“The Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. It is smaller than all other seeds, but once it has fully grown, it is bigger than any garden plant….” (Matt 13:31-32)
The above parable, one of the shortest given by Jesus, quite aptly encapsulates the story that could be told any day at all times and ages of the birth and growth of the Church (God’s kingdom on Earth) anywhere in the human world. In the beginning, it was the business of a few men and women in one small Jewish territory, and today it has become the business, the life, the faith, of millions of men and women in the whole wide world. Anywhere this mustard seed is sown, its germination and growth have retained this traditional pattern and the Church in Enugu could not have been an exception.
The ecclesiastical circumscription known today as the Catholic Diocese of Enugu was part of a vast territory then referred to as the Lower Niger, which became an outstation of Gabon Diocese in 1885. (Cf.Celestine A. Obi (ed.): A Hundred Years Of Catholic Church In Eastern Nigeria; Onitsha: Africana Fep Publishers, 1985). This was as a result of the unflinching missionary spirit of a team of four messengers of the gospel, (two priests and two brothers, all French) who arrived Onitsha in December of that year (1885) with the primary mission of sowing the seed of the gospel in South Eastern Nigeria, (the Lower Niger).
This pioneer missionary team led by Fr. Joseph Lutz, was so completely committed to their mission and would stop at nothing, come rain or shine, to fulfill it. The effort really paid off immensely as Pope Leo XIII, in recognition of their efforts and the significant success they recorded within a short space of time, raised the territory to the status of an apostolic prefecture in 1889, with Fr. Lutz as the first Apostolic Prefect.
It is important to note that within this period, the light of the gospel was yet to illumine part of that prefecture that is today the Diocese of Enugu. It was not until the tenure of Rev. Fr (later Bishop) Joseph Shanahan who, on September 20, 1905, became the 5th successor of Fr. Joseph Lutz as the Apostolic Prefect of the Lower Niger, that the rays of that great light penetrated the area.
The discovery of coal in Enugu in 1909 is said to have drawn attention to that city, and that did not exclude the ever watchful eyes of the missionaries. Joseph Shanahan, an outstanding leader of extra-ordinary vision saw it as a golden opportunity to sow the seed of faith among the people and would not allow it slip through his fingers. He immediately sent Fr. Joachim Correia, who at the time was the only Portuguese on mission, to survey the possibilities of setting up a Catholic mission in Enugu. (Cf. M.O. Eneasato (et al): The Advent and Growth of Catholic Church in Enugu Diocese; Onitsha: Jet Publishers Nigeria Ltd, 1985, p.27)
As someone led truly by the Holy Spirit, Fr. Correia made contact with one man whose position, power and influence provided virtually all that was needed for the faith to thrive. Chief Onyeama, the paramount Chief of Eke, was at the time about the most powerful and influential man in the area. According to records, Chief Onyeama had earlier invited the Church Missionary Society /CMS) to Eke but was later disappointed when he discovered they were making use of local instead of foreign language in their instruction. He desired something better, and that informed his predilection for the Catholic Missionaries to take the place of the CMS.
Meanwhile, he had already enough information about the successes of his counterpart, Chief Idigo of Aguleri, whose invitation of the Catholic Missionaries to his territory brought him a lot of fortune. He then sent messengers to Aguleri with an express invitation to the Catholic Missionaries. His request received a positive response as the Aguleri Mission sent one of their own, Rev. Fr. Aloyse Muller, to Eke in 1914. (cf. M.O.Eneasato (et al); op cit., p. 28) Fr. Muller was warmly welcomed by the Chief and the entire people of Eke. With this warm welcome, he had no problem executing his missionary plans and just the following year (1915) a mission school was already on course at Chief Onyeama’s compound.
In 1917, Chief Onyeama had issued orders to all the Chiefs under him to build schools in their respective domains. This was what gave birth to the many schools that were already functional in many parts of Udi, Nkanu, and Nsukka by 1921. Just as he was issuing this decree, Chief Onyeama had also resolved to go to Onitsha the same year to directly negotiate with Father Superior, Joseph Shanahan, for a priest who will be resident in his domain. His request was granted, and later the same year, Rev. Fr. Joachim Correia arrived at Eke to stay with the people. A thatch house was immediately built for him.
It was from this house, which was later renovated, that Fr. Corrieia and many other missionaries after him, operated. The mission at Eke became the centre from where they travelled far into the hinterland, moving as far as Nsukka, Abakaliki, Awgu, Markurdi and Ogoja, all of which have become autonomous dioceses today. (ibid)
Needless to say that the tremendous success recorded by the missionaries in their enormous apostolate was not without untold hardships, which included harassments from the juju priests and other elders who considered themselves the custodians of the people’s culture and traditions. The tropics, at the time, still remained the white “man’s grave”, as it was popularly referred to due to the prevalence of malaria fever and other diseases.
