Pope Paul VI created the diocese of Issele-Uku on 5th July, 1973 under the Episcopacy of Bishop PJ Kelly, the then Bishop of Bishop of Benin-City, just before his retirement in 1973. The first Bishop of the diocese was Most Rev. Dr. Anthony Okonkwor Gbuji, who was consecrated on September 30, 1973. By this creation, another ‘Local Church’ came into being. It was carved out of the Diocese of Benin-City in the present Edo State. This singular act of the Holy Father added yet another golden chapter in the annals of the words of Monsignor de Marion Bresillac, “Happy is the missionary who founds Churches…” The history of the establishment of the Church in Issele-Uku diocese is most interesting and inspiring. The diocese presently comprises politically six local government areas: Aniocha North, Aniocha South, Oshimili North, Oshimili South, Ika South and Ika North-East. All these local government areas are in Delta State. The diocese is under the maternal care of Mary, Mother of Perpetual Help while the motto of the diocese is, “To God through Mary.”
It is necessary to look at the roles played by the missionaries in the foundation of the Catholic faith in the diocese and equally look at the pastoral situation of the diocese on inception. In doing this, the roles played by each of the three Bishops that have led the local Church in the physical and pastoral development of the diocese will be brought to the fore.
THE ROLE OF MISSIONARIES IN THE FOUNDATION OF CATHOLIC CHURCH IN THE DIOCESE
It will be recalled that the first Mass in the diocese was celebrated on March 5th, 1888 while the first Catholic Missionary in the area was Fr. Carlo Zappa. But as far back as 1877, European merchants had begun to organize themselves into trading firms and companies at different towns along the Niger bank from the Coast of the Ocean. Both British and French firms were established. These traders had been active all along the river and such towns as Aboh, Onitsha, Asaba, Illah, Idah and Lokoja were places where produce were exchanged with the natives. Naturally too, alongside with these traders, French missionaries paid random visits to these places. It is on record that about 1880, such casual visitors reached Illah in our diocese. Thus, there was a keen competition for the trade among these people, the only way to which was the great Niger River and its territories, the Benue-Lokoja offered both prospects and security for the Europeans. It also became the cradle of dynamic and heroic missionary activities. In 1884, Pope Leo XIII erected the Prefecture Apostolic of the Upper Niger with Lokoja as the Headquarters. The New territory was entrusted to the fathers of the Society of the African Missions, founded in 1856 and who have been laboring in the Vicariate Apostolic of Bight of Benin. Fr. Jules Poiriere SMA was appointed Prefect Apostolic of the territory. Fr. Poiriere had two helpers, Frs. Philip Fiorentini of Milan and Piere Piolat. These missionaries planted the mustard seed and it was from Lokoja that the seed blossomed and spread to other parts of the country. But first, they had to pay the prize which Christ predicted: “Unless a wheat grain falls on the ground and dies, it remains only a single grain. But if it dies, it yields a rich harvest” (John 12:24).
In 1882, Monsignor Jean-Baptiste Chausse SMA, the prefect Apostolic of the Catholic Church in Lagos, and Fr. Theodore Holley, SMA of Abeokuta fame sailed up the River Niger to assess the possibility of bringing the knowledge of Christ to the people who lived east and north of Yoruba land. The report they sent to their Superior General, Fr. Augustin Planque SMA in Lyon, France must have impressed him because just two years later, Rome set up the Prefecture Apostolic of the Upper Niger, covering all the territory in modern Nigeria, north of Lokoja, an important trading centre at the confluence of two biggest rivers in West Africa, the Niger and the Benue. The evangelization of that vast territory was assigned to the Society of African Missions (SMA).
In November 1884, SMA Fathers Jules Poiriere, Filippo Fiorentini and Pierre Piolat arrived by boat in Lokoja, where they set up their temporary headquarters from which they hoped to evangelize the towns and villages north of the two rivers. Father Poiriere was the first Prefect-Apostolic.
As a matter of fact, Lokoja mission made no appreciable headway; Islamic influence was great. Moreover, there was no peace in the region. Father Fiorentini died within one year of his arrival and Father Piolat, under two years. They were buried in Lokoja. The prospect of penetrating the Upper Niger became more and more difficult and unreasonable. But through the encouragement and useful suggestion of an English representative in Asaba, Sir James Marshall, a new solution was sought south of the Prefecture. According to Sir Marshall, the mission had a better chance in the big town south of the Niger, Asaba. On the 28th of November, 1885, a young Italian priest, a native of Milan, Carlo Zappa came and joined Father Poiriere. In 1888, Asaba Mission was founded and Father Carlo Zappa and Voigt took up permanent residence there. Rome was informed of the problems and of the intention to change the headquarters of the Prefecture. Fr. Poiriere left Lokoja to assume a new office in Lyon in 1893. Father Zappa took over as the Prefect Apostolic of the Upper Niger in 1894 with the headquarters at Asaba.
