FORT WAYNE Indiana — For several priests serving in the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, the brutality in Nigeria is not an ocean away — it’s a concern they carry in their hearts.
More than 10 priests from Nigeria are currently serving the needs of the Catholic faithful within the diocese, and many more previously served and have now returned home.
Nigeria has suffered more than 10 years of killings, abductions and other abuses by armed Islamist groups. In the hardest-hit northeast region of the country, tens of thousands of people have been killed and about 2 million displaced.
On Aug. 8, the Nigerian bishops appealed to the government to stop the killings in southern Kaduna state, while lamenting the ongoing violence in the northern part of the country.
A statement signed by Archbishop Augustine Akubeze, conference president, said the bishops “continue to hear of increasing insecurity and unabated acts of terrorism in northern Nigeria. We are all tired of this situation. … The killings must stop. Our hearts are bleeding, and we are more troubled when we hear of the massacre presently going on in southern Kaduna.”
In Indiana, Father Louis Fowoyo, pastor of St. Louis Besancon in New Haven, describes the conflict in Nigeria as a result of the political infighting among the three major regions of Nigeria — the west, east and north. He comes from Kabba in the western region of Nigeria.
Though Catholicism is not considered a major religion of Nigeria as a whole, Fowoyo said it is “the largest block that can come and talk to the government about any societal issue in Nigeria. … It can decide to walk on its own or decide to walk with others. The Catholic Church always walks with the others, because this dialogue in the church — it brings everyone together.”
Nigeria’s population of almost 191 million is roughly split between Christians and Muslims.
Christianity is the dominant religion in the southern part of the country, where the population is concentrated. Most Nigerian priests serving in the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend hail from this region.
A study done by the International Society for Civil Liberties and the Rule of Law found that in 2020 alone, more than 600 Christians have been killed in the country. Priests and seminarians have often been the target of such violence as kidnapping and murder.
But despite these dangers, many Nigerian priests and seminarians continue to answer the call to serve God both at home and abroad.
Vocations in Nigeria are plentiful, according to Fowoyo.
Aside from diocesan seminaries, religious orders such as the Claretian Missionary Fathers and the Congregation of the Holy Spirit, whose priest are known as Spiritans, have their own seminaries in Nigeria. Many Spiritan fathers from Nigeria have served in the Fort Wayne-South Bend Diocese, and Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades visited the order, located in the Diocese of Nnewi, in 2018 to ordain several priests.
“I wouldn’t say that vocation is because of poverty,” Fowoyo said, referring to Nigeria’s high rate of poverty. “It is because of the faith of our parents.”
The Fort Wayne-South Bend Diocese has embraced these priests.
Father Sunday Akuh, parochial vicar at Holy Family Parish in South Bend, who arrived last fall, said the area has “been very welcoming.” He has enjoyed working in the parish, particularly the school.
Akuh already knew some of the other local priests from his homeland. He said the Nigerian priests do maintain a community among themselves, talking on the phone or going out to eat when they can arrange it. That connection among countrymen is a blessing for those so far from home, they said.
Many of them attended the ordination of a young seminarian from Nigeria, Augustine Onuoha, to the transitional diaconate for the diocese at Fort Wayne’s St. Vincent de Paul Church in June. They were there “to support him as a brother” in the faith, said Akuh.
He also wanted to hear Rhoades, who ordained the deacon. The bishop preaches “very well, very beautifully, very pastorally,” Akuh said. “I felt like I was one of the newly ordained.”
“One of the joys of every Nigerian is to celebrate the successes and goodness of everyone, especially their fellow Nigerians far away from home,” said Onuoha. He met many Nigerian priests who were studying at the University of Notre Dame while he was doing pastoral work in the South Bend area.
“We like to joyfully identify with our brothers in moments of joy and sorrow,” he added.
Part of his journey to the diocese involved the aid of another Nigerian priest, Father John Eze, pastor at Queen of Peace in Mishawaka, Indiana.
Eze previously was pastor at Holy Spirit Parish in Nigeria, where Onuoha served as a seminarian. Eze urged him to petition Rhoades to become a diocesan priest, and the bishop accepted his application.
Onuoha was sent to St. Vincent de Paul Parish, which he sees as “a gift to me from the bishop …. I was accepted and loved at St. Vincent.”
When he returns to his home country, Akuh hopes to work in a school setting. He said Catholic churches provide education for many of the youths in Nigeria and that education in the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend “is very good.” He believes that supporting the building of schools and churches in Nigeria is vital to its future.
When asked what can be done to support Christians in Nigeria, one priest suggested, “The bishops in the U.S. who are enjoying the services of Nigerian priests — and I know we are doing our best to serve well — can gently put a voice on our behalf. They can gently help us talk to the nuncio, so they can help us talk to the Vatican. The way things are going, if they have started kidnapping priests now, one day they will tell us we cannot open the churches.”
Fowoyo appealed for government assistance for his home country from the Western world.
“Until Europe and America help Africa within their own countries, it will be difficult for the world to have peace … Because there’s nowhere in the world you will not find Africans. We are all looking for greener pastures. We need to help each other.”
Barton is a staff writer at Today’s Catholic, newspaper of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend.