THE IRISH AUGUSTINIANS IN NIGERIA, 1939-1992
Raymond Hickey, O.S.A.
The decision taken at the Provincial Chapter in 1936 to apply to Rome for a mission territory in Africa should be seen in the context of a wave of missionary enthusiasm then sweeping through the Irish Church. It gained momentum after the establishment of the Maynooth Mission to China in 1918 and, inevitably, was experienced in the mendicant orders. An Augustinian Foreign Mission Association was established in 1835 and the Good Counsel quarterly, founded in the same year, was ‘designed primarily to help the missionary activity of the Augustinian Order’ (editorial of the first issue, April 1935). The proposed mission had the enthusiastic backing of the newly-elected Provincial, Fr Thomas Cooney, but there were also those who had their reservations and counselled caution. The Province already had a growing commitment to the Vicariate of Cooktown in North Queensland and it was feared that another mission might be beyond the resources of the Province.
The delay in receiving an answer to the application for a mission territory in east or west Africa caused some perplexity to the Provincial and his Council. A year passed and it was decided that Frs Luke Maddock and John Berchmans Power should take up an assignment under Bishop Chichester, S.J., in the Vicariate of Salisbury (now Harare, capital of Zimbabwe). Fr Maddock had spent many years in the tropics in North Queensland while Fr Power was a young priest with a great love for travel and the missions. On 10 October 1937 they left London by sea for Cape Town and from there made the long rail journey to Salisbury. It was the start of a lifelong fascination with Africa for Fr Power and he would be drawn back there time after time throughout the course of his life.
The Augustinian application for a mission territory coincided with a petition from Msgr Josef Kirsten, C.S.Sp, of Benue Prefecture in Nigeria, to Rome that the eastern section of his prefacture be constituted a separate jurisdiction. The Apostolic Delegate to British East and West Africa, Archbishop Riberi, visited Nigeria in April 1937 and discussed the matter with the prefects apostolic of Jos and Benue. They agreed that the proposed mission territory would comprise the province of Adamawa in Nigeria and the adjoining League of Nations mandated territory of Northern Cameroons ( formally part of the German colony of Kamerun). The territory would come under the Prefecture of Jos until it developed sufficiently to be constituted a prefecture sui juris. The Congregation of Propaganda Fide in Rome offered it to a newly-established Swiss missionary body, the Bethlehem Foreign Mission Society, but they considered it to be too remote and difficult for their inexperienced missionaries to take on. The offer from the Irish Augustinian Province was still on the table and in February 1938 it was offered to them.
The picture of the missionary territory outlined in the letter from Rome to the Irish Provincial contained no reference to the remoteness of the region or the special difficulties it presented. In optimistic tone it noted that Adamawa had ‘the best climate in all Nigeria and [was] elevated, well-watered and agricultural’ and had a ‘more than 60% pagan population’. This was indeed true and these positive features would become more and more appreciated and important as the mission grew. They were secondary considerations however for Fr Cooney and his Council, whose application for a mission territory had been made in a spirit of faith and without preconditions. The offer was accordingly accepted and by the end of April the Prefect of the Congregation of Propaganda Fide, Cardinal Fumassoni Biondi, informed the Provincial that the first missionaries should proceed immediately to Jos.
Shortly afterwards Frs D.B. Redmond, P.A. Dalton and T.G. Broder were appointed to Nigeria and Frs Maddock and Power were recalled from Rhodesia. It came as a shock to Fr Power who was under the impression that the Augustinian involvement in Salisbury Vicariate was a permanent commitment. Susequent events would show that the assignment to Northern Nigeria was, despite initial appearances to the contrary, more promising and important for Church and Order than anything Rhodesia had to offer.
Frs Redmond, Dalton and Broder set out from Liverpool on 12 October 1938 and arrived in Jos on 2 November. Fr Redmond, who had worked in North Queensland and was the oldest of the three, was the Superior. Fr Maddock, who was in his senior, failed a medical test before leaving Rhodesia and never saw Nigeria. Fr Power got a passage from Cape Town to Nigeria and joined the other three priests in Jos in February 1939. The Adamawa mission territory had been incorporated into the Prefecture of Jos and the Augustinians came under the jurisdiction of its Prefect Apostolic, Msgr William Lumley, S.M.A. As there was no mission station in Adamawa Province and the Augustinians had no missionary experience in West Africa they were posted to various mission stations in and around Jos. They would spend the next year learning the rudiments of mission life and methodology and studying the Hausa language. Although they did not realize it at the time it was a valuable apprenticeship for the task which lay ahead.