Significant Growth and Expansion
The Eke Mission remained the mother mission until the erection of St. Patrick’s Station, Ogbete, which became a parish in 1933. With Enugu becoming the seat of the regional government and being more central and more accessible from other parts of the territory, the centre of activities shifted from Eke to Enugu. From this period onwards, the church in this area witnessed tremendous growth. By 1961, the number of parishes had increased to 17 and the Catholic population in the area has risen to 169, 903. (Cf. Celestine A Obi (ed); op. cit, p.286)
The Birth of the Church in Enugu (1962)
With the tremendous growth already recorded in the area by 1961 as stated above, the church administration at Onitsha under Archbishop Charles Heery was not left with any scintilla of doubt as to whether the territory was ripe to assume a higher ecclesiastical status. The Enugu mission territory was therefore finally raised to the status of a diocese on the 12th of November 1962 with John Cross Anyogu, the first Catholic priest of Igbo extraction installed as its first bishop. Until then, Bishop Anyogu had served as the Auxiliary Bishop of Onitsha since his consecration on 9th June, 1957.
1962 – 1970
Conscious of the fact that he has got a lot to do in the new diocese, Bishop Anyogu settled down to work and within a short space of time, the diocese recorded even more impressive growth. Bishop Anyogu’s episcopacy in Enugu lasted for five years (1963-1967) and within this period, the number of parishes that stood at 17, at the erection of the diocese, rose to 24. The population of the Catholic faithful at the period equally almost doubled.
As against 169,903 recorded in 1961, the Catholic population at Bishop Anyogu’s death stood at 284,186. There was also a significant increase in the number of schools that existed at the time, one of which was St. John Cross Seminary, Nsukka, a junior Seminary that stands out as one of the legacies of Bishop Anyogu.
The Episcopal See of Enugu became vacant at the threshold of the Nigerian Civil War with the death of Bishop John Cross Anyogu on July 5th, 1967. With the socio-political instability that characterized the Civil War period, the diocese witnessed a period of inter-regnum for the length of time the war lasted. Rt Rev. Msgr. Stephen Ezeanya served as the Vicar Capitular for Enugu Diocese within the period but had to set up his administration in exile in the Umunze-Ufuma area of Onitsha, after the Federal troops invaded Enugu (ibid).
Religious activities within the war period were indeed stifled but the light was not totally extinguished. This is because even though the greater majority of priests and religions had to leave Enugu within the period, some expatriates comprising mainly of the Irish Spiritans, remained behind to keep the light burning.
1970 – 1977
The period of inter-regnum came to an end on March 17, 1970 when the great and dynamic Bishop Godfrey Mary Paul Okoye, a former Bishop of Port-Harcourt Diocese, was appointed to the vacant See of Enugu. With the reconstruction and rehabilitation that a war-battered place like Enugu needed at the time, Bishop Okoye’s choice for the See could not have been a better one. He was enthroned on 12th April, 1970 and just immediately, this great pastor settled down for work, applying himself diligently to the enormous responsibilities and challenges that the period posed.
One of those outstanding challenges was lack of personnel. With almost all the expatriate priests and religious in the former Biafra having been expelled from Nigeria, Bishop Okoye was left with just a handful of priests to work with. To worsen the situation, the government on ground at the time was terribly opposed to the church. It was this government of the former East Central State, headed by Ukpabi Asika, that blazed the trail in the unholy act of government take-over of private and mission schools that became the order of the day, shortly after the war in the 1970’s.
This government, to further show its antipathy for the church, abolished the names of the saints attached to mission schools all over the State and is said to have even gone to the extent of openly abusing and desecrating some churches in the area.(cf.Celestine A. Obi, op.cit.; p.287)
Bishop Okoye had this great battle to wage at the political front and his unflinching pastoral zeal and unparalleled dedication and determination would not accept defeat. Light still had to triumph over darkness as the dynamic pastor took bold steps that, within a short period, brought Enugu Diocese back to its track of steady growth. Between 1970 and 1977 that Bishop Godfrey Okoye served the Church in Enugu, the growth the diocese experienced was quite unprecedented.
