Uproar In Catholic Church As Bishop Sacks Holy Ghost Priests From 150-year-old Congregation In Ihiala

•Indigenes protest, pray for God’s intervention

Crisis is brewing in the Ihiala Catholic community in Anambra State following the recent sacking of Holy Ghost Fathers from St Martin of Tours Parish who have been in the area for over 150 years.

The Holy Ghost Fathers are Missionary priests who came to Nigeria in the 19th century and landed in Onitsha. They continued their missionary work in parts of Eastern Nigeria, building schools and churches.

Some of them settled at Ihiala, an accessible town along the Onitsha-Owerri road and built one of the most magnificent churches in Igbo land.

In fact, once Ihiala is mentioned, what comes to mind is the Holy Ghost Fathers, St Martin of Tours Church, the Holy Ghost Juniorate which was established for the formation of priests, Our Lady Of Lourdes Hospital, which today is one of the biggest hospitals in Anambra State, the Convent where the Immaculate Heart Sisters reside and the defunct Elementary Teachers College (ETC), which was also established for the training of teachers for the Missionary schools.

Recently, the Catholic Bishop of Nnewi Diocese, His Lordship, Most Reverend Jonas Benson Okoye announced the takeover of St Martin of Tours Parish from the Holy Ghost Fathers and hinted of his desire to post his Diocesan priests to the parish.

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He also took over Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital, which is opposite the church, from the Immaculate Heart Sisters and asked the sisters to leave the convent.

It was however gathered that he left the Holy Ghost Juniorate, a seminary and the Spiritan Farms, Okija, for the Holy Ghost Fathers.

This decision did not go down well with Ihiala people and they are protesting.

The people argued that the land where these institutions were established was acquired “ab initio” for residence of the Rev. Sisters , their  Schools, hospital, maternity, servants’ quarters, women training center etc”

They said: “There was a purpose clause of the  lease for the land signed by the owners and late Bishop Charles Herrey, who was then Catholic Bishop of Onitsha  Ecclesiastical Province under which Ihiala was part of in 1933.

“The sisters built their residence there since 1933. They also built, ran the hospital and other facilities to profitability and the Bishop wants to take all these away from them. Yet not satisfied by taking away the  hospital and other facilities they built, nurtured to enviable standard, the Bishop wants now to eject them from the  convent, their birth place, uproot their taproot as it were in this part of  the world.

“This, the Ihiala Community in general and the original land owners in particular, are protesting and threatening to revoke the lease and take back their land if the Bishop continues in his push to negate the purpose clause of the lease.

“We as a peace loving people want peace to reign in Ihiala and other communities alike. For this we want the Catholic Bishop, Most. Rev Jonas Benson to revert to “status quo” and allow the Rev. Sisters live in peace, carry out their avowed religious lives they chose for themselves  without further molestation and intimidation; run their institutions even in partnership with the Catholic Diocese of Nnewi on agreed terms. Anything short of this is not acceptable to our people”.

The people said that following the alleged refusal of the Bishop to reply a letter they addressed to him on the issue, they decided to hold a peaceful Rosary procession in the church premises to drive home their points.

The Crown Prince of Ihiala, Orjiewulu Udeorji, who is a member of the parish said: “We embarked on this prayer procession to ask for God’s intervention on what is about to happen in our parish. The Catholic Bishop of Nnewi Diocese has sacked the Holy Ghost Fathers from our Parish and about to replace them with those he termed his own Priests. Our people have made him to know that it is not acceptable to us.

“It is the Holy Ghost Fathers that brought development to our town. Holy Ghost Fathers and Ihiala people are in partnership. They are also priests of God and of the Catholic faith. So where is he sacking them to ? They have been with us for the past one hundred and fifty something years.. Let the Bishop leave them for us.

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Another parishioner, Mr Linus Nnubia said: “The prayer procession was organized by our parishioners to beg God to touch the heart of our Bishop. He should reverse his order for the Holy Ghost Fathers to vacate our parish. Our people do not accept it but we do not want to use violence in registering our anger.

On his part, Mr Pauly Izuora said: “We are using this prayer rally to call on God the creator to intervene on our behalf. The Bishop of Nnewi diocese, His Lordship, Bishop Jonas Benson Okoye has touched us where it will pain us most. He had made a proclamation sacking the Holy Ghost Fathers from our parish. We do not accept this. There should be no segregation in the Lord’s vineyard. May God touch the heart of His Lordship to see the  urgent need reverse this decision.

Mr. Nonye Chukwu, the secretary of the committee said: “This prayer procession is our amour and a subtle way to make a statement. The sacking of the Holy Ghost Fathers from St Martin Of Tours Parish ,Odoata, Ihiala is totally unacceptable to our people. We pray our Lord Bishop will see reason to reverse the order.

“All the institutions flourishing today were  courtesy of the Holy Ghost Fathers  and Holy Rosary Sisters . For over 150 years, they have  been with us and placed Ihiala on the world map. Please, Nna anyi Bishop, leave them for us.”

Women, including Lady Agatha Odimegwu, Sabina Izuora, Getrude Ejezie, Oluchi Ikeka, Ijeoma Okolie Ngo Ukatu, Nneka Asoegwu and Dr Uju Oti also joined in the appeal.

Essentially, the people are asking the Bishop to allow peace to reign in Ihiala Catholic Community as it has been the case for the put three  centuries.

They want him to reverse his recent postings and sack of the Ghost Fathers’ Congregation of St. Martins Parish, as well as suspend all ongoing construction works in Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital and Convent Premises.

They added: “Since this information reached us, the atmosphere has been tense and the people are shocked and sad, This is so because Holy Ghost Fathers Congregation is lhiala and Ihiala is Holy Ghost Congregation. Therefore anything that affects them, in the same proportion, affects the people of Ihiala.

“He should also withdraw all priests already posted to administer and manage the property and assets of the Rev. Sisters of Immaculate Heart of Mary Congregation, bequeathed to them by the Holy Rosary Sisters in 1970 and initiate a peaceful dialogue with the faithful in Eziani, an outstation in the parish, in order to correct any misgivings”

“We as peace. loving people want peace to reign in Ihiala and other communities alike. For this, we want the Catholic Bishop, Most. Rev Jonas Benson to revert to the “status quo” and allow the Rev. Sisters to live in peace, carry out the avowed Religious lives they chose for themselves without further molestation, and intimidation run their institutions even in partnership with the Catholic Diocese of Nnewi on agreed terms. Anything short of this is not acceptable to our people”.

They insisted that members of Ihiala Catholic Community would not fold their arms and watch their assets and what they stand for snatched from them.

However, the Diocese dismissed the development, insisting that there was no protest by anybody in Ihiala.

The Director of Communications of Nnewi Diocese, Rev. Fr. Martin Onwudiwe told Saturday Vanguard that he would not speak on the matter unless he saw pictures of those who embarked on the protest.

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