What the Catholic Church has given to Nkanuland



 The contribution of the Catholic Church to civilization is well known and well documented. Many scholarly works including the various history books, reference books, internet sources, articles, and of course the Sacred Scripture itself, contain exhaustive treatment and evidence of the huge gains of the Church to humanity and the world. However, one would like to state here, that the role that this sacred institution has played in civilization in Nkanuland is particularly, directly and intricately linked with the history of western society, especially western Europe. 

At a recent program broadcast by the BBC, a huge percentage of the audience rejected the view that the catholic church is a force for good in the world. Having lived and worked in Europe for the past nine years, my immediate reaction was that this vote reflected the current shift in attitude towards the catholic faith especially due to increasing secularism, the decline in vocation, and increasingly low Church attendance. In addition to this, the aftermath of the child sex abuse and so many other scandals that rocked the church in that part of the world has led to the marginalization of the sacred and a certain ambivalence towards this institution that the previous generation held as sacrosanct. However, in Nkanuland, I believe that it is vital that we remind ourselves of the extent to which the Catholic Church is a force for good. Jesus said, “you will know them by their fruits,” and even those outside the Church continue to appreciate the church’s fruitfulness. 

This article seeks to demonstrate that the catholic church has made an enormous contribution over the years towards the development of Nkanuland. This reflection hopes to examine and collate the contributions of catholic culture and mind and to show how they have made and continue to make Nkanuland. References will be made to as many Nkanu towns as possible, but more focus will be on Amechi Idodo. This is the pre-Chimaroke era, a unified Amechi-Idodo before the creation of the present-day ocean of disjointed and dysfunctional autonomous communities and their warlords/warmongers. 

European incursion into Nkanuland

It is probably common historical knowledge that until the 19th century, Britain confined their imperial ambition in Africa to odd coastal outposts from where they could exact their economic and military influence. Many European powers got involved in the greedy invasion, occupation, colonialization and annexation of territories in the heart of Africa in an epic move known today as the scramble for Africa or the partitioning of Africa. Another aim for this scramble was the desire to stamp out the slave trade once and for all. David Livingstone suggested the introduction of the “three Cs”: commerce, Christianity and civilization as a way of defeating the slave trade which was then largely controlled by the Arabs.

In Udi division of the 20th century to which Nkanuland belonged, there were series of military expeditions undertaken by the British. The aim was to intimidate, humiliate, and force the people to surrender to British rule. This exactions of colonial rule played a big role to the annexation of Nkanuland and their consequent surrender to Christianity as preached by the European missionaries (Agbodike, 2008; Ekechi F.K. 1972; Ayandele E.A 1966). The spirit of this theory might have defined the relationship between the Nkanu people and the British between 1908-1914. The detachment of military troops, carriers and interpreters unleashed terrors on groups of Nkanu towns and villages. In this expeditions, towns like Amechi-Idodo (Amechi Oba), Owo, Oruku, Awkpofu, Akpugo, Amagunze, Nike and their neighbours suffered untold casualties in the course of their resistance to the imperial British army (Afigbo, 1997; Mbah, 1997). For instance, F.P. Lynch, the political officer No 1 reports: “It has been reported that some of the Amagunze’s have taken refuge in the Ezza country. Many and varied reports come in that they are hiding in the field of the surrounding towns such as Amechi Idodo, Oborka (Ugbawka), Akpowfu, Oruku, Nara, Ihuokpara (Afigbo, 1977).” 

The Civilizing Policies and Achievements of missionaries in Nkanuland

From all indications, the British military incursions in Nkanu did not only subdue their victims and diffuse the tensions around them but also prepared the ground for the evangelization of the area. Attempts were made to plant churches and schools.

