‘Be grateful as your deeds become less and less associated with your name, as your feet ever more lightly tread the earth’. – Dag Hammarskjld (1905- 1961), Second Secretary-General of the United Nations) One hundred and thirty-five years after the first Irish SMA missionary, William Connaughton (ordained on 22nd December, 1883 and died in April, 1887), arrived in Lagos an unbroken association between Irish SMA missionaries and the local Church in Nigeria is gradually coming to an end, illustrating yet again that ‘no condition is permanent.’ Today there are just seven (7) priests of the SMA Irish Province still active in Nigeria – Mark Monaghan in Kaduna, Dónall Ó Catháin in Kontagora, John O’Hea and Fintan Daly in Ibadan, Eddie Hartnett, Danny Monaghan and Peter McCawille in Lagos.
When I returned to Lagos from my last leave in December, 2018 I began reflecting on the reality that I was among a diminishing group of Irish SMA Missionaries whose active links with Nigeria were inevitably coming to an end. It struck me fairly forcibly one day that before the last Irish SMA finishes his work here I should commit something to print for future generations. Hopefully, this compilation, entitled ‘Leaving a Legacy in Lagos’, will provide people with an insight into the varied experiences of some of those priests who collaborated with a wide range of people at parish level – parents, catechists, teachers, church leaders, male and female members of the laity – in breaking new ground in times past.
‘Leaving a Legacy in Lagos’ is divided into three parts: Part 1 looks back at the careers of 125 Irish SMAs who worked in Lagos since 1884 and have since passed on to their eternal reward; Part II contains recent face-toface interviews with 10 senior Lagos priests, including Anthony Cardinal Olubunmi Okogie, Archbishop Felix Alaba Job, Msgrs. John Aniagwu, Christopher Boyo, Philip Hoteyin, Festus Ogunshakin, Bernard Okodua, plus Frs. Gabriel Amolegbe, Benjamin Bello and Christopher Chindo, all of whose paths to priesthood were greatly influenced in their childhood years by many of the Irish SMAs profiled in Part I; Part III connects with a new era of SMA development which began in 1986 with the first intake of students to Ss. Peter & Paul Major Seminary, Ibadan when they were received by the Rector, Msgr. John Aniagwu, now Parish Priest at St. Leo’s Church, Ikeja.
From 1986 steady progress was made until the first Nigerian, Rev. Noel Musa, SMA was ordained to the priesthood on27th November, 1993. Thirty-three years later in November, 2019 from a small step in 1986 there was a giant leap when the SMA Nigeria Province was created with Fr. Emmanuel Zinsu, SMA, from Badagry, being elected the first Provincial. At present the SMA Nigeria Province has 59 priests, many of whom are ministering in different African countries. Part III contains profiles of 3 priests – Frs. Pius Afiabor, Sylvester Ogbogu and Robert Obro – who had already gone to their eternal reward before the SMA Nigeria Province was erected. Their early deaths remind us that the first SMA to die in Nigeria was Fr. Claude Vermorel from Lyon, France who died in 1869 at the age of forty-five, the same age as Frs. Afiabor and Ogbogu who died in 2017 and 2018 respectively.
It may also be worthy of note that the SMA Founder, Msgr. Melchior de Marion Brésillac, died from yellow fever in Freetown, Sierra Leone on 25th June, 1859 at the age of forty-six. The book was launched in a very impressive ceremony at SMA House, Obanikoro on Saturday, 6th February, 2021. Though Covid-19 restrictions greatly reduced the numbers in attendance the book was enthusiastically received by all. Among those present pride of place belonged to the Chief Host, His Grace, Archbishop Alfred Adewale Martins, Archbishop of Lagos who has been very supportive of the production since he first heard about it. We were delighted that several of the more senior priests who featured in the production also attended, including Msgrs. John Aniagwu, Christopher Boyo, Festus Ogunshakin and Bernard Okodua.
The Provincial of the SMA Nigeria Province, Fr. Emmanuel Zinsuplus several SMA and diocesan priests also graced the occasion. Among other prominent personalities present were the Chairperson, Dr. (Mrs.) Margaret Ebigwei-Ibru, the Founder and Proprietor of S. T and T Regency Schools, who gave an uplifting and stimulating speech which evoked several bursts of applause. The Chief Launcher was the long-serving Mr. Lawrence Osugba whose association with the SMA goes back many years and was effectively captured in the encouraging and generous words he used while launching the book. The book was joyously and comprehensively reviewed b Sr. Agnes Adepoju, OLA, Administrator of Maryland Comprehensive Secondary School while the programme was seamlessly held together by the joint M.C.s, Dr. Valentine Whensu and Dr. Funmilayo Diya-Olu.
Special thanks and appreciation are due to the Planning Committee, led by Fr. Julius Temuyi, SMA, who worked diligently for many weeks to ensure that the event went without a hitch.A notable feature of the occasion was the opportunity afforded to our SMA supporters and families around the world to watch the launching from the comfort of their homes, thanks to the technical expertise of the CCOTP (Church of the Presentation) Media Group. I conclude this report by paraphrasing the words of Dag Hammarskjold which I quoted at the beginning of this article and, as a befitting epitaph to all those who have worked actively in the service of the Lord, I leave the last word to St. Luke. “So when you have done all you have been told to do, say, “We have done no more than our duty.’’ (Luke 17:10).