Bishop J. 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.
Albert Kanenechukwu Obiefuna was born to pagan family on 30th of January 1930. His parents later got converted and were then baptized as Patrick Agbakwa and Virginia Mary Enyochi Obiefuna. The little born child was named Kanenechukwu by his parents because of the trying circumstances associated with his birth.
Kanenechukwu started his primary education early in 1940 at St. Joseph Catholic School Oraukwu and later transferred to St. Andrew’s Catholic School, Adazi. His father was intent on training his brilliant son in the Whiteman’s way of life and so he was determined to send him to their school and church to learn his ways of life. Kanenechukwu himself would later in life recall this experience thus, “It was amazing! From the time I was a very young boy my father wanted me to read and write like the Europeans. He sent me out every morning to a woman married into our village who took me to the church school. I did not know to which church I was going. It happened to be a catholic church; thanks to Divine providence! To my father, who was a wine tapper, I owe this early education; more than that he saw that I was punctual and that I followed the rules of the church. For example, he would not allow me to eat meat on Fridays and would keep the Friday’s bit of meat until Saturday for me.”
Parents had generally no objection to that. On the contrary, they saw very positive traits in the life of those children who went to school and became Christians. It was therefore not only the young Francis, but also his two senior brothers and his sisters were all baptized.
He completed his primary school at St. Anthony’s Dunukofia. Even at that time, it was clear to both teachers and pupils that he was a specially gifted person. The following year, in 1947 he gained admission into the Junior Seminary, which was then located at Nnewi. In 1952 he graduated from the Junior Seminary, where he achieved excellent results at both the Junior Cambridge and Senior Cambridge examinations. This excellent result won him an exemption from the London Matriculation, which was highly valued at that time.
His father died when the young Albert was only ten years old. Then the burden of realizing his late father’s dream to be educated in the Whiteman’s way fell on his elder brother. This elder brother of his was later to die young.
In the course of his primary education, Kanenechukwu got baptized in 1943 and received Holy communion the same year. He was also confirmed the same year by late Archbishop Charles Heerey. He passed his standard six with distinction in 1947. In 1948, he got admission into the Preparatory Training Center, Agulu. His first posting as a teacher was to Aguluzoigbo in 1949. At the end of the year, he was selected for further training as a teacher at St. Charles College, Onitsha, another prestigious college of those days, run by Franciscan Friars. But there came a complaint that Oraukwu town had two students admitted to St. Charles in that year 1950 while the neighbouring Adazi town had none. Albert, being the younger of the two was asked to wait till next year. As compensation he was offered by Fr. C. Liddane to begin teaching in the famous St. Andrew’s school, Adazi. This proved providential, for it was while teaching in this school the simmering vocation to the priesthood blossomed in the Young Albert under the guidance of the then supervisor schools Rev. Fr. Dr. Bernard J. Kelly.
He entered All Hallows Seminary in 1954 after he had carefully out witted his relatives who were strongly against his priestly aspiration. He bought his seminary outfit with his personal savings at Enugu. He literally sponsored himself in the course of his minor seminary education. During the holidays Albert would work wherever possible, carrying blocks for the masons, translating Igbo for Fr. Kelly, in a word, doing whatever brought he what he needed in the seminary. In fact, he felt he was quite a lucky star since in his own words, “I would have had to leave, if they had introduced fees in the seminary.” Later All Hallows Seminary moved down to Onitsha in 1952, young Albert was among the seminarians that moved down to Onitsha with the seminary. In 1954 he came out in flying colours in the G.C.E. London ordinary level. He was selected to teach for two years in his alma mater from 1955-1957. He left All Hallows Seminary Onitsha at the end of his successful prefect-ship, to begin his real journey to the priesthood at Bigard Memorial Seminary Enugu in 1957. He read philosophy from 1957 to 1959.
In August 1960 he left the shores of Nigeria to continue his journey to the priesthood in the Pontifical Urban University Rome. He got ordained a priest by late Cardinal Agagianian in the chapel of Collegio Propaganda Fide on 21 December 1963. After his priestly ordination his bishop Most Rev. Charles Heerey asked him to continue his studies in Rome. In 1964 he bagged a master’s degree in theology and a Ph.D. in Moral theology at Alphonsian Academy of the Lateran University, Rome in 1966.