 According to Omenka (2012), almost simultaneously, with this European penetration and “scramble”, the Christian missions were undertaking missionary exploits of their own. The United Free Church of Scotland also known as the Presbyterian Church set up a mission at Calabar in 1846. The Anglican Church missionary society set up a mission at Onitsha in 1857. The Roman Catholic Church arrived in 1885. Omenka (2012) argues that this belated entry notwithstanding, the catholic church scored a phenomenal expansion not only around the Niger but all through southern Nigeria. Notable priests like Frs Lejeune, Lutz, and Shanahan made giant strides in their missionary enterprise. The latter (Joseph Shanahan) energetically launched his missionary incursion into Nkanuland beginning probably with Amagunze. For instance, a historical account of the very first trek undertaken by Bishop Shanahan to Nkanu district revealed an encounter that he had at Amagunze (Nkanu East). As early as 1908, Bishop Shanahan had visited Amagunze and carried out baptism. John Jordan related that Shanahan returned to this place Amagunze) again on his way to Abakaliki and Ogoja (Omenka, 2012). 

According to Babalola (1983), previous European influences in West Africa were entirely based on trade, but it was the missionaries who first established true cultural contact. This is because they lived among the people, visiting their homes, sharing their hardship and leaning their languages. The women missionaries connected with the local womenfolk, counselling them in the art of child-rearing and the institution of marriage. Nkanuland remains a beneficiary of this civilizing encounter and cultural contact. 

The major civilizing achievements of Catholic Christian missionaries to Nkanuland include:

Education: One outstanding factor which was responsible for the civilization of the Igbo peoples was the introduction and institutionalization of western education or school system. According to Ayandele (1966), the missionary who championed the cause for western education among the Igbos was Bishop Joseph Shanahan. 

As already discussed, after being cowed and humiliated into submission to the superior and imperial power of the white man, the coast became calmer and clearer for the missionaries to step in and build schools and churches. 

According to Enechukwu (1993), the early missionaries understood the psychological appetite of an Igbo man who in the view of Taylor and Crowther were emulative. Shanahan worked on this psychology. In Amechi Idodo community in the 1920s, families hid their children from the white man and his schools and only the never-do-wells or riff-raffs were sent to those schools. Those who attend the white man’s schools and churches were treated as outcasts. The same applied to Oruku, Owo, Awkorfu, and Amagunze (Enechukwu, 1993).   

Culture, Tradition, and Tourism

Catholicism played outstanding roles in the ending and suppression of such practices as human sacrifice to deities and at the burial of particular titleholders and chiefs. Also, the catholic church unilaterally ended the practice of slavery, infanticide, and polygamy in Nkanuland. Other unchristian practices such as divorce, incest, polygamy, birth control, cultism and fetishism played down upon and in many cases outrightly opposed by the catholic church and her ministers. Today both the clergy, religious and lay have collaboratively reduced those evil practices to their barest minimum and pastoral approaches are underway to their total eradication.   

There are many activities such as festivals and masquerades which represent culture and tourism in Nkanuland. These festivals reflect the cultural diversity of the people. However, some of these cultural identities are common. For instance, Igede and Okanga are found in Amechi-Idodo, Akpowfu, Akpugo and a few other towns. Ekpe, Achifu, Omebe are found in Nike, Idodo, Owo, and a few other communities in Nkanu. Although the missionaries frowned at these masquerades, they provided education and the civilization which made the people begin to appreciate them more and also through modern European technology, Nkanuland promotes her feasts and festivals through the social media, using the most sophisticated tools available today. Access to those tools of evangelization was initially introduced or made possible by catholic missionaries. These also attract some tourism as people from different parts of Nigeria come down to participate in these feasts and festivals. 

The Catholic Church has Christianized some of the Nkanu traditional festivals. For instance, in Amechi Idodo, the Aju festival heralded the new year and the Afo aju which was the day for the commemoration of the faithful departed especially father, grandfather, mother and grandmother known is “Igo Inyi”. Today and due to the influence of the Catholic church, the whole community celebrates Christmas and new year with glamour and particularly on the night of the new year’s eve, sounds and rattling off all sorts of instruments are heard at or around midnight to drive away the passing, year and welcome the new one. In the past, this was known as “Ochuchu aho”. The oldest man in the clan (onye izshi) usually pronounces it first and then everyone else joined afterwards. Sounds of guns and other instruments, including human voices and echoes swept across through entire neighbourhood to all nooks and crannies of the territories. These now take pomp of this ceremony is now found at Christmas and the new year. The “Igo inyi” is now replaced by the ceremony on holy souls (2nd of November). 

