mainly involved in mission and retreat work, in parishes, to priests and religious, schools etc.; through the length and breadth of Eastern Nigeria.
By the time the Nigerian crisis began in July 1966, with the massacres in the northern part of the country, progressing into a civil war in May 1967, the Vincentians Fathers had gone to Abakaliki in the then Ogoja diocese, Uzoagba and Atta in Owerri diocese. The “Nigeria-Biafra War” strongly reduced the pace of the progressive expansion of the Congregation of the Mission into other parts of the country, especially when most of the Vincentian missionaries working in the eastern part of the country, the “Biafran region” were forced to leave, either owing to the intensity of the war, or by the Federal Government, between 1967 and February 1970.
However, at the end of the Civil War in January 1970, through the assistance of the Apostolic Nuncio in Lagos, seven Irish Vincentians priests left Dublin: Fathers Roderic Crowley, Frank Murphy, Padraig Regan and Bill Clarke, for Port Harcourt diocese in the east, while Fathers Vinnie O’Brien, Tom Devine and Tim Casey left for Makurdi diocese, a new expansion towards the middle belt of Nigeria. The Vincentian missions and retreats were appealing to young Nigerians and, as early as 1968, some had started showing interest in becoming Vincentians. By late 1970, Timothy Njoku and Anthony Njoku, the first two Nigerians to be accepted were sent to Ireland for novitiate and seminary training. In Catholic diocese of Makurdi the Irish Vincentian missionaries were involved in missions and retreats, the training of Catechists, “Church Leaders in small Christian Community”, and Extraordinary Eucharistic Ministers. Fr. O’Brien became the Principal of Emmanuel College, Obokolo, in January 1973. St Vincent’s Parish, Ogobia, was also assigned to the Vincentians. At Port Harcourt the Vincentians worked in the Minor Seminary, at Our Lady’s Parish, Creek Road, as were involved in the preaching of retreats.
At the end of the “Nigeria-Biafra civil war” as it was called, the Irish Vincentian confreres returned to Ikot Ekpene, where they had started in 1960. The apostolate of the Irish Vincentian after thirteen years of mission in Nigeria began bearing remarkable fruits in the light of priestly vocations following the ordinations of Frs Timothy Njoku CM in 1973, Anthony Njoku in 1975, Richard Diala CM and Michael Edem CM in 1983. In the year 1975, the Internal Seminary of the Congregation of the Mission in Nigeria was opened in Ogobia in the then Makurdi diocese. In 1974 and 1976 respectively, the Vincentians were involved in the formation of the local clergy, in one of the largest seminary in the world in recent years, the Bigard Memorial Seminary, Enugu and Ikot Ekpene. Fr James Cahalan CM was at Bigard, Enugu while Fathers Myles Rearden CM and Roderic Crowley CM were at Bigard, Ikot Ekpene. The Vincentian Fathers at the invitation of the then Archbishop of Onitsha, Francis Arinze in 1979, began the running of a new parish at Oraifite, which eventually formed the base of the retreat team for the coming years. The Vincentian Fathers established a vocational school for girls in Oraifite and built a house for seminarians aspiring to the priesthood in the Congregation of the Mission at Abiakpo in Ikot Ekpene diocese and Maryland in Enugu diocese in the year 1982 and 1998 respectively.
The charisms and apostolates of the Congregation of the Mission in Nigeria experienced continuous progress through the regional and vice-provincial stages of the Congregation’s existence in the country. Today, by the grace of God almighty, the Congregation of the Mission in Nigeria in its present state as a province continues to experience fruitfulness in its charisms and apostolates. The Congregation of the Mission has registered actively its presence through its charisms manifested strongly through its apostolates of proclaiming the goodnews to the poor through prison and parish ministries, formation of the diocesan clergy, basic education through school ministry, retreat ministry, youth ministry and ministry to the less privilege at various levels in the society.
Prison and Parish Ministry: The Congregation of the Mission in Nigeria do apostolate in the following prisons across the country; Lagos prisons, Calabar prisons, Ikot Ekpene prisons, and Abuja prison. The activities carried in the prison ministries out by the Vincentians include: Eucharistic celebration, confession, regular visitation of the prison inmates, promotion of justice via release of the unjustly jailed, provision of meals at Christmas and Easter, donation of clothes, shoes, toiletries and slippers, reconciliation and arbitration with relation to the homes of prisoners.
The Congregation of the Mission collaborates with the Diocesan Bishops, other members of the Vincentian Family especially the Daughters of Charity, Society of St. Vincent De Paul, some other Congregations and the laity in the prison apostolate.
