A visit to the Missionary Society of Saint Paul, Abuja, Nigeria.
(16th June – 29th June, by Rev. Jeffrey Singleton)
Firstly, may I thank my benefactor for your generosity, in sponsoring my visit to the MSP in Nigeria.
In advance of my visit, I knew that I would be attending the MSP Ordinations at Gwagwalada, and that the Superior General, Very Rev. Fr. Anselm, would be taking me with him, to some extra visits to the east of Abuja.
Father Mark Odion MSP, my Parish Priest, very kindly took me to Heathrow Airport, on departure day, calling for me at about 4.00am, so that I would be at the Airport, at the requested time, 3hours before the flight time. We had with us a Brand new (boxed) Bicycle, to pass on to one of his brother MSP Priests, in Nigeria.
Checking in, all went well, and later the Lufthansa Airbus, took off for Frankfurt to catch an onwards connecting flight.
Our flight arrived in Frankfurt, in no time at all. (just an hour or so)
Checking in for the Main part of the journey (Frankfurt – Abuja) I settled in for the 5/6 hour flight. The aircraft was a gigantic Airbus, roomy and very comfortable.
Having a ‘window seat’ was a pure delight, and seeing miles and miles of what looked like desert, was an interesting surprise.
On arrival at Abuja, we cleared all the necessary checks, with the help of the ground staff, customs and police.
After leaving the Terminal building, I soon spotted Fr. Anselm and Fr. Ambrose. In advance, we had agreed to wear ‘clerics’, (which was a very useful idea).
We were soon on our way, the roads were very busy in places, and were very worn, so that almost continuous avoiding action had to be taken to avoid the ‘worn out’ parts of the road and the ‘pot-holes.
As the country was open, we could see the roads stretching out for miles and miles ahead of us, great tracts of land had been bulldozed flat, on both sides of the roads, with heavy construction vehicles, preparing for the huge new road projects, all very much in evidence.
The new road project system, was simply huge, and stretched for miles and miles. In some places the flyovers and slip roads, were finished, and it must be said, to such an excellent standard too. When completed, these 10 lane (in each direction) roads, would be ‘bang up to date’, and no less than ‘world class’. For sheer size, I have never come across such an impressive sight. It filled me with excitement, as it was one of many pointers, that indicated that Nigeria is not only full of potential, but is now forging ahead, and evolving, soon to be a much more modern Country, that can take its place alongside the best.
After reaching Gwagwalada, I was welcomed to the MSP house, and shown to my room, which was self–contained with bathroom and shower, ’fridge, air conditioning and ‘paddle fans’ and of course a bed with the added luxury of a mosquito-net ‘tent’. I soon settled into the routine of, Morning Prayer, Mass, Breakfast, free time. On to Lunch.. Free time, evening prayer, supper.
Although I have described the ‘routine’ – In truth, nothing really seemed to be routine, different liturgies, different foods, different people at most of the events, it always seemed to be an ever changing picture, and always accompanied by, a warm welcome, and some very pleasant conversation.
On Saturday, 18th June, I went with Fr. Anselm to the National Missionary Seminary of Saint Paul, Gwagwalada. This was the day of great celebration for the 9 remaining members of the class of ’86, their Silver Jubilee, in fact. (one, Gabriel Akemu, sadly died, 18th March 2003), This was a wonderful milestone, the 25th Anniversary of their Ordination.
It was a privilege and a pleasure for me to read the Gospel at such an important occasion.
Fr. Hugo McBride SPS., gave a very interesting and detailed account of the early formation days of the MSP, very tough, very basic facilities(if and when there were some). A serious and strict regime was very well policed by Fr Hugo, to ensure not just a successful outcome for Students, but that they would be the best equipped in their vocation by staff dedicated to them achieving those high standards, with, at times, the meanest and leanest of facilities. That they succeeded, was to their eternal credit and the Glory of God. The MSP are revered all over the world, for their impeccable Formation and training, making them true Ambassadors for Jesus.
Further to this wonderful celebration, Fr. Anselm, took me on a lengthy trip to visit Bishop Anthony, during the journey I was able to see much more of this lovely Country, passing through villages and towns, some very very busy, with people ‘milling about’ and spilling into the road from the crowded markets.
We met Bishop Anthony, a most charming and personable man, and the three of us discussed practical issues of buildings, parish churches, and the new Cathedral he is having built. He was very well aware of development issues, and cost considerations, he impressed me with his comprehensive experience and confidence regarding these matters. We stayed overnight at the Bishop’s house, attending the 6.30am Mass the following morning (in a packed Cathedral).
We visited the Bishop again during my stay, and he took us to the site of the new Cathedral, that he is having built. It is a ‘Greenfield site’ and the groundworks were well advanced, with the excavations for the footings, although seeming quite complicated, they were all but completed.