Women empowerment

Contrary to popular prejudice, extraordinary and influential women have been the hallmarks of Catholic civilization. Nkanu women have excelled in the various spheres of life both at home and abroad. Today, one finds a long list of academics, politicians, religious, business moguls, top-ranking civil and public servants, the army and so forth. These women serve at the highest levels in those professions. Recently, for instance, an Nkanu lady contested the house of the senate in the last electoral dispensation. An Nkanu lady also served many terms as a CWO president of the catholic archdiocese of Abuja, Nigeria, just mention but just a very few local examples.  

The early missionaries to Nkanuland built schools and vocational centres for ladies. They also helped in the formation, training and preparation of brides before their marriage. They engaged in the successful medical and social services throughout Nkanuland with the help of Nkanu local nurses and carers.


The modern western standards of legal systems and morality have been decisively shaped by the catholic church. The catholic prayer ministry of the holy spirit has brought peace and harmony to so many towns in Nkanuland and beyond. The director of this extraordinary centre Rev Fr Prof EMP Edeh through active mediation and the administration of oaths has brought lasting peace to warring families and communities in Nkanuland. Recently an Nkanu community, Eziama Amechi-Idodo, was on the brink of disintegration due to chieftaincy disputes/tussle. There was wanton destruction of life and property as a result of this evil ambition to become Igwe. A few sons of this community who were desperate for the throne. The riots that ensued left this heaven of my childhood bankrupt as one smothering rubbish, but Fr Edeh and the catholic prayer ministry, borrowing Achebe’s memorable words “political fiefdom and bankrupt country”. After a few tough years, the catholic prayer ministry of the Holy Spirit Elele intervened and through the administration of their oats and mediation, restored a certain level of peace and trust. Although this peace is not yet total or perfect, there is a milestone already in place. The legal system in and around Nkanuland today is a kind of secular residue of Catholicism’s vision of law.

Trade and Industry

The Church, through the missionaries, taught Nkanu sons and daughters the difficult art of brick-making, carpentry and other local trades and crafts. Their houses of worships were built through local materials and manpower.

The missionaries introduced the natives of Nkanuland to scientific medicine, good eating habits, good sanitation, proper clothing and good rest after work. These taste for a decent living reflects today in the peoples’ appearance, houses, diet, sense of judgement.  

Local Clergy, religious and the growth of the Church

Among the greatest legacy of the catholic church in Nkanuland is the speed at which its faith has grown within a space of about one century. This is seen in the increasingly massive population of the faithful or church attendance. At mass, Nkanu churches are parked to full capacity, with more people standing for want of sitting space. All the Churches are full and little hamlets are now promoted to parishes with resident parish priests. There is also a staggering number of indigenous/local clergy and religious who are serving the Church and world at all levels both at home and abroad. 

An Nkanu son and catholic priest, the eminent scholar, author and a quintessential educationist have through the direct action of the Holy Spirit established two famous universities in Nigeria, and founded many religious institutes whose members are serving in the various parts of the world, including the home mission. 

There is a huge number of Nkanu diocesan priests and local clergy who serve in various dioceses in Nigeria, including the home diocese. One also finds numerous Nkanu sons and daughters who are members of several religious bodies all over the world. They serve in foreign missions (abroad). They are serving patiently, giving their all as missionaries in several countries. These Nkanu heroes are often serving in culturally indifferent missions, war-torn and conflict-ridden countries and hostile environments. While returning home on vacation, they often look quite tired, dejected, and miserable. Looking at them one cannot help but reminisce on the life in the early church of Nkanuland and how those foreign/expatriate missionaries would have perhaps suffered and endured in their labours in those days. These Nkanu catholic missionaries and religious today do feel more sad, miserable and confused at the sore, unreceptive, and unfriendly attitudes of their fellow Nkanu local colleagues/confreres when they return home from such missionary expeditions. However, it is occasionally taken in good faith and dismissed as the evil signs of our modern times, when brothers no longer know or recognize brother, sisters no longer care about sisters and there are mistrust, extreme individualism, an insidious enemy called materialism, hostilities and antagonisms everywhere. The Nkanu religious and missionaries remind us that Nkanu was not just a recipient of European civilization and Christianity, but a giver of the same as well. What we received, we are also giving wholeheartedly.