THE PROVINCE OF ADAMAWA
In sending missionaries to Nigeria the Irish Augustinian Province was following in the footsteps of Portuguese Augustinians who had laboured in West Africa from the early 16th to the mid-18th century. Their work had been made possible by the great exploratory journeys of Prince Henry the Navigator and Vasco de Gama which opened up a sea route to India. Three dioceses were established to cover the western coast of Africa, with sees in Cape Verde, Sao Tomé and Sao Salvador (in modern Angola). That of Tomé included the kingdoms of Warri and Benin, west of the Niger delta and now part of Nigeria.
The best known of the four Augustinian bishops of Sao Tomé is Gasper Cao. To remain in such a remote and inhospitable place for twenty years (1554-74) was in itself a considerable achievement. During these years he established a seminary on the island and sent Augustinian missionaries to Warri. The link between Sao Tomé and Warri was maintained for the following 160 years and it is on record that an Augustinian, Fr Francisco a Mater Dei, baptized the heir to its throne. Even today part of old Warri is known to the local population as “Santomé”. We know too that missionaries from Warri preached the Gospel in Benin but with less success than in Warri. When left without priests in the eighteenth century the Catholics of Warri reverted to a syncretism with the traditional African religion in which, even today, some elements of Catholic ritual are clearly discernible.
The territory confided to the Irish Augustinian Province in 1938 was far removed from the coastal region in which Warri and Benin are situated. Adamawa was one of the twelve provinces which formed the Norhern Region of Nigeria. It lay in the eastern border area and included for administrative purposes most of the mandated territory of British Northern Cameroons. This was a throwback to the First World War in which a combined British and French operation had defeated the Germans in Kamerun. The larger portion of the colony was placed under French administration and today (with the British Souther Cameroons) forms the Republic of Cameroon. The smaller Northern Cameroons voted in a United Nations supervised plebiscite in 1961 to unite with Nigeria and became the thirteenth province of the Northern Region.
Historically Adamawa and most of Northern Cameroons belonged to the Fulani-controlled emirates of Adamawa and Muri. The first of these had Yola as its capital and was the largest of the associated states which formed the Caliphate of Sokoto. It was also the least homogeneous of these states as about three quarters of the population were non-Fulani who had never been fully subjugated. The ethnic composition was similar in neighbouring Muri Emirate and the British united the two emirates in a single civil province in 1926. All the emirates of the Northern Region of Nigeria continued to administer their own affairs under colonial rule in a system of Indirect Rule devised by the territory’s first High Commissioner, Sir Fredrick Lugard.
The indigenous population of Adamawa was thereby ruled by a dual administration from 1901 to 1960 when Nigeria gained her independence. The system of local government by which the emirs appointed district heads was maintained, although the latter were supervised by British divisional officers. The emirs were likewise answerable to a British Resident in each province. All the emirate officials were Muslims and in Adamawa the great majority of these belonged to the ruling Fulani tribe. They formed an ‘ascendancy’ similar in many ways to the Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland of the eighteenth century. The ruling elite in Adamawa were Muslim and the Fulani were a people set apart who seldom mixed with the settled tribes. The latter were cultivators and followed their traditional religion. The Fulani were mainly pastoralists and their nomadic lifestyle also marked them off from the other ethnic groups.
This cleavage helped to limit the normal process by which subject people tend to adopt the religion of the ruling class in the hope of bettering their condition in society. Although the Fulani language (Fulfulde) was widely accepted and used as the lingua franca of the one hundred ethnic groups of Adamawa, Islam was resisted and individual cases of conversation were usually referred to as ‘becoming a Fulani’. This attitude changed in the years after independence (1 October 1960) as the power of the emirates declined and education opened the eyes of the younger generation to a bigger and brighter world. Membership of a world religion, while retaining one’s ethnic identity, became possible and highly desirable and the changed attitude benefited Christianity much more than Islam.
This is borne out by the official census returns of 1952 and 1963. They show that whereas the Muslim population of Gongola State (which substantively corresponded with the old Adamawa) increased from 28.6% to only 32%, the Christian population grew fourfold – from 4.0% in 1952 to 16.7% in 1963. The disparity in the rates of growth has continued and in 1989 I estimated from available data that the population of Gongola State (and of Yola Diocese) was 45% Christian, 35% Muslim and 20% Traditional. The last-named is concentrated in the older generation and has no future as a formal organised religious body. The figures are based on an estimated population of 5 and a half million people.