The Congregation of the Mission is involved in parish ministry in several dioceses in Nigeria. The Congregation which is now fifty seven years in Nigeria has expanded its parish apostolate through her acceptance of invitations from the Local Ordinaries of some dioceses.
The archdioceses and diocese that benefit from the pastoral parish miniteries of the Vincentians include: Lagos, Abuja, Owerri, Calabar, Ikot- Ekpene, Makurdi, Otukpo, Enugu, Nnewi, Uyo, Abeokuta, Ijebu-Ode, Warri and Port Harcourt. Formation of Diocesan Clergy: The Congregation of the Mission in Nigeria contributes to the formation of the diocesan Clergy through her presence in some seminaries in Nigeria both minor and major.
The Vincentians do work in seminaries either as lecturers, spiritual directors, confessors or administrators. Today, the Vincentian presence has been felt in SS Simon and Jude seminary Kuje, Abuja, Bigard Memorial Seminary Enugu, St Joseph Major Seminary Ikot Ekpene.
Basic Education through School Ministry: The Congregation of the Mission in Nigeria contributes its own quota to basic educational development through her establishment and administration of schools at the nursery, primary and secondary levels. The Congregation of the Mission run chaplaincies of some secondary and tertiary institutions in within the field of her apostolates. Through divine providence, the Congregation of the Mission has established and runs the following schools some for herself and some for the diocese in which the Congregation works: De Paul’s Nursery and Primary School, Maryland Enugu, St. Benedette primary school, Ogobia in Benue State, St. Mary’s nursery school, Ayetoro in Ogun State, De Paul nursery and primary school, Akowonjo in Lagos, St. Vincent nursery, primary and secondary schools, Shasha in Lagos, St. Mary’s College, Ondo in Ogobia, Benue State, De Paul Boys Secondary School, Amakom and Mater Dei Girls Seconday School, Oraifite, both in Anambra State, The congregation of the mission also manages the administrative affairs of St. Mulumba’s College at Ogbede in Nsukka, Enugu State and some other schools still at their nascent stages. The chaplaincies of the Cross River State University, Ogun State College of Health and Technology and the Agricultural Campus of Ogun State University in Ayetoro enjoy the spiritual and pastoral assistance of the Congregation of the Mission in Nigeria, today.
Retreat Ministry and Missions: The Congregation of the Mission in Nigeria has a retreat center at Ojodu in Lagos where she provides spiritual assistance the people through the teaching of Catholic doctrines, guidance and counseling, prayers for different intentions, masses and confessions. The centre offers retreat to respective societies and association in the church, families and individuals who are in need of such spiritual renewal and nourishment. The Vincentian Fathers and Brothers also give retreats in parishes, schools and other institutions where their assistance is needed. The Congregation of the Mission in Nigeria has extended its missionary activities beyond the shores of Nigeria to other African Countries like Chad, Mozambique, looking forward to beginning Missions soonest in Ghana and Sierra Leone.
The missionary of the Congregation of the Mission in Nigeria also makes its presence felt today in America and in Europe and Grenada. Youth Ministry: The Congregation of the Mission in Nigeria works closely with the Vincentian Marian Youth, the Youth wing of the Society of St. Vincent De Paul and young people in the chaplaincies, parishes and schools apostolate where she works with youth empowerment and developmental leadership qualities and skills programme. The Congregation of the Mission continually strives to restore discipline to young people, help them focus and realize fully themselves fully through capacity building.
Ministry to the less privilege in the society: As part of her mission to the less privilege in the Society, the Congregation of the Mission in Nigeria runs the De Paul Special School for the disabled/special center in Amakom Oraifite, Anambra State. Acknowledging that street children are often regarded as juvenile criminals and thus are often unwanted and unloved, the Congregation of the Mission in Nigeria work also on the streets finding the street children and enabling the experience love and care again. The Congregation of the Mission accepts mission in so many rural difficult mission areas in dioceses in Nigeria where she experiences and identifies with the poor while proclaiming to them the goodnews of Christ Jesus. The Depaul Hope Centre in Maryland, Enugu of the Congregation of the Mission empowers widows through small credit incentives enabling them to be empowered and take care of their families. In Ogobia, the O’Brien Memorial Orphanage of the Congregation provides help to orphans from their respective homes and the block industry provides employment for the poor in line with capacity building and reduction of poverty and unemployment.
The Congregation of the Mission in Nigeria rejoices with the Congregation of the Mission worldwide, the Vincentian Family at large and the poor, her “lords and masters” as she celebrates her 400th anniversary and continues to pray that she may continue in love to proclaim the goodnews to the poor in the spirit of Christ the first evangelizer of the poor following the example of St. Vincent De Paul, the Apostle of Charity.
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