Concluding reflection

In 1950 Msgr McGettrick died in a motorcycle accident. His burial took place in a minor seminary where Cardinal Ekandem (then Fr Ekandem) was rector. Fr Fintan drowned while trying to cross a small river to celebrate Mass in an outstation Church. Each bereavement created a great sense of loss which led the missionaries to severe introspection and yet nothing could come between them and the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom 8:35). They were patient and persevering in suffering; kind-hearted and sympathetic, selfless, charitable and generous, humble and godly in all their endeavours. They lived happily in mud and thatched roof houses. Sometimes rain fell at night and dripped into their grass-made mattresses. When the environment is not well kept some bed bugs could settle in the mattresses as angels in paradise. Nothing could stop them, not even death. One of them summarized the prayer the used to say during the burial of one of them: As man followed man into the soft red clay of Africa, the survivors gathered around his grave, crossed hand and kneeling with bent heads, made a solemn demand on God: Accept O Eternal Father, they prayed, the sacrifice of the life of this our brother in Christ; the sacrifice of our life too. But grant that over his bones and ours a great Church will arise amidst a people whom we serve (Onwukeme, 2015, p. 22).

As we struggle to keep and expand on the legacies of these men and women, let us imbibe the true missionary spirit which saw them through those challenging times. As we give back to their continents what we received from them, let us have a spirit of total self-giving and detachment that characterized their ministry in our land. We may do well to support one another but especially those missionaries who are sowing in tears in foreign lands (abroad). The least they expect is to be welcomed home with smiles when they are on vacation. They need our ears and love when they return home. True compassion is the watchword here. As Onwukeme (2015) reflects, “a religious is supposed to live a compassionate life with the mind of Christ (Phil 2,3-4). The selfless service and compassion which ought to characterise our lives as religious should be rendered first to our fellow brothers and sisters within our community since charity begins at home. A religious should have a passion for Jesus and show compassion to his/her fellow human beings. Compassion is our identity card as religious. In Matt 23,23 Jesus challenges the Jews: You give a tenth of your spices – mint, dill and cumin but you neglect the heavier matters of the law – justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practised the latter without neglecting the former. In Matt 9,36-37 (Matt 14,14; 15,32; Luke 7,13; Luke 10,33; Luke 15,20) Christ had compassion because the people were harassed and helpless like sheep without a shepherd.” In many ways, this spirit of compassion is not so common in Nkanu Churches and among her sons and daughters today. 

This article has shown that the catholic church remains for all times, an inimitable and veritable force for good in Nkanuland. The missionaries worked hard and gave for the development not only of the spiritual and but also the mental faculties of the Nkanu peoples. We are very lucky and better off with the coming of the catholic church in our land. 



Afigbo, A.E (1977) “The Pangs of Social adjustment among the Nkanu Igbo” A Paper presented at the 22nd Annual Congress of the Historical Society of Nigeria at the University of Benin, Benin City, 27-31 March.

Agbodike, C.C (2008) A Century of Catholic Missionary Activities in Ihiala 1908-2009. Nkpor: Globe Communications.

Ayandele E.A. (1966), The Missionary Impact of on Modern Nigeria 1842-1914: A political and Social Analysis. London: Longman Group Ltd. 

Ekechi, F.K (1972) Missionary enterprise and rivalry in Igboland 1857-1914. London: Frank Case and Co. Ltd.    

Enechukwu, A. (1993). History of Nkanu. Enugu: Kaufhof Publishers.

Mbah, Sam (1977). A History of Ugbowka: From Precolonial times to Present. Enugu: Reynolds Publishers.

Omenka, N.I. (2012) The Eke Mission: Its relevance to the catholic Church in Enugu Diocese in Omenka N.I., Agu, A.C., Anijielo, A. (2012) (Eds) Our Journey with God: Golden Jubilee Reflections on Enugu Diocese, 1962-2012. Enugu: Snap Press

Onwukeme (2015) Identity and mission of the consecrated Life. Unpublished Retreat Notes. Gwagwalada: Missionary Society of St Paul.


– By Fr. Innocent Abonyi, MSP

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