From Thorns to Crown of Glory

. . . Bishop Okpaleke Comes Home for New Ekwulobia Diocese

. . . Reactions Flow

By Ifeoma Ezenyilimba

On December 7, 2012, the Catholic Supreme Pontiff, His Holiness Pope Francis, appointed Most Rev Peter Okpaleke (formerly Msgr Peter Okpaleke), as the Catholic Bishop of Ahiara Diocese. It was an appointment that was greeted with joy from the bishop’s people back home. However, it was not so in the very place he was supposed to tend to the flock. That appointment pulled the trigger on a series of face-offs with some people of Ahiara against Bishop Okpaleke whom they rejected as the appointee of the Pope, Ifeoma Ezenyilimba reports.

It was a confrontation that shook the foundations of the Church in Nigeria owing to its novel nature.

The rejection which led to protests that were even championed by some priests, religious and top lay faithful of Ahiara Diocese, caused the Church to move the venue of the May 21st 2013 Episcopal Consecration of Bishop Okpaleke from Maria Mater Ecclesiae Cathedral, Ahiara, to Seat of Wisdom Major Seminary, Ulakwo, Owerri.

Despite the storm and rejections, the humble and patient Okpaleke in his post ordination speech, described his episcopal ordination as a celebration of his marriage to the Church of God in Ahiara. Bishop Okpaleke, who was supposed to succeed the late Bishop Victor Chikwe as the second Bishop of Ahiara, had called for prayers, collaboration, support and advice, saying that Ahiara did not belong to the bishop, but to God.

The protest continued, such that some Ahiara seminarians, who were in the course of their formation to priesthood, pulled out due to what they described as unhealthy actions of the priests who championed the rejection attacks.

However, there were some faithful of the diocese, including priests, religious and laity, who backed the Church in the choice of Most Rev Peter Ebere Okpaleke as the Catholic Bishop of Ahiara Diocese.

As the storm continued, Bishop Okpaleke, who was not able to take possession of the diocese as the See of Ahiara Diocese five years after his ordination, willingly resigned from his office as the Bishop of Ahiara Diocese through a resignation letter dated February 14, 2018, which he wrote to Pope Francis.

Bishop Okpaleke said in his resignation letter that the situation in Ahiara had not improved and that his spiritual life was under threat. He expressed his conviction that his remaining as the Bishop of Ahiara was no longer beneficial to the Church.

On February 19, 2018, his resignation letter was accepted by Pope Francis who appointed the Catholic Bishop of Umuahia Diocese, Most Rev Lucius Ugorji, as the Apostolic Administrator of Ahiara Diocese.

Bishop Okpaleke in the heat of the storm, had patiently, prayerfully and in obedience to the Church, resigned himself to the will of God, such that even the Pope commended him.

However, no condition lasts forever. And so in what many now describe as a reward for prayerful patience and obedience, Pope Francis, on March 5, 2020, created a new diocese in the name of the Catholic Diocese of Ekwulobia, and appointed Most Rev Okpaleke as its first bishop.

The new Ekwulobia Diocese, which was created out of the large Catholic Diocese of Awka, is made up of the 88 parishes that were within Ekwulobia, Achina and Akpu Regions in Aguata, Orumba North and Orumba South Local Government Areas of Anambra State. The three local government areas are otherwise known as Old Aguata.

Meanwhile the erection of Ekwulobia as a diocese and the appointment of Most Rev Okpaleke as Bishop have thrown the area into a buzz, with many describing the twin developments as a divine blessing to the area and beyond, as well as home coming for Bishop Okpaleke.

The Catholic Bishop of Awka Diocese, Most. Rev. Paulinus Ezeokafor, expressed joy over the creation of Ekwulobia Diocese after over 10 years since the journey to the creation of the Diocese began.

He said that the journey to the creation of Ekwulobia Diocese was challenging, considering the geographical size of Awka Diocese on the map when compared to other larger states in the Northern Region of Nigeria that had only one Diocese.

