Bishop J. Shanahan

Joseph Shanahan

He was given a “second burial”. The solemn but joyous ceremony was performed only for the paramount chief , to ensure that his great spirit would always remain with the people, protecting them and guiding them as he had done in Life.

Bishop Shanahan (1871 – 1943) of Southern Nigeria was the only non-Igbo to be afforded this honour. His bones were disinterred and in 1955 were Laid to rest in Onitsha cathedral in the heart of the land of the lgbos. Who was this man so beloved and honoured?

Joseph Shanahan was born, the third of ten children of a poor farm labourer in Co. Tipperary, Ireland. His uncle, Pat Walsh, who lived with the Shanahans, left the home in Gortnalaura in 1875 to join the congregation of the Holy Ghost, now called the Spiritans. It was an old French religious order recently given a new lease of life by the dynamic Francis Libermann, a convert from Judaism whose special ambition was to bring the good news of Christ to the peoples of Equatorial Africa.

In 1886 young Joe followed his uncle to France where he joined the Spiritans and began his studies for the priesthood. He was ordained a priest in 1900. In October 1902 his life’s dream was fulfilled. He was on a boat bound for Nigeria. Thirty five days later he arrived in Onitsha, a name that would be forever linked with his own.

Shanahan joined a group of French Spiritans who had arrived in Eastern Nigeria seventeen years previously.

From the very beginning Shanahan made a big impact. He was big, strong, handsome. He was friendly, kind, energetic. The lgbo people couldn’t but admire and love him. And he served them with every ounce of his being until he returned in 1932. He had served for thirty years, twenty five as leader of the mission. Few Europeans could survive more than a decade in Nigeria where conditions were very primitive at that time.

His life is one of the great success stories of missionary history. He was a truly charismatic figure, a man of exceptional courage and vision. He travelled the country on foot, by bicycle, by canoe. He walked boldly in areas where no white man had set foot before. He saw the importance of education and built up a huge network of schools.

He recruited missionary priests, brothers, sisters and lay persons for Southern Nigeria. He founded one religious order and was the inspiration behind the setting up of five others.

As is the case for all saints, he suffered greatly. He was rejected by his mission and forced into an unwanted and early retirement. He was rejected by the missionary order of sisters he founded in lreland He spent his final years in exile from his beloved Igbos, years of frustration false accusations and loneliness.

Today he is seen as a luminary of the Church and of the Spiritans, a wonderful model for all who are called to be missionaries.