Even in Asaba, the early missionaries did not find it easy. The response was slow. Because of the high-landed activities of the Royal Niger Company, white men were unpopular and in many minds, the missionaries were associated with them. However, the SMA and particularly the OLA missionaries gradually broke down the barriers. The love and care for the sick shown by the Fathers and the OLA Sisters impressed the people which prompted positive response from them.
Despite the problems he encountered, Fr. Zappa was determined to move on and young SMA priests and OLA Sisters continued to come from Europe. By 1900, there were fifteen Fathers in the Prefecture and Fr. Zappa, now in charge of the Prefecture, made maximum use of them. He set off, on foot, to nearby towns, west and north of Asaba, and soon, he had mission stations in Issele-Uku, Ibusa, Illah, Ogwashi-Uku, Okpanam and Onicha-Olona. In 1904, Fr. Eugene Strub SMA of Asaba fame wrote home stating that “little by little, obstacles that were thought to be insurmountable were overcome. Progress once started never halted.” In 1911, the territory became known as the Prefecture of Western Nigeria with Msgr. Zappa as the first Prefect-Apostolic. When Msgr. Zappa died in 1917, he was succeeded as Vicar-Apostolic by Bishop Thomas Broderick SMA, who continued the policies that Msgr. Zappa had put in place.
Bishop Broderick ordained the first West African priest in the person of Fr. Paul Emechete, a native of Ezi, Delta State in Asaba on 6th January, 1920. In 1926, he transferred the Seminary, established by Msgr. Zappa in Ivianokpodi, near Agenebode, in 1907, to Asaba. Among the young seminarians there were Pedro Martins, Anselm Ojefua, Stephen Umurie, Anthony Sanusi and Joseph Erameh. He established a Training Centre for catechists in Ibusa in 1927 and in the adjoining compound, he established St. Thomas’ Teacher Training College in 1928. This was a very significant move because it meant the Catholic Church was fully committed to education and the establishment of schools throughout Mid-West Nigeria, as it was then known. It was the first Secondary School throughout the Region and the rapid but solid expansion of the Catholic faith was due in no small measure to the products of St. Thomas’ that were soon to be found in schools in every town and village.
When Bishop Broderick died in Genoa, Italy in 1933 while on his way to Ireland on sick leave, the Church had a well-established form of evangelization in the training of catechists and teachers. He was succeeded as Vicar-Apostolic in 1934 by Bishop Leo Hale Taylor SMA.
During his five-year tenure of office in Asaba, Bishop Taylor continued with the proven policies of his predecessors. However, greater emphasis was now being laid on the schools as tools of evangelization. During his episcopacy, the number of pupils attending the Catholic primary schools increased from 6,300 in 1932 to 12,375 in 1939. The increase in the number of primary schools necessitated an increase in the number of trained teachers. So the enrolment in St. Thomas’ Ibusa increased from 16 in 1928 to 60 in 1939.
However, the increased attention given to education did not diminish the attention to pastoral care and the Bishop could often be seen going along on his bicycle, travelling from station to station to administer the Sacrament of Confirmation.
The most significant feature of his episcopacy was the transfer of the Headquarters of the Vicariate from Asaba to Benin-City in 1938. Bishop Taylor did this because he felt that it was more appropriate and more convenient for administrative purposes to have the headquarters of the Vicariate close to the civil headquarters which was Benin-City at that time. In 1940, the territory became known as the Vicariate of Asaba-Benin.
Bishop P.J. Kelly SMA succeeded Bishop Taylor in 1940 and when he retired as Bishop of the Diocese of Benin-City in 1973, the Vicariate of Asaba-Benin, which he inherited in 1940 had become the Diocese of Benin-City (1950). In the year 1994, the Ecclesiastical Province of Benin-City was created with Archbishop Patrick Ebosele Ekpu as its Metropolitan. On the installation of His Grace, Bishop Anthony Gbuji preached the homily. Among other things he said, “We owe immense gratitude to the Missionaries of the Society of African Missions and to the Sisters of Our Lady of Apostles. They planted and watered with untold sacrifices and courage the seed abundantly blessed by God which we now reap with great joy. To those of them now in our midst, we express deep gratitude and may God grant eternal rest to those who have slept in the Lord.”
THE SITUATION OF THE DIOCESE ON CREATION
The Diocese of Issele-Uku was canonically erected on July 5, 1973 by the Holy See and its first Bishop, Most Rev. Dr. Anthony Okonkwo Gbuji received his episcopal ordination on September 30, 1973. With that consecration and enthronement, he took charge of the Local Church which included the three administrative districts of Aniocha, Ika and Oshimili Local Government Areas of Bendel State, enclosing altogether a local area of 1,163 square miles. Considering all that has been discussed earlier in respect of the apostolate of Fr. Zappa and Bishop Kelly, who were the real pioneers in the work of evangelization in the area, one can justifiably speak of what had on ground as a Diocese at the creation of Issele-Uku Diocese. Statistical data as to the number of Christians at the time was not easily available but a fairly reliable opinion puts it at 17.75% of the entire civil population of the area were Catholics.