Bishop Ezeokafor assured the people of God that Bishop Okpaleke was equal to the task, even as he disclosed that 29th April had been fixed for Bishop Okpaleke’s installation and taking over of possession of Ekwulobia Diocese and urged the faithful to cooperate with the new bishop in building the Catholic faith.

In his reaction, the Auxiliary bishop of Awka Diocese, Most Rev Jonas Benson Okoye, said the Holy Father did so well both in the creation of Ekwulobia Diocese and the appointment of Most Rev Okpaleke as the first bishop of the diocese.

Bishop Okoye equally appreciated Pope Francis for the comfort he said the Pope gave to Bishop Okpaleke for the over seven years he was consecrated a bishop of the Holy Catholic Church, and yet was without a diocese, saying that it was a thing of joy that the Holy Father, after due consultations, appointed him (Okpaleke), the first Catholic Bishop of the new diocese.

Bishop Okoye, who had in the past, overseen the area under Awka Diocese, advised Bishop Okpaleke to develop the human resources he would work with for the growth of Ekwulobia Diocese. According to him, the human person was the engine and it was important that the bishop understood the priests and others he would work with and assign them to the areas they would perform very well.

‘There is need that the bishop finds out a way to reach out to the people, be patient with them and with soothing words, heal the wounds and the agony which the current difficult Buhari-led administration had caused Nigerians,’ Bishop Okoye said.

Speaking to Fides in an interview, the man in the news, Bishop Peter Okpaleke, reacting to the jubilations of the people when they got the news, said it was a manifestation of their long expectations for the Lord to come nearer to them.

‘They believe that the creation of a new diocese is bringing the Church closer to the people. I hope that those rejoicing over the new diocese have the right understanding of the implications of creating a new diocese. If so, glory be to God,’ Bishop Okpaleke said.

He disclosed that his first action as the Bishop of Ekwulobia Diocese would be to invite the people to respond to that God’s call, noting that the creation of a new diocese meant bringing the Church closer to the people of God.

‘I will, as the bishop, draw the people closer to also respond to the manifestations of God’s plan for the people of Old Aguata, Orumba North and South. God has continued to manifest His plans for the people here, summarised in the salvation He wants to give them. I hope the people understand that too,’ the new Bishop of Ekwulobia stated.

Speaking to Fides in his office, the Chancellor, Very Rev Fr. Francis Chidume, said that the creation of Ekwulobia Diocese gladdened the hearts of the people of God in Awka and Ekwulobia Dioceses and beyond. He gave further explanations as to the preparations already set out for the inauguration of the new diocese and the installation of Bishop Okpaleke in April 2020. He said that the diocesan bishop had already set-up a committee to diligently work towards that.

In a chat with Fides, shortly after the news of the new diocese filtered in, the Episcopal Vicar of Ekwulobia Region, Very Rev Fr Ignatius Onwuatuegwu, thanked God for the creation of the new diocese at a time which He (God) considered appropriate.

Rev Fr Onwuatuegwu, who is also the Administrator of St Joseph’s Cathedral, Ekwulobia, noted that the people of Old Aguata had long awaited the creation of the new diocese, saying that the jubilant mood that greeted the news of the new diocese portrayed the joy of the people of God.

He thanked God for making him a witness to the latest turn of events, even as he appreciated the Catholic Bishop of Awka Diocese, Most Rev Paulinus Ezeokafor, and his Auxiliary, Most Rev Jonas Benson Okoye, for their efforts and sacrifices which made that possible.

‘So I personally feel fulfilled today and I thank God for making our dreams a reality in our own time. I can now sing my “nunc dimittis”, knowing that my eyes have seen the fulfilment of our age long desire,’ Rev Onwuatuegwu enthused.

In their reaction, the Anambra State Government expressed gratitude to Pope Francis for the creation of a new Catholic Diocese in the state.

In a statement signed and made available to Fides, the Commissioner for Information and Public Enlightenment, Mr C Don Adinuba, said with the creation of the Ekwulobia Diocese last week, Pope Francis had enabled Anambra to have four Catholic dioceses.

