Fr. Ihedoro: First Nigerian Claretian Goes Home to the Father
FR IHEDORO: THE FIRST NIGERIAN CLARETIAN GOES HOME TO THE FATHER
On 28 May 2020, late Very Rev. Fr. Christian Mary Onwuemenyi Ihedoro,CMF, the first Nigerian Claretian and the Father Founder of the Nigerian Claretians was laid to rest at the Claretian Cemetery at Maryland Nekede Owerri, Imo State. Funeral obsequies began with a Vigil Mass on Wednesday 27 May, 2020 at the Provincialate (St Anthony Mary Claret Parish) Area ‘A, New Owerri. Fr Izu Marcel Onyeocha, CMF, presided at the Holy Eucharist. The homilist, Fr Charles Amadi, CMF, in his reflection gave a synopsis of Fr Ihedoros vocational journey with Anthony Mary Claret. Using stories and experiences of Fr Ihedoro, the homilist, emphasized the way Fr Ihedoro followed Jesus in the missionary style and Servant of the Word. As a Claretian Missionary, he fixed his entire gaze and life on Christ and of course, Claret is a model of discipleship.”
Amid the restrictions of the Covid-19 pandemic, the funeral Mass was held at the Martyrs of Barbastro Chapel, Maryland, Nekede. Present at the funeral were the Claretians, the Ihedoro family, relatives and friends. The Eucharist presided by the Archbishop of Owerri, Most Rev Anthony J.V. Obinna with about 25 concelebrating priests. The Bishop of Makurdi, Most Rev Wilfred Anagbe, CMF and the Auxiliary Bishop of Owerri, Most Rev Moses Chikwe were also present. In his homily, Bishop Anagbe described the late Fr Ihedoro, as a humble, illustrious and industrious priest who lived a well meaningful life as a headteacher and a missionary. His misfortune became a blessing in disguise to the Nigerian Claretians. A wonderful exemplar of old world values, religious values and what more, community values.”
After the celebration of the Holy Eucharist, the funeral procession led to the Claretian Cemetery where Fr Ihedoro was finally led to rest.
Fr Ihedoro was born on November 15, 1931. Both date and year were assigned to him at his baptism as an adult but he thought that the more accurate birth year was 1929. His parents, Isaac and Martha Ihedoro hailed from Ubowalla Emekuku in Owerri, Imo State, Nigeria.
His primary education spanned the years 1938-1945. When he graduated with his Standard Six Certificate, he was immediately given an appointment to teach, a rare privilege reserved for brilliant pupils. In 1947 he gained admission into the famous St Charles Teachers Training College Onitsha but could not complete his studies due to adverse circumstances of life. He later proceeded to the Holy Ghost College Umuahia where he gained his qualification and was posted to St. Anthony’s School Inyishi Ikeduru (1954) and later to St Charles School Avuvu Ikeduru as an Assistant Headmaster (1955-56). According to Fr Ihedoro, At Inyishi I had the first stirring of the religious vocation, at Avuvu I made the decision.
While at Avuvu he came across a Claretian Vocation flier from the United States which carried a group picture of persons seated in a row. Within the row there was an unoccupied chair. A downward arrow pointed to the chair and there was an ‘inscription which read: A place for you among the Claretians. He felt addressed by that inscription and decided that he would take that place. (Fr Ted Cirone, CMF confirmed One can imagine the force of divine attraction which strikes and will never cease. After some weeks he had to write to the Vocation Director but no reply came. After a few months he wrote again and took the letter to his Manager, Rev. Fr G. Gorgan, C.S.Sp who read the letter and immediately asked Fr Christian, why not join us? The Irish missionary understood the explanations and inclinations of his teacher and finally posted the letter and the reply was quick. The reply was for Fr Christian to get in contact with the Claretians in Fernando Po (Equatorial Guinea).
So in 1957 he left the teaching service and travelled to Santa Isabel (Malabo) in Equatorial Guinea, then known as Fernando Po. There, he was appointed Headmaster of Claret School for Nigerian children whose parents were residing there.
Towards the end of the academic year, he left Santa Isabel for Spain to begin his formation in 1958. He made his first and final religious professions on July 16, 1959 and on July 16, 1963 respectively. His philosophical studies took him to Solsona in Spain and then he proceeded to Salamanca for his theological studies. At the end of his theological studies in 1966 he returned to Nigeria for his priestly ordination on April 17, 1966 at the Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church, Emekuku, Owerri, Imo State.