Fr. Anselm, the Superior General of the MSP, again kindly took me on a ‘trip’ which included the Requiem Mass for Archbishop Emeritus, A. K. Obiefuna RIP. I understood that, the Archbishop, was very much loved among the Clergy and the people, over very many years.
With the weather so good, and the numbers attending so great, the Requiem was held in the open air, in what seemed to be a small stadium, I was seated in a covered stand which encircled most of the arena. We had arrived quite early, which was very fortunate.
Before too long, the whole seated area, which surrounded the ground, was completely full, even so, wave upon wave of people were streaming in, there were thousands present, and many had to be seated on the grass in font of the covered seating areas.
This Requiem celebrated, in style, the life and great service, that the Archbishop gave, so freely.
During my stay, and on our ‘away trips’ apart from staying the night at Bishop Anthony’s house, we also on different occasions stayed a night, at two different convents; this gave me the chance to experience the charisma of the religious sisters, in Nigeria. They radiated their Faith, and their warm, helpful, caring nature, individually and collectively. Their loving, Christian ways, will long be remembered.
I treasure the free flowing conversations I had with one of the sisters, when realising that she too was visiting this particular convent, she explained her current role, and focus in hospital work, in another area of the Country, and of the tough hurdles that confronted her and her Order, as they helped the poor to survive, and strive towards, self sufficiency. I was very struck by the positive determination, and practical help, that was apparent, in enabling and helping those far less fortunate than most.
On Saturday 25th June, The main event was of course the Ordination of Fourteen Priests,
At, The National Missionary Seminary of Saint Paul, Gwagwalada, Abuja.
I was asked if I would like to ‘Deacon the Mass’, which I thought was a great honour and privilege, and of course agreed to do so.
I was invited to the Seminary the day before the Ordinations, to take part in the final rehearsal, I was delighted to be at the rehearsal, which was held in the open, and to highlight the thought and care that was given to me, I was asked if I would like a glass of water, and a chair was brought for me sit at the appropriate times.
It was good to be ‘Deacons together’(even if it was just for the rehearsal), and yet I could sense the excitement and pure joy, that the Ordinandi were no doubt feeling.
From that moment, and until after their Ordination, I like most others, was filled with pure joy for them, and prayed that they may all have, a long, happy and successful journey in their ministry of the Priesthood.
The following Day Fr. Anselm, as ever, drove me and another MSP Priest to the Seminary, for this great ‘Ordination Day’.
We vested in the Seminary Chapel, amid an air of subdued excitement, and gentle banter, some helpful words from the Ordaining Prelate, His Grace, Most Reverend Dr. John Onaiyekan, before we processed to the open area, that had been well prepared, for the event. The people had covered areas, and the Sanctuary was well constructed and sheltered from the sun.
The Mass started and continued very smoothly, I read the Gospel, and His Grace, Archbishop John, delivered his Homily, which I thought was quite ‘hard hitting’ but totally appropriate. The music and singing gave a great spiritual uplifting to the occasion, and at ‘Thanksgiving’ I am sure we were all floating on ‘cloud nine’.
Whilst the fourteen priests were receiving and giving blessings, etc., with the whole ‘army’ of priests present. The Archbishop and I swapped a few words of discreet, quiet conversation.
After the Mass and Ordinations, I was invited to join the ‘Chairman’ and the main party seated, under cover, to enjoy a varied and lovely selection of food, with the added luxury of bottles of ice - cold water, and I realised again, I was being thoroughly spoilt, and I must say, I thoroughly enjoyed it.
My time in Nigeria was coming to an end, something I didn’t really want to think about, so I reflected on all the wonderful experiences that I had been fortunate to have had. Furthermore, I also reflected on the deep impressions left within me, by very many individuals; be they, Bishops, the MSP, Priests, Sisters and lay people that I met on this visit.
It is said, that we all leave a picture of ourselves with those we meet, well, I have a very large number of pictures in my heart and in my mind, of all the amazing people I met, who freely shared so much with me. I will always be grateful for their generosity, in giving; Whether a welcome(everywhere and everyone) their loving warmth, their help, their genuine friendship, and most of all a demonstration of how to live our Faith.
I could never have believed, how much impact this visit has made in me, how much prayerfulness, I experienced through others and within myself.
This visit, could have been just that, a visit, or a holiday, or a social, or an adventure, or a retreat, or a religious experience, or an education. The fact is that it was all of these and much, much more.
So, to you my Benefactor, I offer my most heartfelt thanks, for making it possible, for me to enjoy to the fullest, all of the very many aspects, of such a truly wonderful experience that I had.
Rev. Jeffrey Singleton is the Parish Deacon of the Annunciation & St Augustine Church, Beckenham Hill, South London