For his part, Rev Fr Barr Anthony Ezeoke, who was the homilist at the thanksgiving Mass for the consecration of Bishop Okpaleke at St Joseph’s Parish, Amesi on May 26, 2013, expressed joy over the creation and latest appointment of the bishop.

According to him, God had taken Bishop Okpaleke to the wilderness and prepared him for the assignment. He expressed confidence that Bishop Okpaleke would excel in his latest task.

Reacting to the development, the first Isulo, Orumba South LGA indigenous Reverend Sister, Sr Geraldine Enemuoh, DDL, who is based in London, noted that the new diocese was an indication that the Church of God was spreading.

Rev Sr Enemuoh said the new diocese and Bishop Okpaleke’s appointment came at God’s appointed time, even as she prayed God to bless all those who were instrumental to the creation of the new diocese. She assured the bishop of continued prayers for the success of his episcopacy and the new diocese.

In a telephone interview, an indigenous priest of Catholic Diocese of Ahiara, Rev Fr Tony Ibe, said he was very happy over the news of the creation of the new Ekwulobia Diocese and the appointment of Most Rev Okpaleke as its first bishop.

Rev Fr Ibe, who is a formator at Seat of Wisdom Seminary, Ulakwo, Owerri, said the entire Seminary Family was very happy that Bishop Okpaleke had been reinstated.

‘I personally prayed for Okpaleke. We, the entire Seminary family, are very happy that the Pope has reinstated him. He was ordained at the seminary, and he is one of us. That he was rejected in Ahiara does not mean that he cannot work in another diocese,’ Fr Ibe said.

He continued, ‘One of the questions which the Pope asks over bishop nominees is, ”hope he can work in any diocese?” I am particularly happy that Bishop Okpaleke has been given another diocese. He is a young man. I am confident that he will work and do well.’

To an ex-seminarian, Dr Sir Sixtus Unigwe, KSM, who was Bishop Okpaleke’s classmate in the seminary, the creation of Ekwulobia Diocese was long overdue.

He noted that in line with some documents of the Church, bishops should be in-charge of minimum of 50 souls in a diocese for proper grassroots evangelisation.

Dr Unigwe, who is the immediate past Vice Chairman, Parish Pastoral Council of St Vincent’s Parish, Amesi, observed that there was still need for the creation of another diocese from the over-populated Awka Diocese.

The ex-seminarian, who is a lecturer at the Federal College of Education (Technical), Umunze, thanked God for the appointment of Bishop Okpaleke as the first bishop of Ekwulobia Diocese, saying that his stuff was what the diocese needed for effective grassroots evangelisation.

He thanked God for the rejection of the bishop by the people of Ahiara Diocese and the homecoming of the Amesi-born Bishop Peter Okpaleke.

On whether there would be challenges, Dr Unigwe said as the pioneer bishop of the new diocese, Most Rev Peter Okpaleke would encounter teething challenges such as funds for the running of the diocese, siting of needed structures and making the right choices in the appointment of those that would work with him for the good of the diocese.

Unigwe however expressed his conviction that Bishop Okpaleke, who he said was a strategist and an expert in conflict resolution, would know how to permeate and surmount the challenges.

Baring his mind on this, the Chairman of Catholic Charismatic Renewal of Nigeria (CCRN), Onitsha Ecclesiastical Province, Bro Emmanuel Okwudilichukwu Muodili, described the creation of the new diocese as a thing of joy.

The Nanka, Ekwulobia Diocese-born Bro Muodili, and Onitsha Archdiocese by base, said he was delighted that at long last, Ekwulobia Diocese had become a truism.

He noted that the new diocese under Bishop Okpaleke would boost grassroots evangelisation and be an opportunity for those that left the Catholic faith to come back, as, according to him, the bishop was interested in new evangelisation.

In a related interview, the dean of Umunze Deanery, Rev Fr Basil Ezekeli, described the new diocese as a thing of joy for both Catholics and non-Catholics of Old Aguata.

Rev Fr Ezekeli said the new diocese, which many people had prayed and yearned for, came at God’s appointed time.