It was Bishop Kelly who had provided much of the infrastructure on which the new Diocese depended to take off. But the work was unfortunately handicapped by a particularly inauspicious event. This was in connection with the source from which new members of the Church were, so to say, regularly drawn, namely the Mission Schools. The Catholic schools were forcibly taken over by the government and no compensation paid to the Church. This was rather viewed by many as unjust. The schools were secularized after a short period of uneasy condominium between the Church and the government. As a result of this, religious instruction in schools began to lose the primacy which it was accorded in former days, so that new additions to the number of the Catholics which used to come before in the form of an avalanche now began to dwindle into mere trickles of what it had once been. There was equally moral decadence which was noticeable in the society following the take-over of schools. Thus, in a sense and to a certain extent, the new Diocese under Bishop Gbuji was confronted with situations similar to that which had obtained during the time of Zappa. For, under the circumstances now prevailing, the direct approach of Fr. Zappa’s time seemed to be the only alternative left. But things were not quite the same. In 1973, there was very few but articulate lay faithful at the inception of the new Diocese – all of them products of the pioneer school system of earlier years. The children of these, in part, were in the secular schools. But in order to teach the population outside of regular Christian experience in their homes, Bishop Gbuji had to resort to an intensive programme of training for catechists. Though, the earlier establishment at Ibusa under Bishop Broderick had been entirely converted to academic and secular purposes. Thus, future Catechists were sent out to institutions outside the new Diocese where they received their formation and experience in the apostolate.
At the creation of the diocese, there was one indigenous Bishop from the area, Bishop Lucas Nwaezeapu of Warri Diocese, eight priests, eight parishes, and about forty thousand lay people. The parishes were:
- Joseph Catholic Church Asaba,
- Holy Trinity Catholic Church Ewulu
- Mary Immaculate Catholic Church, Ogwashi-Uku
- Paul Catholic Cathedral Issele-Uku
- John the Baptist Catholic Church Agbor
- Sacred Heart Catholic Church, Umunede
- Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church, Onicha-Olona, and
- Augustine Catholic Church, Ibusa.
But some other towns within the diocese had churches and Mass Centres. The few Catholic secondary and primary schools were forcibly taken over by the government and their names were changed by the new owners. There were few health centers and Convents in the area. The new Bishop, few priests, Sisters and the laity had to work tirelessly with extremely limited resources to nurture and develop the young diocese.
THE PERIOD OF CONSOLIDATION
The creation of a new Diocese in July 1973 and the choice of Issele-Uku as the seat of the Diocese were no doubt a very important event among the people in the area. Prior to this significant event, the only important event that ever took place in the ancient town of Issele-Uku as far as the Catholic Church was concerned was the ordination of the first Catholic priest of Issele-Uku origin in the person of Rt. Rev. Msgr. Pius Onyema Nwaobi on 31st December 1972. The importance of the creation of the diocese of Issele-Uku, with Issele-Uku as the diocesan headquarters, cannot be overemphasized. It became the catalyst to the evangelization that has since been going on in this part of the world. Before the creation of the diocese, the general attitude of the people regarding Catholicism was lukewarm. Indeed, it was once thought that the Catholic Church was only for those considered to be elites such as teachers, returnees from white collar jobs – olu oyibo – and others. With the town as the seat of the pioneer Bishop in the person of Most Rev. Dr. Anthony Gbuji whose charismatic attributes could not be resisted by the people, the Church was ready for a very rapid growth in Issele-Uku and its environs. The elders of the town and indigenous farmers who ordinarily believed only in the traditional mode of worship became Christians. Some of the villages or quarters known to have hitherto resisted Christianity gradually became ‘Christian villages.’
To the credit of the new Bishop, Most Rev. Dr. Anthony Okonkwo Gbuji who obviously had a pastoral plan for the new diocese, catechists began to be assigned to such places where there were no resident priests. They held catechism classes and thereby made up for what was no longer possible in the schools following the government take-over. The catechists visited the sick where there was no priest around, and generally made the presence of the Church continuously felt among the local Christians. This was something different from the times of Fr. Zappa and Bishop Kelly when the catechists were for the most part resident in the stations with the priest, helping him to organize the work there. Thus, through the agency of the catechist, one can say that the Church became very present in nearly every section of the Diocese, a few years after its creation.
The use to which the catechist was put in the scheme of evangelization in the new Diocese was yet another strategy for a much more important programme, namely that of creating new parishes. Catechists, so to say, had to hold the fort while the priests were being prepared; and the first two years after the creation of the Diocese showed signs of a promising harvest of vocations to the priesthood as young men seemed to have responded positively to the priestly vocation.
The district which has produced the first indigenous priest in West Africa seemed to be waiting for the coming of the Diocese to attract more young men to that calling. They came, not only from various quarters of the area, but even from far beyond. Like the experience of the Church in her long history, the upsurge in vocations did not lead to a glut of priests, but it began to supply the needs of the moment. New parishes were created. To those traditionally existing at Asaba, Ogwashi-Uku, Agbor and Ubulu-Uku, new ones were added and Illah was created out of Onicha-Olona parish. Such former Mass Centers like Abavo, Ekuku-Agbor, Ewulu, Nsukwa and Ezi received resident priests.
