The history of the Augustinians in Nigeria (1916-2016)15 Nov 2016, by Augustinians in
Cicero, in his Pro Publio Sestio wrote that “History is the witness that testifies to the passing of time; it illumines reality, vitalizes memory, provides guidance in daily life and brings us tidings of antiquity”. So is the history of the presence of Augustinians in Nigeria.
The Order of St Augustine takes its inspiration from the life and writings of the renowned bishop of Hippo (354-430), who graced the church of North Africa in a time of strife and division. Son of Patricius and Monica, he was born in the village of Tagaste on the border of present-day Algeria and Tunisia. The Order as we know it today took shape through an amalgamation of many autonomous groups who based their lives on the Rule. They were brought together as an apostolic fraternity, through the great unions of 1244 and 1256, and since then, they have served the church in small communities according to the demands of the time and the directive of the gospel and their Rule of Life. Missionary work is one of such directives and it is not surprising to learn that Augustinian missionaries were involved in the early evangelization of both East and West Africa. They were sent to Elmina, in present-day Ghana, as early as 1572 and to Mombasa (Kenya) in 1597. Augustinians at this time also established the first catholic community in Nigeria, in old Warri- which for a long time was known as the City of St Augustine.
It should be no surprise, therefore, to learn that Augustinian missionaries wee again to the fore in the revived missionary impetus of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, which reached out to Africa. They were, in fact, the first of the old religious orders in the church to come to Nigeria, in the year 1938. The Irish province of the order was entrusted with the evangelization of Adamawa Province, which then formed part of the Prefecture of Jos. The first three priests came to Jos, where they made a year’s practical ‘novitiate’ in the missionary life before moving to Yola in January 1940. By then, the Second World War had all but cut the line of communication with their base in Ireland and the next five years was more a time of digging in than of rapid expansion. Thereafter, their number grew steadily, from 5 to the end of 1940 to 17 in 1950, 34 in 1960 and an incredible 61 in 1970. It was a most generous commitment on the part of the Irish Province, which had other pastoral obligations to the church and the Order at home and in other parts of the world.
It should be emphasized that missionaries did not come to Nigeria in order to establish a branch of the Order. They came in answer to the call of the successive popes, to establish the church in an area where it not exist, in the present Adamawa, Borno, and Taraba states. Their work led to the erection of the prefectures of Yola (1950) and Maiduguri (1966). These new local churches were tended in their early years by Bishops Dalton and Sheehan in Yola, by Bishops Cotter and O’Donnell in Maiduguri. There was also the opening and rapid blossoming of such well-known educational institutions as St Augustine’s Teachers’ College, Bazza, Villanova Secondary School, Numan, and St Michael’s Secondary School, Yola. These areas remained the focus of the Augustinian endeavor until 1967 when the Irish Province was asked to establish and staff a major seminary in Jos, which remained an important factor in the extraordinary growth of the church there over the past 40 years.
Although Augustinian houses had been established in Mubi (1965) and Iwaro-Oka in Ondo State (1966), it was until the Irish Provincial Chapter of 1974 that a firm commitment was made to the establishment of a Nigerian province of the Order. A site for the Monastery, adjourning the Major Seminary was acquired, and Fr Vincent Hickey was appointed to supervise the project and to act as novice master. When the distinctive small round chalets and large community rooms were occupied in 1976, the incipient Vice-Province had a home, and thereafter, as in the case of the Major Seminary, progress was sure and steady.
A year later, at the General Chapter of 1977, Nigeria was made a Vice province of the Order and Fr Declan Brosnan became the first Vice Provincial. He presided over the growth of the Order for the next twelfth years, during which houses were opened in Benin City, Yola, Lagos, and Kaduna. The first two Nigerian Augustinians, Joseph Ekwu and Bartholomew Chidili, were ordained to the priesthood in 1980 and they have been followed by some 72 others during the past 32 years. a decision of the 1989 Chapter to assist in staffing of a new Major Seminary in Makurdi led to the establishment of the Augustinian House of Philosophy, while the site for the novitiate fluctuated until a new site was acquired in Jos in 1998.
