Religious Women at the Forefront of Caring for Widows and the Poor in Nigeria

In Africa, in general, while most widows enjoy the protection, provision and support of their families, many still experience hardships and ill-treatment from their relatives upon the death of their husbands. Some of them are abandoned and ostracized. Others have their properties unjustly confiscated by relatives of the deceased husband.

Thanks to the assistance of different women’s religious congregations and Catholic dioceses in Nigeria, the pastoral ministry to widows has grown and become a lifeline for many widows.

Widows and many other people experiencing poverty in Nigeria today have had their human dignity restored -thanks to the work of the Church. Through its efforts, the Nigerian Church has significantly supplemented the activities of the government and NGOs. Widows in various dioceses are assisted in learning a skill that enables them to raise their families.

From Biafran war to an apostolate for widows

Sr. Mary Cornelia Nwaturuocha, a member of the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary Mother of Christ (IHM), has been at the forefront of the pastoral care of widows. She started caring for widows in the early 1970s, following the end of the Nigerian Biafran War. Many women lost their husbands to the war. Desperate, some started frequenting the IHM Generalate, where Sr. Nwaturuocha was residing. They would ask for alms and assistance. On one occasion, the plight of an exploited widow, pregnant and already caring for two small children, moved Sr Nwaturuocha’s heart to start a more organised programme for the widows.

Full-time engagement and support

When Sr. Nwaturuocha began reaching out and organising the widows, many more started coming to her. In Port Harcourt Diocese, Fr. Emmanuel Edeh got involved in the apostolate with her. Together with Fr. Edeh, they opened a shop to support the emerging apostolate. They named it ‘Shop for the poor.’

One day, on a visit, Bishop Edmund Fitzgibbons, then Ordinary of the Diocese, advised replacing the caption on the shop with the name “The Treasury of the Church.”

Nsukka Diocese was the next port of call. The widows at Adani extensively experienced the care and support from the IHM Sisters, various Bishops, priests, individuals and people of goodwill.

Mrs Virginia Ugwuezike, one of the beneficiaries of widows’ support at Adani, said that the association helped her and others secure farmland where they still cultivate cassava and Maize. She is so happy to be in the association.

The burden of widowhood in Nigeria

Mrs Lizzy Okeke, a mother of four and a widow since 2018, told Vatican News that widowhood is a considerable burden and “sometimes we experience mockery when we are in financial need.”

Now, she is the secretary of the Widows’ Association Sacred Heart Parish, Odoakpu, affiliated with the Catholic Women’s Organisation (CWO) in the Onitsha Archdiocese.

The IHM Sisters have since started a Women Empowerment Association, the latest umbrella association for widows and needy women. According to Mrs Okeke, the association is helping not only with material things and business skills but has also helped her come closer to God.

Ripple effects of the associations

Following several initiatives to improve the situation of widows, Nigerian society has become more aware of their plight. In parishes and elsewhere, they make contributions towards the well-being of widows. They assist with food, water, shelter, toiletries, clothing, and medicines. In the Orlu Diocese, where the association was established in 50 parishes, the Diocese has built a skills acquisition centre for widows. At the centre, widows regularly gather to pray, support each other and celebrate St Monica’s Day. It is their safe space.

Sr. Nwaturuocha has since published a book ‘Widows in Our Society’ and distributed it to all the Bishops in Nigeria. The result is that there are now branches of widows’ care in several dioceses.

Widows’ apostolate in Maiduguri Diocese

As a result of the unrest unleashed by the Boko Haram insurgence in northeast Nigeria, many women suddenly found themselves widowed and impoverished. The situation prompted the Ordinary of Maiduguri Diocese, Bishop Oliver Dashe Doeme, to begin a widow’s apostolate in 2014 -the St. Judith’s Catholic Widows/Orphans Association. The Bishop said the association was a response by the Church to the plight of the widows.

Speaking to Vatican News, the Communication Director of Maiduguri Diocese, Fr. Francis Arinze, said that pastoral care for widows has become a norm in almost all parishes of the Diocese. He said the Bishop also organises workshops twice a year for the two regions of the Diocese – Yobe and Maiduguri.

Fr Arinze further revealed that the Diocese also makes small soft loans available to support and empower widows. He disclosed that the Borno State Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) channels to the widows and the orphans the support they receive from the State Government at Easter and Christmas.

The IHM Sisters answered a call

Although embedded in the charism of IHM Sisters, various Superiors General have, over the years, keyed into organised widows’ support thanks to Sr. Nwaturuocha’s availability.

Immediate past Superior General of the IHM Institute, Mother Mary Claude Oguh, said care for widows has become an apostolate of the congregation and one of the ways of living their charism.

“A lot has been done among them by educating them to understand their situation… the widows are not helpless but continue to grow from strength to strength,” she said.