By 1970, Bishop Okoye could only sit together with about 16 priests to discuss the affairs of the difficult period, but by 1977 the number of priests had risen to 62. This is in addition to 19 indigenous Reverend Brothers, 74 Sisters, 400 aspirants to the Sisterhood and 103 Senior Seminarians. Within the period also, precisely in July 1969, Bishop Okoye founded the Daughters of Divine Love, which is today one of the strongest indigenous Congregations of Women in Nigeria. He also laid the foundation for some monastic orders for the diocese - one for the Cistercians at Awhum and another for the Benedictine Order for women at Amorji Nike.
His episcopacy in Enugu also saw the coming of the Little Sisters of the Poor Congregation into the diocese. He also established one additional junior Seminary for the diocese, the Sacred Heart Seminary, Nsude. Bishop Godfrey Okoye drew his last breath on the 17th of March, 1977 (remarkably the same date he was appointed the bishop of Enugu) leaving behind a vibrant, confident, and sure-footed Church in this city built on the hill.
After the death of Bishop Okoye, the Church in Enugu witnessed yet another period of inter-regnum that lasted for almost a year during which Monsignor Peter Meze, the Vicar General under the late bishop, managed the affairs of the diocese. The period came to an end on 26th February 1978 with the appointment of the saintly pastor, Rt Rev. Michael Eneja, as the third bishop of Enugu. A competent manager of people and materials, Bishop Eneja brought his great organizational ability and laudable administrative acumen to bear on the arduous task of keeping the diocese on its track of steady growth.
During Bishop Eneja’s episcopacy, the Church in Enugu attained enviable heights. There was a great boom in the vocation to the priesthood, the management of which could have posed a serious challenge to any bishop. However, Bishop Eneja not only competently sustained this growth but stopped at nothing to make the best out of it. His desire to train priests to acquire greater competence to take care of the various pastoral needs of the faithful was evident in his effort to give an appreciable percentage of the priests further training after their ordination.
Hence, the diocese, within a short space of time, recorded a great number of priests who specialized in various disciplines. The number of academic, religious and health institutions also witnessed such an increase during his administration. Prominent among such institutions are the Catholic Institute for Development, Justice and Peace (CIDJAP); the Institute of Ecumenical Education, Thinkers Corner; Ntasi Obi ndi no n’Afufu Specialist Hospital; the Annunciation Specialist Hospital, among others. The growth and massive development of the diocese remained steady and phenomenal that the Holy See considered it mature enough to give birth to and nurture another Ecclesiastical See, hence the creation of the Catholic Diocese of Nsukka in 1991.
Even with the erection of Nsukka, the growth of Enugu diocese remained impressive such that by the time Bishop Michael Eneja retired in 1997, the Catholic population already stood at close to 1 Million, with about 116 indigenous priests, several hundreds of religious men and women and a great number training for the priesthood.
1997 to Date
The See of Enugu was once more found vacant with the retirement of Bishop Michael Eneja in November 1996. The vacancy was however taken care of shortly afterwards with the appointment and subsequent enthronement of Most Rev. A.O. Gbuji as the 4th Bishop of Enugu on 8th February, 1997. Until this appointment, Bishop Gbuji, since his consecration on 30th September 1973, had served as the Catholic Bishop of Issele-Ukwu Diocese.
A great and richly endowed pastor with massive wealth of experience, the coming of Bishop Gbuji opened a new chapter in the long history of Enugu Diocese. As an outstanding champion of the New Evangelization, the past 11 years have been that of persevering, laborious apostolate of a great pastor who has constantly exhibited an unflinching desire and willingness to touch the lives of God’s people. Within this period of his episcopacy, Enugu Diocese has remained on the steady path of growth.
His desire to sustain the geometric increase in vocation prompted his founding of the St. Bernard Seminary Hostel which today houses the greater number of the seminarians of the diocese in both faculties of philosophy and theology. He also founded the St. Paul’s International Institute of Evangelization for the training of the lay faithful in the new method of spreading the message of the gospel. The growth of the diocese was indeed very evident that it was once more considered ripe to beget another jurisdiction, and this took place in 2005 with the creation of the Catholic Diocese of Awgu.
Today the catholic population of the diocese stands at close to 2 million with 276 indigenous priests and hundreds of religious men and women working in its territory. It has four deaneries at present and a total of 127 parishes.
It is indeed a thing of great joy that today, yet another beautiful chapter is being opened in the annals of the Church in Enugu with the enthronement of Most Rev. Callistus Onaga as its 5th Bishop. It is our hope and prayer that the seed of faith sown many years ago, which we make bold to say, has germinated and has come to stay, may continue to grow from strength to strength, under the care of the new shepherd with the enlightenment of the Holy Ghost, to whose patronage the See is committed.