HISTORY OF THE CATHOLIC DIOCESE OF GBOKO

 

On 29th December, 2012, the Holy See announced the creation of Gboko Diocese by the Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI. The territory of the diocese covers 10,692 square kilometres, with a total population of 1,847,660. Catholics in the diocese are 1,269,012, representing 53.1% of the total population. There are Thirty-One parishes (31), Fifty (50) Rectories and Three (3) Chaplaincies. Gboko Diocese is bounded by Guma and Makurdi Local Governments of Benue State on the North; Cameroon Republic on the North East; Ogoja Local Government of Cross River State on the South-East; Oju Local Government in the South and Katsina-Ala and Logo Local Governments in the West. Currently, the diocese has Two Hundred and Fifteen (215) indigenous priests, including the Bishop, Twenty (20) Deacons, Ninety-Six (96) Senior Seminarians, and Three Hundred and Sixty-Six (366) Junior Seminarians. Six Male (6) Religious and Thirty-Six (36) female Religious are currently serving in the diocese.

 

Gboko town is the seat of the diocese and also the traditional headquarters of the Tiv people. There are seven Local governments in the area covered by the diocese, namely, Buruku, Gboko, Konshisha, Kwande, Tarka, Ushongo, and Vandeikya. The territory is basically rural but all headquarters of the Local Government Areas may be classified as towns.

 

The area under the jurisdiction of the diocese was part of the former Apostolic Prefecture of the Lower Niger. Fr. Alexander Leon Lejeune, C.S.Sp., who succeeded Fr. Rene Pawlas, C.S.Sp. as Apostolic Prefect is believed to be the first to make contacts with the Tiv people. After the death of Fr. Lejeune in 1905, the Congregation for the Evangelization of the Peoples (Propaganda Fidei) appointed Fr. Jules Douvry C.S.Sp. in 1917 as Administrator for the whole of Cameroon. Fr. Douvry also made exploratory journey among the Tiv people to find out the possibility of establishing a station there but when he travelled to France, he could not return to Nigeria due to ill-health that led to his death in 1924. Before his death, however, he sent a report to Ogoja, expressing hope for the future of the Church among the Tiv people.[1] Fr. Douvry worked together with Fr. Mellet, C.S.Sp. All these priests were French nationals.

 

On 6th June 1920, Fr. Joseph Shanahan, C.S.Sp. an Irish national working in the Eastern part of Nigeria, was appointed Bishop and made Vicar Apostolic of the New Vicariate of Southern Nigeria. The region under the Vicariate was not only quite vast but also composed of diverse ethnic groups. Accordingly, Bishop Shanahan appealed for Missionaries to assist in proclaiming the Good News in the Vicariate. This led to the formation of St. Patrick’s Society and the foundation of the Missionary Sisters of the Holy Rosary. While St. Patrick’s Fathers evangelized the section of the vicariate, which today corresponds roughly to Cross River State; The Holy Rosary Sisters concentrated on Onitsha/Owerri Vicariate, without neglecting other parts of the Prefecture.

 

Under Bishop J. Shanahan, therefore, the evangelizing mission of the church in Southern Nigeria received new impetus. From Calabar, one of the coastal towns through which expatriates, including Missionaries came to Nigeria, priests were sent to settle in Ogoja town (its Cathedral was dedicated on 15th May, 1921 and named after the reigning Pope, Benedict XV).

 

From Ogoja, the Missionaries evangelized towns like Obudu, Ikom, Kakwagom, and Tiv land. Through the hard work of those missionaries, St. Joseph’s Korinya was erected in 1920. Among the 29 Titulars of Churches and stations listed in a book, St. Joseph’s Korinya (but written Kornya) is number 28.[2] From 1931 onwards, Fr. Joseph Kirsten, C.S.Sp. was one of the first priests to stay in Korinya. Within the territory covered by Gboko diocese, therefore, St. Joseph’s Korinya was the first Catholic Church, and it became a parish in 1945. The first Tiv person to be ordained a Catholic Priest in 1970 came from Korinya Parish.

 

In 1929, Fr. Joseph Soul, C.S.Sp., one of the General Councillors, visited the Southern Vicariate, which included Obudu and Tiv land. The visit providentially made the Holy Ghost Fathers more determined to evangelize the people of the Lower Benue, where majority were Tiv, Idoma and Igala. Rapid progress in the missionary task in Lower Benue was, nevertheless, hampered by cultural differences, language barrier, lack of roads and other challenges.

 

In 1930, Bishop J. Shanahan negotiated with the German Province of the Holy Ghost Fathers to send their members to work in the Prefecture. An agreement to that effect was signed the same year. The German Holy Ghost priests and brothers arrived Nigeria the same year, 1930[3]. In 1934, a Benue Prefecture was created, comprising Igala, Idoma, Tiv, Wukari, Yola and other Northern missions.

 

During the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, all German nationals, including priests had to leave Nigeria despite their hard work and sacrifice for the Church and the people of Benue Prefecture. They were interned in Makurdi in very humiliating conditions, experiencing the same situation in Umuodike Government College in the present Abia State before proceeding to Jamaica[4]. Upon the departure of the German Missionaries, some Irish Spiritans sent from Onitsha to fill their gap, continued to proclaim the Gospel in the Prefecture.