For his part, the Rector of St Dominic Savio Seminary, Akpu, Rev Fr Maximus Okonkwo, said he was elated that the long awaited new diocese had come to light. He stated his conviction that the development would enhance grassroots evangelisation, because, according to him, the new diocese was sizeable enough for one bishop to shepherd, unlike when it was the one big Awka Diocese.

Rev Fr Okonkwo described the appointment of Most Rev Okpaleke as the best for the new Diocese, saying that Bishop Okpaleke had the wealth of experiences and enough wisdom to take the new diocese to an enviable position.

The rector identified a formidable presbyterium and strong faith in God as what the bishop needed to surmount the challenges he would encounter in the new diocese. He appreciated the Catholic Bishop of Awka Diocese, Most Rev. Paulinus Ezeokafor; the Auxiliary Bishop, Most Rev. Jonas Benson Okoye, and others through whose instrumentality the new diocese was created, for their efforts.

Also speaking to Fides, the immediate past President of Catholic Laity Council of Nigeria, Awka Diocese (CLCNAD), Comrade Emma Ezeokafor, expressed his delight over the creation of the long awaited Ekwulobia Diocese.

Comrade Ezeokafor, who hailed from Oraeri, Aguata LGA, thanked God for the appointment of Most Rev Peter Okpaleke, saying that his humility and resignation to the will of God in the heat of Ahiara Diocese storm, had paid him and the people of Aguata. According to him, their bishop was back home.

Adding his voice, the current CLCNAD president, Hon Joseph Igwebuike, described it as a welcome development and a plus to Awka Diocese.

Also speaking to Fides, the President General of Ekwulobia Traders and Allied Workers Association, Mr Fidelis Ebere Nnofu, described the new diocese as what would boost human, education and economic development in Ekwulobia and beyond.

On the choice of Most Rev Okpaleke as the first bishop of the new Ekwulobia Diocese, Nnofu hailed it as a very good decision by the Church.

He described the bishop as the person whom the cap fitted, noting that Bishop Okpaleke, as a former Chancellor of Awka Diocese for 16 years, had the experience, coupled with his virtues of integrity and humility, to move the diocese forward.

For her part, the president of Catholic Women’s Organisation (C.W.O.), St Joseph’s Cathedral Parish, Ekwulobia, Mrs Ginika Perpetual Okeke, said the entire C.W.O. members received the news of the long anticipated new diocese with great joy.

She assured of the C.W.O.’s continuous support for the growth of the diocese, noting that the mothers would never be found wanting in the all-important roles they played for the growth of the family and the Church.

A community leader and a parishioner of Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Parish, Uga, Ichie Godian Umeojilinaka, said he was very happy and grateful to God for the new diocese. Ichie Umeojilinnaka, who described the choice of Bishop Okpaleke as the pioneer bishop as a good decision by the Church, called for prayers for the bishop so as to handle well, the difficulties he might encounter in the course of his episcopal duties.

Lending their voice to the erection of Ekwulobia Diocese, the Ekwulobia Development Union, through their President General, Rev Chukwuemeka Ezeike, expressed delight at the development, while also hailing the selection of the pioneer helmsman of the Diocese, Bishop Peter Okpaleke, as well deserved.

Ezeike who thanked God for making the erection of the Ekwulobia Diocese a reality, described the situation as one that appeared impossible but had been made possible.

Christians of other denominations were not left out in the outpouring of good wishes.

One of them, a pastor with Newlife Evangelical Church, Evangelist Chidi Uzoagu, said though he was not a Catholic, he heard the news with gladness and said if Christianity continued to grow in Nigeria to the point that they now dominated the country, it would not matter whether it was Catholic, Anglican or Pentecostal.

‘What will be important is that Christ is winning, that is why I congratulate the Catholic Church in Anambra for this addition,’ Evangelist Uzoagu stated.

Additional reports from Uche Amunike, Abuchi Onwumelu, Ikeugonna Eleke, Chioma Ndife, Mercy Hill, Uchechukwu Enem, Michael-Jude Nwolisa, Precious Ukeje and Alexander Adejoh.

Inside view of St. Joseph’s Cathedral, Ekwulobia