An outlay of manpower such as this could not but intensify the presence and impact of the Church on the people of the Diocese. It is not always easy to quantify that impact except in the fact that activities of sorts began to be generated and embarked upon in the parishes. In this respect, the post-Vatican II innovations and recommendations helped in no little way.
The Church since the Vatican Council has made it one of her main objectives to involve every baptized Christian in her evangelizing mission. Resulting from this was the evolution of the Laity Council and the Catholic Women Organization as forces of incomparable value more so in a predominantly rural area like Issele-Uku Diocese. These organisations which also function on the national level complement in a very real way, the work of the parish priests and the catechists by keeping alive a Christian atmosphere in the community generally. This is another way of saying that the rhythm of life and activity in the post-Vatican Church is also felt everywhere in the new Diocese in spite of the rural nature of life in the area. The Catholic Church as a distinct religious reality is a fact of which everybody within the periphery of the Diocese today is conscious through the activities of its lay members. Thus, without a specific act of ‘sowing’ the seed of the word of God, these people present it in a general way until it shall please God to give the increase in his own good time.
Another factor which reinforce the work and presence of the Church in all areas of the Diocese is the presence of Religious women in greater number than before. When the early missionaries started off in Lokoja, they were assisted by members of the Congregation of Our Lady Queen of the Apostles, popularly known today as the O.L.A. They came to Lokoja in 1886 and took up the care and training of slave-girls whom Fr. Poiriere had bought off their masters at Bida. When the Lokoja venture proved unworkable, they came down to Asaba in 1889, just a year after the opening up of the Mission there.
When the sisters came to Asaba, they were very much involved in visiting the people in their homes and scores of children in danger of death received baptism in their hands. They also attended to the sick and this endeared them so much to the people. An Old Peoples’ Home was attached to their house and here they kept and cared at their own expense for old women, especially such as had been rejected by the society on suspicion that they practiced witchcraft.
The sisters also were very much involved with the teaching of catechism, especially to little children and it is not impossible that the missionaries were able to gain access to the parents of such children only through contacts made by the Rev. Sisters. As the scope of their work widened and their number increased, convents were founded at Illah and Agenebode where similar activities were started as at Asaba.
The one significant achievement of the O.L.A Sisters in the early period of evangelization at Asaba was to impress on the local population all around that womanhood was worth educating as the male folk. When a Convent School was opened at Asaba, people had no misgivings about it as was with the first mission schools. Girls were sent to be trained there and such came out to form a crop of women leaders afterwards. Of importance was the fact that through such women, the idea of Christian marriage in all its beauty was quickly to gain acceptance in society. It became rare that a product of Asaba Convent School, no matter from what part of the country she came, would consent to a marriage that was not Christian. To the credit of the O.L.A Sisters, this tradition had been upheld by a very high percentage of girls trained in schools and colleges run by them at least up to the time of secularization that was imposed by the government in the field of education in 1970.
Before the creation of Issele-Uku Diocese, the O.L.A Sisters ran two secondary schools in the area, namely: Mary Mount College at Agbor and St. Brigid College at Asaba. And the legacy they left behind has been so solid that these institutions have lost little, if anything of their former academic and moral tone in spite of the secularization that has overtaken practically every aspect of life today.
But it was quite obvious that more hands would be needed as the Diocese continued to come to grips with its teething problems. Thus, the Congregation of the Handmaids of the Holy Child Jesus, known for short as H.H.C.J. came into the Diocese in 1974, barely a year after it took off. They engaged in a variety of assignments ranging from education to health care. It is an index of the extent to which they have been, as it were, sucked into the rhythm of life in the Diocese that, like the O.L.A Congregation which runs a Juniorate for the training of young aspirants at Agbor, they have started a similar institution at Issele-Uku, Mother of Perpetual Help Juniorate.
Another female Religious Congregation to come into the Diocese was that of the Daughters of Charity, otherwise known as the Sisters of St. Vincent de Paul. Based at Agbor, and with another house at Umunede, they are for the most part engaged in the domain of healthcare and in the education of children.
Other Congregations that came in the 1980s were the Daughters of Divine Love (D.D.L.), Daughters of Mary Mother of Mercy and St. Louis Sisters at Ewulu. These were engaged in the running of hospitals at Ewulu, Ogwashi-Uku and Ubulu-Uku respectively and in teaching Catechism in parishes where they lived. Other congregations of men that came were the Dominicans at Agbor-Obi, the Augustinians at Ibusa, and later, the Society of African Missions. The presence of these men religious helped in evangelization and pastoral ministry as there was shortage of priests at the time within the diocese.