As the number of Nigerian Augustinians increased, the number of their aging Irish confreres decreased. It came to its climax in 1997 when Fr James Daman was elected Vice Provincial, in succession to late Fr Vincent Hickey. In 1994, the Province lost a brother, Fr John Gangmi. He died in Britain, Liver Pool, Park House, and was buried there. The acceptance of a house and Parish in Kenya in 1990, and the care of a Marian Shrine in Benin Republic in 1997, made more demands on the Vice-Province, as has the opening of houses in Zing, Kano, Warri, and Mararba. After Fr Daman was re-elected into office, he was appointed bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Jalingo in December 2000. Another election was held which brough Fr Patrick Akinrimisi into office. He had the honour of attending the General Chapter in Rome, during which a new Prior General was elected and the Vice Province in Nigeria was accorded full Provincial Status, which was inaugurated on Tuesday, 27th November 2001 at St Monica’s parish Rantya, Jos.
Fr Patrick Akinrimisi led the Province from 2001 to 2005. During the Mid-Chapter of 2003, it was decided to close Dassa-Zoume, which took effect on 8th December, 2003. On 13th November, 2004, the Province celebrated the 1640 anniversary of the St Augustine’s Birth at St Monica’s Parish, Jos. Fr Patrick was succeeded by Fr John Niyiring during the 2005 Chapter in Jos. On 1st October, 2006, the Province celebrated the 750th anniversary of the Grand Union in 1256, in Jos, Plateau State. Fr John remained in office until his appointment as Bishop of Kano in 2007. He is the 6th Augustinian to be called to serve as Bishop in Nigeria after Dalton, Cotter, Sheehan, O’Donnell and Daman. In his place, Fr McDonnell Brendan served as the Vicar Provincial from 2007 to the Chapter of 2008, during which Hyacinth Kangyep was elected the Prior Provincial of the Nigerian Province. During this period, new houses were opened in Enugu, Jaji, Warri, Lagos and Bida. In 2007, 17th January, the Province lost Fr Clement Danock in Maiduguri and was buried on 26th January the same year at the Augustinian Monastery, Jos. In 2008, a formal erection of the Pius Union of St Rita was done. During the same year, a proposal was made for a Southern Vicariate. It was discussed at the Chapter in 2008 and during the visitation of Assistant Prior General, Fr Franz Klein in November-December 2009. St Rita’s Clinic was erected in Mararaba. In 2009, September, St Augustine’s College was officially opened.
The year 2010 began with the loss of Fr Callistus Mbanusi. He died in Makurdi and was buried in the Augustinian House of Philosophy. In the same year in August, the Province had her Intermediate Chapter which was held in the Augustinian Monastery, Jos. This Chapter would be remembered for especially for the full and open discussion of the proposal for the erection of a Vicariate in Southern Nigeria. In 2012, the Province had her 4th Ordinary Provincial Chapter, from 20th -24th August at the Augustinian Monastery, Jos. This Chapter marked the end of Fr Hyacinth’s tenure as Provincial and the beginning of that of Fr John Abubakar. Fr. John Abubakar’s first four years in office witnessed an extraordinary spread of the brothers of the Province of Nigeria across the world for studies and pastoral work, and to say that the Province witnessed a tremendous transformation within these four years will be an understatement. He was as a result re-elected as the Prior Provincial of the Province of St. Augustine of Nigeria and installed during the celebration of the 5th ordinary provincial chapter which was held at the Augustinian monastery, Jos, between the 5th of September 2016 and 9th of September 2016. We continue to pray for Fr. John and his council, and the entire province of Nigeria. We look forward to greater things to come.This marks the end of the beautiful story of the Province of St Augustine of Nigeria, and yet, the beginning of another episode that is full of hope and promise for the Order in Nigeria and beyond, and for the Universal Church.
( Courtesy: www.osaprovnig.org with a little update by Fr. Joel)