After his ordination, Fr Ihedoro spent the early part of his priesthood in Spain and England. In 1969, he returned to Malabo where he engaged in parochial ministry and also taught History, English and Religion at the National High School, Malabo. In July of 1970, Fr Ihedoro came back to Nigeria to see his people and find out how the Nigeria-Biafra War had left them. Having rested at home, he was to leave home on the 4th of September, 1970 for Lagos and from there to Santa Isabel. Dramatically, something happened precisely on the 2nd of September his briefcase containing all his documents was stolen in the Owerri Central Post Office. This became the felix culpa that birthed the Nigerian Claretians. The Claretians were not in Nigeria this time. All the Irish Missionary men and women in the South Eastern part of Nigeria were forcefully repatriated by the Federal Government of Nigeria. Thus, there were few indigenous priests, brothers and sisters. After going to Lagos to seek for some solution, Fr Christian got another passport but the Government of Equatorial Guinea refused to give him another Visa. He returned from Lagos in December and was helping the Parish Priest of Emekuku. It was in the same month that then Bishop of Owerri Diocese, Bishop Mark Unegbu had a pastoral visit to Emekuku parish. In a humorous way he said, Father, I will give you something to do because I dont want any clericus vagus in my Diocese. Father Ihedoro said, My Lord I am prepared for any temporary appointment. Like Mary, whom he had a strong devotion for; Fr. Ihedoro showed a strong sensitivity in saying Yes to the Lords call to assist the Church in need. Then the bishop requested that he stayed back to help the local church in the wake of the massive expulsion of the foreign missionaries working in the Biafran territory.
His Lordship Most Rev. Dr Mark O. Unegbu assigned him to St Charles Parish Enyiogugu Mbaise. Father Ihedoro carried out his ministry diligently. But in February the much awaited Visa arrived and it was shown to the Bishop. Both agreed that he should return to Fernando Po to inform his Superior. With the true spirit of St Anthony Mary Clarets Missionary principles, Fr Ihedoro was permanently open to the Spirit of discernment throughout his life and that of the Claretian presence in Nigeria.
On arrival to Fernando Po, his Superior saw more need of many Nigerians there than elsewhere. Fr Christian saw more need in Nigeria and hence he wrote to the Superior General, Fr Antonio Leghisa, explaining the situation. He indicated also the possibility of recruiting vocations in Nigeria. The Father General finally gave the permission for him to return to Nigeria to give the helping hand to the Bishop of Owerri.
Consequently, Fr Ihedoro was assigned many charges at different times. He worked as parish priest at St Charles Parish Enyiogugu, Aboh Mbaise, the Diocesan Bishops Secretary, Rector of St Mary Minor Seminary Umuowa, Orlu, tutor at St Peter Claver Minor Seminary Okpala, and Enyiogugu Secondary School, Parish Priest St Mary Umuowa and the Diocesan Coordinator Social Services and Development.
Being a religious who placed high premium on community living and sharing, Fr Ihedoro was not content with living like the Leibnizian monad isolated in solipsism. His missionary lifestyle and pastoral zeal became a model for others to follow, hence the influx of applications from prospective candidates willing to join the Claretian Congregation. Fr Ihedoro with the permission of his Superiors, began to recruit some aspirants and then established in 1973, the Claretian Congregation in Nigeria.
He was able to recruit some members for the first set of our Novices who did their novitiate at the Spiritan Novitiate at Awo-Omamma, Imo State. He worked closely with Frs Frank M. Ambrosi, Steve Sherwood, John Raab, Richard Detore, Marcelo Gonzalo and Brothers Rene Lepage and Godwin Igbokwe. One may not forget Fr Jesus Vasques who visited early on from the Philippines and helped in formation before the arrival of some of these other Claretians. He usually recounted with some feeling of nostalgia how he carried all the members of the Congregation in Nigeria in a Peugeot 404 wagon. Today one would require more than six luxury buses to transport the Nigerian Claretians.
As a tireless apostle undaunted in the face of challenges, Fr Ihedoro meritoriously served the Congregation as a Director/Major Superior for seventeen years [1973-1990]. He saw to the formation of the Lay Claretian Movement in Nigeria. He also served as the President of National Conference of Major Superiors (1981-1982). In 1990 he took break of the onerous service s Superior, while still maintaining his position as the Pater Familia of the Nigerian Claretians. He continued his service to the Congregation in parishes and communities in the United States and Nigeria since then; with his last community being the Provincialate at New Owerri. During these latter years, he served as Confessor and Spiritual Director to our schools and institutes. He passed on to eternity on Holy Thursday, 9 April, 2020
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