All that has been discussed so far provides evidence that the work going on in Issele-Uku Diocese as of the time of Bishop Gbuji was one of consolidation: the setting of the Local Church on very firm foundations. A golden fish, they say, never goes unnoticed. Bishop Gbuji did a lot of work to lay solid foundation for the diocese as his sense of dedication to duty, hard work, integrity, teaching experience, faith in God, zeal for souls, and a combination of both his intellectual and spiritual endowments were factors to his success as the Bishop of the new Diocese. In fact, he discharged all assignments with a sense of loyalty to the Church and service to humanity, a great builder and initiator of many projects even when they seemed difficult to actualize. It was indeed a herculean task to begin a newly created rural diocese from the scratch but thanks to divine plan and destiny, the young and energetic Bishop Anthony Okonkwo Gbuji was up to the task, having been prepared to face difficult tasks by his pious parents, early missionary priests, serious seminary formation and his personal rare qualities. He handled each emerging difficulty with dedication and utmost alacrity, trusting in God’s providence.
The diocese began with few priests and parishes as enunciated above but because of his spirit of determination and never accepting defeat or giving up on what seems impossible, he taught his co-workers how to labour in the Lord’s vineyard in dignity, faith in God’s providence and joy despite all apparent shortcomings. Within a short time, he was able to groom the young diocese to assume a place of prominence within and outside its locality, especially within the country. Some of Bishop Gbuji’s achievements as the Chief Shepherd of Issele-Uku Diocese included acquiring large space of land and building of the former Bishop’s house and the diocesan Pastoral Centre. Bishop Gbuji encouraged and initiated the foundation of many projects ranging from schools, hospitals, churches, convents and established lay pious societies and sodalities. In 1983, he established St. Felix Minor Seminary, Ejeme-Aniogor for the training of future priests. He also founded Mother of Perpetual Help Girls Juniorate, Issele-Uku to groom young girls for the Church and society.
Other projects started by Bishop Gbuji included the Emmaus School of Evangelization, Issele-Uku in 1987 in response to Pope John Paul’s clarion call for a new evangelization. The New Evangelization Sisters of Our Lady of Perpetual Help was founded in 1993. Additionally, while in Issele-Uku Diocese, Bishop Gbuji encouraged vocations to the priesthood, created more parishes, acquired more lands for future development of the diocese and established hospitals, Nursery/Primary schools, a secondary school, old people’s home and trained many catechists for the services of the local church. He was also able to tackle some issues which were seriously threatening evangelization of the local people. For instance, he produced practical documents on “Traditional Title Taking,” “Christian Burials” and rectified so many marriages, making it possible for the faithful to practice their faith.
In September 1996, Bishop Gbuji, in continuation of his crusade of evangelizing the people, initiated moves to Christianize some of the town’s festivals. One of such festivals was the Ineh festival, celebrated annually by the people. On the 5th of September, 1996, a day after that year’s celebration of the Ineh festival, the Bishop organized a town hall meeting of both Christians and non-Christians to discuss the issue of some aspects of the festival considered to be unchristian with a view to removing such practices from the festival so that Christians would fully participate in the celebration.
Equally, Bishop Gbuji was able to give the local Church the Order of Mass in our own Igbo dialect, reviewed the translation of the Catechism, prayer and Hymn Books in the language the people could understand well, thereby enhancing the worship of God and active participation in liturgy. He was also a rallying point of peaceful co-existence among priests, religious and the people of God. Bishop Gbuji has over the time proven to be a renowned scholar, great preacher, motivational speaker, sound theologian and legal luminary.
The creation of Delta State in 1991 and the citing of the State capital in Asaba, no doubt, helped the diocese economically and pastorally. The influx of people to Asaba, the seat of government, made it easier for the people, and to a greater extent, changed the status from its rural area to urban and semi-urban areas. This equally affected other towns like Ogwashi-Uku, Asaba, Agbor, Issele-Uku, Ibusa and Onicha-Olona in the area where most workers reside to come to work in Asaba daily. The Church, no doubt is enriched by this sudden turn of events politically in the area covered by the diocese.
THE FOUNDATION OF THE CATHEDRAL
It is common to describe architecture as having three characteristics: firmitas, utilitas, and venustas. These principles of durability, convenience and beauty make clear the importance of durable construction, the ennoblement of function and visual beauty to the definition of architecture. There are many other principles necessary for architecture, such as harmony, symmetry, proportion, scale and composition. In fact it is possible to start with the triad firmitas, utilitas, and venustas and arrive at the great variety of principles of architecture which architects and their patrons have promoted throughout time. This is to point out what might seem obvious, that no three principles or five principles or a single text can explicate the multiplicity of principles required for a good architecture. This was the case with St. Paul Cathedral which Bishop Gbuji described its design as a mystery. How we conceive Church buildings informs how we design and build one. I believe that the key issue in Church architecture today is to develop a theological understanding of a ‘Church as a sacred place.’