ARRIVAL IN YOLA
Time passed slowly for the young Augustinian missionaries doing their apprenticeship in mission stations in and around Jos. Their goal was Adamawa and they were impatient to get there. Relations with Msgr Lumely became strained and morale must have been weakened when, in May 1939, Fr Redmond abruptly returned to Ireland. The next in seniority was Fr Dalton, then just 30 years of age and four years a priest. A graduate of University College, Cork, and the Gregorian University in Rome, he had been a teacher in Augustinian schools in New Ross and Dungarven before volunteering for the Adamawa mission. He was appointed superior in Nigeria at the provincial chapter held in July 1939 and would spend the remaining 30 years of his life as the anchorman of the mission.
The clouds of was which had been hanging over Europe for over a year grew more ominous during the summer of 1939. When German troops invaded Poland on 1 September fears gave way to the reality of war. The implications of the conflict for a mission which had not yet got off the ground were apparent to Fr Dalton and he wrote to Msgr Lumely: ‘In view of the recent grave happenings I felt it my duty to ask if you have any information about our future prospects. They will no doubt be affected by the restrictions but what I’d like to know now is whether or not we shall be allowed into Adamawa at all. It is very near the former German territory and may be forbidden to us.’
The Prefect Apostolic was able to allay Fr Dalton’s fears and assured him that the authorities would welcome their good influence on the people of Adamawa. Msgr Lumely had visited Yola in February 1939 and explained the purpose of the Augustinian mission to the Resident (senior administrative officer of the province). This paved the way for a reconnaissance expedition to Adamawa in May by two of his most experienced missionaries. They trekked the mountainous country south of Yola and the riverain plains to the west, and selected sites for the three mission stations in the villages of Demsa, Boi and Sugu.
Msgr Lumely decided to apply for only two stations, in Boi and Sugu. Demsa would not have been granted as it was close to Numan where the Danish Lutherans had a long-established mission. It was also unlikely that permission would be granted for a mission in Yola. A Christian mission in the seat of a large Fulani emirate would not be seen as conforming with the treaties signed between the British and the emirates which guaranteed to respect and safeguard their Muslim culture and religion. None of the expatriate Protestant missions then operating in Adamawa had a station in Yola.
The outbreak of war brought many matters to a head and the application for a mission in Sugu was approved in early September. The site in Boi however was not granted, probably because of the emir’s opposition. Msgr Lumely had the foresight to purchase a supply of building materials in Jos and arrange for their transport to Adamawa. This proved to be of immense value in view of the shortages which the war would soon cause. He had also been assured that good roofing timber was available near Sugu. It seems that the outbreak of war was a spur to all concerned to get moving and establish the mission in Adamawa as soon as possible.
The same sense of urgency was apparent in the unexpected visit of the Apostolic Delegate to Jos in November. Archbishop Riberi was surprised to learn that the Augustinians were not already in Adamawa and there was a candid exchange of views between him and the parties concerned on this point. Msgr Lumely wished to appoint an experience S.M.A missionary to be in charge in Adamawa and supervise the building of the mission in Sugu. This was unacceptable to the Augustinians who wanted to plan and develop their mission from the start. The disagreement was settled amicably by the Delegate and it was decided that the Augustinians would move to Adamawa in Januray 1940. While remaining under the jurisdiction of Msgr Lumely they were free to work on their own initiative and administer their own accounts.
Accordingly, on Friday 19 January 1940, Frs Dalton, Broder and Power packed their belongings into the truck they had purchased and set out for Yola. It was the dry season and the dirt track was open to traffic. They took three days to do the journey of 325 miles and arrived in Yola in the evening of Sunday, 21 January. They put up in the only Catholic church in all Adamawa Province, a grass-matting structure erected ten years earlier by the handful of Catholics – mainly from the south of the country – who had settled in Jimeta, the commercial area of Yola. In his diary, Fr Dalton described the church as follows: ‘This church was an oblong structure of about 30’ x 15’, the sides were merely a number of stakes. These held the roof of grass and were in turn surrounded by native mat. Into this we put our bed, kitchen and Mass box – and there we lived until we got use of a government rest house, the first headquarters of the Augustinian Foreign Mission in Nigeria.