Rev. Fr Albert Obiefuna returned immediately to Nigeria in 1966 after his successful studies in Rome. On arrival in Onitsha, he was assigned to work as an assistant priest in Holy Trinity Cathedral Onitsha, from 1966-1967. He was then appointed to lecture at Bigard Memorial Seminary, Enugu. His first three years in Bigard coincided with the civil war and he was always on the move with the seminary. First to Umuowa-orlu and later to Awo-omama, and finally back to Enugu at the end of the war. In 1970, he became the first indigenous Vice Rector of Bigard, a post he creditably held till 1976 when the Bishops appointed him the Rector of the same institution.
While still lecturing full time in Bigard, the pastoral need of Enugu Diocese led the late Bishop Godfrey Mary Paul Okoye to request for his active assistance as parish of Sacred Heart Parish, Uwani-Enugu. This he willingly accepted and creditably carried out. He had a rare opportunity to display to all and sundry his organizational and administrative ability.
Rev. Fr. Albert K. Obiefuna was barely a year in office as the Rector of Bigard when Rome came calling on him to be the first Bishop of the newly created Awka Diocese on the 10th November 1976. In the Fare-well address presented to him at the end of his stay in Bigard Enugu the seminarians summarized his life with them thus, “On your life here in the seminary to call you a “perfectionist” administrator is only our imperfect way of referring to maximum degree of success which your administration has registered in a record time of fifteen months as a Rector.”
He was subsequently consecrated and enthroned Bishop of Awka on 5th of February 1978. He served as the first chief shepherd of Awka from 1978 till September 1994, when he was transferred to Archbishop of Onitsha as Coadjutor Archbishop. He was eventually enthroned the Archbishop of Onitsha on 6th May 1995.
Archbishop Albert K. Obiefuna was a moral theologian through and through. He studied it and taught it in Bigard, Enugu. As a moral theologian he felt that the formation of conscience through a sound knowledge of the church’s teachings is the most important thing in the life of a Christian and of a priest. He was once quoted as saying “I am my own person, and this originates from the formation of my conscience. When I stand up to speak, I don’t like to be unduly influenced by human respect. I seek personal conviction on issues without being personalistic or stubborn or relative.”
Archbishop A.K. Obiefuna believed that despite the huge members of Christians thronging our churches every Sunday their faith was still quite shallow. He therefore faith and prayer as the two pillars of his episcopate. He set out immediately to do something to build up the faith of the people. Thus, Chapels of Perpetual Eucharist Adoration were built in also the parishes of the two diocese he was privileged to shepherd. He himself became a perpetual adorer he insisted on producing enlightened and conscientious laity and made crystal-clear pronouncements on matters touching on interaction with agonistics or adherents of our Traditional Religious vis-à-vis Catholic faith and morals. He moreover made clarion calls on the need to for prayer in the life of a Christian.
In terms of visible projects, we cannot do real justice in enumerating the many projects that late Most Rev. A.K. Obiefuna initiated executed in the course of his episcopacy in both Awka and Onitsha. Among his major projects at Awka are Bishop’s house, Secretariat halls and offices, St. John Bosco seminary, Akpu, St. Dominic Savio Seminary Isuaniocha, Holy family spiritual Year Center, Okpuno, Regina ceali Hospital, Awka, the new St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Awka.
On his arrival in Onitsha to assume office as the Archbishop he was not yet a spent force in the area of executing projects that helped in his apostolate among the people of God as their Chief Shepherd. We will only mention just few of them. Talk of building and you would find in the late Archbishop a born and ingenious architect and engineer. He had an eagle eye for high aesthetics. This showed itself in his expansion of the cathedral which did not lose its former architectural beauty and design. Among others he made an imposing statues of the Twelve Apostles in front of the Basilica, and a giant size of Bishop Joseph Ignatius Shanahan. The eagle feather in his cap of physical achievements in Onitsha was his millennium Gift to Jesus on 15th November 2000-Blessed Iwene Tansi Seminary, Onitsha!