Bishop Gbuji noted that the Cathedral, in its present state, has a mystery behind it as it looks like a tent housing the people of God. Narrating how the Cathedral was given this unique design, Bishop Gbuji noted that in the first decade of the diocese, during the early life of Charismatic Renewal Movement in Nigeria, there was one Sr. Brena from Ireland, a visionary and a holy woman, who was going round the world organizing retreats and intercession for priests. The sister was invited to Nigeria by the late archbishop of Jos, Most Rev. Dr. G. G. Ganaka to come and pray for priests. Since there were few Pastoral Centers in Nigeria, and after a prayer session in Jos, the Sister was invited to Issele-Uku for priests in South East and South of Nigeria. According to the Bishop, after a week of prayer, talks and intercession for priests, Sr. Brena said she had a vision for the diocese of Issele-Uku and that since she came, she saw an image, a net coming down and falling on the people of the diocese, and equally saw a protective arm covering them like a hen covering its chicks. She left the Bishop, the priests and the people to interpret the vision and give it a meaning. Bishop Gbuji invited the priests of the diocese, after a prayerful reflection, requested that the vision of Sr. Brena be conceptualized, otherwise it would soon be forgotten. It was a period of inculturation, soon after the Second Vatican Council, which has a perception of the Church as a family of God. Bishop Gbuji requested that the Cathedral be built in the concept to symbolize a place of unity, love and concern for all, where people will gather for prayer, like a tent. As at this time, inculturation was invoked in the Church and Bishop Kelly had asked him to go round the diocese to see how the Church could bring in some cultures of the people into the Church. He went through the research work he did during his doctorate thesis and came up with good results. He went to Demas Nwoko, the architect, who took him to the Dominican House in Ibadan and showed him the design he had there, which was unique. Demas went overseas and came back and told the Bishop that the design would be like a tent from the top to the bottom, prayerful attitude of the people, man trying to reach God and God blessing his people. That is what we have in the Cathedral today. The Cathedral of St. Paul Issele-Uku is unique; it is like a tent, a symbol of unity, love, concern for all; an African concept of the family.
The new Cathedral Church of St. Paul was started by Bishop Anthony Gbuji. Recounting how it all began, Bishop Gbuji noted that where the Cathedral is today was St. Paul’s School that was taken over by the Bendel State Government and the architect, Demas Nwoko had asked for a large piece of land where the Cathedral would be situated. He met the Obi of the town, who permitted the demolition of the School but requested that a new one be built by the Church in a different location for the town. And since the school had been taken over by the government, he needed to meet with the then Bendel State government for approval so that all would be carried along in the decision of building the Cathedral and relocating the school to a new site. The Bishop travelled to Ogwashi-Uku along with some chiefs of the town and the Obi of Issele-Uku to meet with Governor Ogbemudia, who was visiting the town on official assignment. As an old friend of the Bishop who was equally pleased with Bishop Gbuji’s former assignment in the state especially during the war as the Principal of St. Thomas College Ibusa, he told Bishop Gbuji that he would grant his request based on his antecedents and the Government immediately agreed. Issele-Uku people were equally happy, requesting the Bishop to develop Issele-Uku the way he did in Ibusa based on the Bishop’s good records as the principal of St. Thomas Ibusa. The Bishop, who had no money in the diocesan purse but relied on divine providence, was able to raise money from Rome and a few of diocesan benefactors around. And within a record time, he built a modern and better St. Paul School in the present location and was able to acquire the land in which the Cathedral was built. Bishop Gbuji, in a very short interview, paid glowing tributes to Demas Nwoko, the architect of the Cathedral and Noel Ojei, who has been a major financier of the Cathedral Project. He equally appreciated the cooperation of Rev. Martin of the Baptist Church, Issele-Uku in the foundation of the new diocese. The Bishop said that it was Rev. Martin who gave accommodation for all the Bishops that came for his episcopal ordination in his guest house at Issele-Uku.
A building committee was constituted was constituted and the three Bishops, during their different tenure of office, were interested in building the Cathedral and worked assiduously with the committee to give the diocese a befitting Cathedral. At the beginning of the foundation of the Cathedral, fund raising was organized both in Lagos and at home for the building. Some benefactors also came forward both locally and internationally to help in the project. The Catholic Diocese of Issele-Uku is grateful to Nuel Ojei, the major financer, other benefactors and the building committee, headed by Dr. G. Odumah for their contributions financially and morally in giving the Diocese of Issele-Uku a befitting Cathedral.
REALIZING OUR DREAM OF EVANGELIZATION
During the pastoral visit of Pope John Paul II to Nigeria in 1982, Bishop Anthony Gbuji was in charge of the Pastoral Department of the Catholic Bishops Conference of Nigeria and took seriously, the message of the Holy Father, calling the Nigerian Church to new evangelization. In response to the Holy Father’s call for new evangelization, Bishop Gbuji decided to make it a programme of action in the life of the Church in Nigeria. He established a school of evangelization in Issele-Uku, called the Emmaus School of Evangelization.
It is worthy to note that the Emmaus School has continued to acquire international status through the training of the Church’s personnel from Nigeria and all over Africa in the skills and techniques of modern methods of evangelization. The Bishop’s interest in evangelization and the establishment of the school and other agencies of evangelization brought the diocese to limelight in the country.
The school has attracted and hosted international conferences, seminars and workshops in the area of evangelization. Some Bishops, clergy, Religious and lay people from Malta, Italy, Germany, USA, Kenya and other parts of the world have come to know the diocese of Issele-Uku following the establishment of the school. Indeed, Emmaus School of Evangelization has continued to attract attention as the home and first school of evangelization in Africa and a reference point at all times. The Diocese of Issele-Uku will continue to remain grateful to Bishop Gbuji for the establishment of this school which has earned him the sobriquet: the father of evangelization in Africa.