 

Several Holy Ghost priests that worked in Korinya at the time and had to visit outstations, most frequently on bicycles or motor-cycles or even by foot were from Ireland, including, Frs. Bill Doolin, C.S.Sp. (said to be one of the last 6 priests sent from the East to replace the German Missionaries), Jimmy O’Toole C.S.Sp., Fr. Joseph D Murray C.S.Sp., Fr. H. Whiteside, C.S.Sp., etc.[5]

 

St. Joseph Korinya served as a centre for the evangelization of places like Kashimbila in the present Taraba State, Chenge in Mbaduku, Adamgbe in Mbayongo, Achika in Shangev-Tiev, Agila in Mbagben, Abuul and Waapera in Ukan, Abwa in Mbagen, Gboko in Mbayion, Adikpo in Nanev etc. St. Michael’s Secondary School, the first to be built in Makurdi Diocese (1953), began in Korinya before it was moved to its present site in Aliade in 1954. This relocation may have been necessitated by lack of land or for easy accessibility with regards to the territory the Holy Ghost Fathers were to cover (Kabba, Igala, Idoma, Tiv and Wukari).

 

At the invitation of Monsignor Hagan, C.S.Sp., who was appointed the Apostolic Prefect of Benue in 1945, the Missionary Sisters of the Holy Rosary arrived Adikpo, one of the major settlements of Gboko Diocese, the same year to provide medical services to the people. On 21st April, 1954, Monsignor Hagan wrote in the convent’s visitor’s book: “A Christ-like welcome to the first Holy Rosary Sisters in the whole tribe of Tiv, numbering three-quarter of a million from this remote corner of Southern Tiv, may this small convent, like the mustard seed in the Gospels develop into a mighty tree”[6]. Indeed, the combined efforts and dedicated services of our pioneer priests, religious men and women have metamorphosed into a mighty tree today known as the Diocese of Gboko.

 

In 1959, Monsignor Hagan was made Apostolic Prefect and was ordained Bishop of Makurdi Diocese in 1960. He administered the diocese for six years before he resigned on health grounds. He was succeeded by Bishop Donald Joseph Murray, C.S.Sp. in 1966, and served for 20 years and resigned due to ill-health in 1989. In the same year, the Coadjutor, Bishop Athanasius A. Usuh succeeded him. Under Bishop Usuh, four other dioceses were created out of Makurdi, namely, Otukpo, in 1995, Lafia in 2001, Gboko and Katsina-Ala in 2012.

 

St. John the Baptist Cathedral, the seat of the diocese of Gboko, was an outstation of Korinya before its establishment as a parish in 1938. Fr. Theodor Strick, C.S.Sp was the pioneer Parish Priest of St. John. Several other missionaries worked in the Parish. It is not clear why the parish and the primary school were named after St. John the Baptist who is now the Patron Saint of the diocese, but it is probable that whoever chose the name may have been motivated by the courage of John the Baptist to stand for the truth (cf. Mk 6:17-29; Mt 14:3-12; Lk 3:19-20), speak forthrightly (see Lk 3:7-14), make Christ increase and he decrease (cf. Jn 3:30-31) and face any challenge with prophetic determination. Through the intercession of St. John the Baptist, we too should do the same in our time.

 

One of the major strategies of evangelization in this area was through schools. The missionaries firmly believed that the people needed to be educated in order to understand the challenges of the Christian message. This, it was believed, would enable them to take responsibility for their life and future. In addition, the people needed good health and sound minds. Conversely, the Church established schools popularly known as Centres for Religious Instructions (CRI) throughout Tiv land. These centres gradually became primary schools and secondary schools coming thereafter. There are currently Forty (40) Catholic Post Primary Institutions, Sixty-Two (62) Primary Institutions, Three (3) Hospitals, Six (6) Comprehensive Health Centres, and Twenty-Two (22) Primary Health Care Centres, in Gboko Diocese.

 

The missionaries were committed to Family Apostolate. Many remember with fond memories the convent school at Adikpo, where many of our older women were trained before being given out to marriage. This prophetic engagement of the Missionaries is themed eminently in the universal Church’s teaching (cf. for example, Africae Munus, Nos. 42-46). We must continue with this indispensable apostolate.

 

By the determination of the Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI for effective proclamation of the Good News, the request for the erection of two dioceses by Bishop Usuh, even though considered impossible by many people, has become a reality. This is the first time such has happened in Nigeria, and it indicates that the Tiv people are deeply rooted in and genuinely committed to the Catholic faith. Far from separating us from each other, the erection of two more dioceses will intensify our common identity, homogeneity and culture, and naturally improve the proclamation of the Good News in Tiv land.

 

May we all collaborate in building and sustaining the solid basic diocesan structures which Most Rev William A. AVENYA, the pioneer bishop of Gboko, with his college of priests, lay faithful and people of good will have put in place. 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Indyer K., “The contribution of Holy Ghost Fathers and brothers to the birth and growth of Makurdi Diocese”, in Wegh, S. F., Catholic diocese of Makurdi at Fifty: A Celebration of service to humanity, Makurdi: Selfers Acedemic press, 2010. P. 18; See, pp. 1-25.

 

[2] Obi C. A., A Hundred Years of the Catholic Church in Eastern Nigeria, PP. 171-172.

 

[3] Obi C. A., (ed). A Hundred years of the Catholic Church in Eastern Nigeria 1885-1985, Africana Publishers, Onitsha, 1985, p. 179.

 

[4] Wo der gelbe vogel singt (where the yellow bird sings), p. 16ff

 

[5] Wo der gelbe vogel singt (where the yellow bird sings), p. 14.

 

[6] Abuh, J., “The Evangelizing Strides of the Holy Rosary Sisters in Makurdi Diocese”, in Wegh, S.F., Catholic Diocese of Makurdi at Fifty: A celebration of Service in Humanity, Makurdi, Selfers Academic Press, 2010, pp. 48-52.