The building of this Seminary is the greatest living evidence of how late Archbishop A.K. Obiefuna paid particular and heartfelt special attention to priestly formation. To show how serious he took priestly formation he personally led a team of four priests from the said Blessed Iwene Tansi Seminary to go for a month long international course for priestly formation at Leggiuno, Italy in July 2001.
Late Archbishop A.K. Obiefuna served not only the Diocese of Awka and Onitsha in the course of his episcopacy, but also readily served the Church both nationally and internationally. He served as President of the Catholic Bishop’s Conference of Nigeria. He served as a member of the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue, Vatican City; he attended the 1983 Synod on Peace and Reconciliation in Rome; attended in Rome also synod 1990 of bishops on the formation of priest in the circumstances of our day etc. in 1998 Roman Curia sent him on a mission of visiting a number of seminaries, which took him also to Mundelein Seminary, U.S.A.
After a very fruitful and active apostolate as Archbishop, he retired in 2003. It was while he was enjoying his retirement, without being tired, that in the year 2008 he slowly but steadily started noticing what would later end up to be his excruciating his ill-health. This took him first to Teaching Hospital, Ituku, then to Germany, India and finally U.S.A. the great voice he ably and powerfully used proclaim the gospel was to be painfully lost to all his adoring admirers.
Though Archbishop lost totally his voice, he gloriously rose to the occasion when he allowed his pen to powerfully do the talking for him! He was quite lucid and painstaking in articulating for posterity his personal, sobering, experience of his “via crucis”.
The Christian life is often a twilight experience. We daily feel the fragility of life in the anguish of sickness and death; in failure, friction and tension that is part of living in this valley of tears; in the discouragement, depression and despair of coping with life. So often we are tempted to give in to that fragility. His Grace’s attitude to his suffering challenges us all in the twilight times of our lives to quietly focus on Christ to be sustained; Christ is always with us, yes to the end of time. While he was still in the very thick of the woods of his “via crucis” instead of nursing within himself resentments and bitterness, he was full of gratitude to God.
His suffering was an excellent opportunity for him to enter into close spiritual communion with all those who were suffering too, thus taking to heart St. Peter’s words, “…your brothers all over the world are suffering the same things” (1 Peter 5:9). In his suffering he entered into spiritual solidarity with his fellow suffering brothers and sisters. Let us listen to him, “But I do not close in on myself in my suffering as if I am the only person faced with suffering. I think of the others who also suffer. Thinking of the sufferings of others is a way of bearing my own pains. There is an Igbo adage that says: “Nkem di iche bu ajo afa “ (to say my own is different is a bad appellation).”
Towards the end of his thought-provoking reflections on his sufferings he concluded that suffering, “…teaches us to strive to attain perfect love of God while we are this world so that we will have no need of purification of our love of God hereafter. I often ask myself do I really love God? Do you ask yourself the same question? No one will enter heaven unless his or her love for God is perfect. What a difficult task! The saints are our models. May God give us the grace to imitate them. May He make his love grow in us in this world so that it may not be necessary for us to go to purgatory for the purification and perfection of our love for God before entering into heaven for the beatific vision, of God (reflections during my Suffering, pp. 86-87).”
In spite of the fact that he had already crowded schedules as a very active people-oriented chief shepherd, late Archbishop never defaulted on his literal life apostolate. Some of the fruits of his apostolate of the pen include over twenty publications among them: The Christian Formation of Igbo Conscience, 1966; Sunday is Our Weekly Easter, February, 1979; Idolatry in a Century Old Faith, September, 1985; Understanding the Church, February, 1994; Called to be Saints, March, 1999; The year of the Rosary Explained, November, 2002; Back Home Alive, 2009; Grace-filled Reflections During My Sufferings, September, 2010.
Late Archbishop A.K. Obiefuna was a man of faith and as such saw death long in its coming, accepted its inevitability with calm and trusting faith in God. He prepared for death and welcomed it when it did eventually arrive in the early hours of Wednesday, 11 May 2011.