Evangelization, as we know it, is in response to the mandate of Christ and his mission, which is helping people to come to know the love of God and drawing them into a deeper relationship with Christ and his church. We open our hearts to God’s word, turn away from sin and put the Gospel into daily practice. In evangelization, we joyfully share with others how God has touched us and welcome them to experience the good news of Jesus Christ. We, as individuals and as a diocese, accept this responsibility because of our baptism and knowledge of God through the Church. According to the scripture, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. But how can they call upon him in whom they have not believed? How can they believe in him of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone to preach?… Thus faith comes from what is heard and what is heard comes from the word of Christ” (Rom 10:13-14, 17).
It was the intention of Bishop Gbuji in his vision of new evangelization to make every parish in the diocese welcoming and fully alive as to reach out with the good news to people who perhaps have fallen away and also to those who have never truly experienced the Gospel or the Catholic Church. According to the Bishop, “At the end of the Mass, we are sent forth in mission with which we bring this good news to everyone with whom we are associated.” Pope Paul VI, in his pastoral letter Evangelii Nuntiandi, states that the Church “…exists in order to evangelize, that is to say, in order to preach and teach, to be a channel of the gift of peace, to reconcile sinners to God, and to perpetuate Christ’s sacrifice in the Mass, which is the memorial of his death and glorious resurrection.” This new evangelization is often a matter of reaching out and inviting someone who may not have come to Church for some time to let them know that they are missed, that we want them and need them in Church so that they can journey with us. In response to the mandate of Christ to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always” (Matt 28:19-20). As members of the Diocese of Issele-Uku, we have therefore developed a missionary approach to our outreach to both those who are not familiar with the Gospel or the Church (evangelization), and to those who may have fallen out of familiarity (the new evangelization) and to “re-propose” the faith to those who have fallen away a personal invitation to return. In our diocese, we encourage our parishioners to evangelize others by telling them about Jesus who is the Son of God, the Saviour of the world, and the one who forgives our sins. Through the exposition to new evangelization, we have been able to encourage our parishioners to invite others to our churches, invite them to become Catholics, show our people how to overcome the fear of sharing their faith with others and how to converse about and live the Gospel in various situations. Above all, they learn how to overcome superstition which seems to create fear in the life of our Christians. The diocese is therefore grateful to Bishop Gbuji, the father of New Evangelization for the foundation, he laid in the diocese, which successive Bishops adopted and which has made our people conscious of Christ’s mandate of proclaiming the Good News and has equally increased our Church membership.
THE PERIOD OF GROWTH
In February 1997, Bishop Emmanuel Otteh was transferred to Issele-Uku from Onitsha Archdiocese. Bishop Otteh’s stay in Issele-Uku as its Chief Shepherd left a lasting mark on the history of the Catholic Church in the area. His life was one of action, inspired by profound piety. Understanding the weakness of humanity, the Bishop brought consolation, peace and encouragement everywhere especially among the priests and religious striving to bring men closer to Christ. During Bishop Otteh’s tenure, the diocese witnessed many positive changes. He instituted numerous liturgical reforms: the evening religious instructions, the revival of Eucharistic fast, regulations during Lenten season and increased lay participation in liturgical functions. Indeed, during his seven years of pastoral leadership in Issele-Uku, Bishop Otteh lived up to the expectations of all who knew his antecedents by bringing positive innovations and productive dynamism into governance of the Local Church to the utmost delight and admiration of all within and outside the diocese. Within this period, he became a reference point in pastoral ministry to priests and Bishops aspiring to make an outstanding success in their ministries. For the faithful – priests, religious and laity – who came in contact with him, his exemplary devotion to duty, unparalleled penchant for good job and total commitment to making a difference wherever he finds himself made them see him as a role model and one who has a striking message for future generation. In him, the priests, religious and laity witnessed a rare harness of maturity, wisdom, administration competence, sincere devotion to duty and an exemplary priestly life. He organized various trainings for catechists and improved their welfare, making their job more attractive. Guided solely by love of the truth, fidelity to Christ and care for the less privileged, Bishop Otteh, while in the Diocese, was always interested in displaced persons, the sick and the hungry, offering support to priests and religious, especially those in places regarded as non-viable, and giving the faithful hope for the future. To be sure, in Issele-Uku Diocese, Bishop Otteh blended casualness with dignity, consolidated the faith of the people of God and expanded the reign of God among them by creating more parishes and independent stations. For the purpose of administrative convenience, he broke the diocese into four regions and appointed vicars to head them. Soon after Bishop Otteh came to Issele-Uku, the diocese was thrown into a sorrowful mood following the killing of Rev. Fr. Emmanuel Isidi by hoodlums and the shooting of Bishop Otteh and Fr. Simon Onyewadume in 1997 at the Bishop’s House in Issele-Uku.
Upon his assumption of office in Issele-Uku Diocese, Bishop Emmanuel Otteh visited St. Felix Seminary in Ejeme-Aniogor (www.stfelixseminaryejeme.com). Motivated by the experience he acquired as a rector in All Hallows Seminary, Onitsha, he felt he could improve the structures therein in order to encourage vocations to the priesthood and the religious life. He did this by, first, appointing a senior priest as its Rector, for stability and discipline, and to encourage teaching and learning. He employed new and qualified teachers, provided good library and paid strong attention to the happenings around the school. He created a more conducive atmosphere for teaching and learning by providing gigantic power generating plant and sinking a borehole for the school. This made the seminary more attractive to both teachers and students. He got more faithfully involved by sponsoring students from poor background in the seminary. As a result of these innovations, the Seminary began to have excellent results in external examinations – West African School Certificate and Latin Diploma examinations. Structurally, he assisted many parishes in their efforts to build befitting places of worship and priests could have good rectories to live in and minister to the people of God. He did by having a committee on the diocesan level to ensure good standards and to financially help some of the parishes that were not able to finance such projects. He equally encouraged people to donate to these projects locally and by creating associations of Issele-Uku in many branches in the country. He also undertook the reconstruction of the old Bishop’s House, the Diocesan Secretariat in Issele-Uku and Asaba, the Pastoral Centre in Issele-Uku and did a good job in the Cathedral building and the walling of the Bishop’s Court.
The diocese equally witnessed growth in Christian membership and the creation of more parishes while vocations to the priesthood and religious life were encouraged.
THE PERIOD OF FURTHER DEVELOPMENT
On February 21, 2004, with the episcopal ordination and installation of Most Rev. Dr. Michael Odogwu as the new Bishop of Issele-Uku Diocese, Bishop Emmanuel formally retired. The ceremony of this ordination and installation was well attended by many people from all walks of life.
Upon his assumption of office as the Bishop of Issele-Uku, he came with spiritual vigour to redefine and give a new face to the diocese through his charm and intellectual profundity, building on good structures laid down by his predecessors. To the greater glory of God, it is of note that since he took over the administration of the diocese, 152 priests have been ordained for the diocese and more parishes and independent stations have been created. For administrative purposes, the ecclesiastical regions in the diocese have increased from four to five. It is to Bishop Elue’s credit that greater commitment, collaborations and sense of belonging and duty are increasingly being witnessed among the priests, religious and laity. The diocese can now boast of a monthly newspaper, which does not only help in grassroots evangelization but also help to inform and educate the priests, religious and laity on the happenings around the Catholic world and in the society. His target has been to bridge the ever increasing gap between the old and young priests within the presbyterate. This, he has really achieved.
In 2011, the government of Delta State returned 10 secondary schools to the Catholic Mission in the Diocese and the diocese has since taken possession of the schools and they are presently functioning very well. In June 2012, a new Bishop’s House with modern facilities, which was began and completed by Bishop Elue was blessed and opened. On July 27, 2012, the Diocese lost her second Bishop, Most Rev. Dr. Emmanuel N. Otteh at the age of 85. He buried on Thursday, 14th August, 2012, inside the Cathedral Church after the funeral Mass presided over by His Eminence, Francis Cardinal Arinze and concelebrated by many Bishops and priests.
In 2013, the Diocese continued to enjoy better strides with the completion and dedication of the Cathedral Church on Saturday, September 5, 2013. The ceremony for the dedication of the Cathedral, which was combined with celebration of the 40th anniversary of the creation of the diocese, was attended by many people from all walks of life. The dedication Mass, which had many Bishops, led by the Vice President and Archbishop of Benin-City, Most Rev. Dr. Augustine Obiora Akubeze as well as some government officials, led by the then Deputy Governor of Delta State, Prof. Amos Utuama, was presided over by the then Apostolic Nuncio to Nigeria, Most Rev. Dr. Augustine Kaigama. In his homily at the Mass, Archbishop Kaigama noted that the Cathedral Church is a beautiful symbol of unity of the whole Catholic community of the local Church. He commended the Bishop and the faithful of the diocese for celebrating the four decades of the existence of the diocese with the important and symbolical celebration of the dedication of the Church. He observed that the growth of the Church has been very encouraging for the evangelization mission of the Church in the country. In his words, “40 years ago, Issele-Uku was a small young diocese with just about 40,000 Catholic Christians distributed in 8 parishes. Today, the statistics surprise us. The number of Catholics has grown to more than 270,000 out of the population of more than 2,600,000, and the number of priests has grown from 8 at the creation of the diocese to 189 diocesan priests.”
In 2013 also, the diocese welcomed the Missionary Society of St. Paul Congregation. They have, since their arrival, been taking care of the Parish of St. Martin of Tours, Igbodo. Still in 2013, the diocese started a multi-million naira new Pastoral Center in Asaba. This is currently receiving the finishing touches. In 2017, the diocese embarked on the reconstruction of the old Bishop’s house to now serve as the Diocesan Secretariat. This was completed, blessed and commissioned for use on Monday, 27th November, 2017.