Urhobo Historical Society

A Tribute By Rev. Father Patrick Otor, MSP


The Reverend Gabriel Akemu

Who Died on March 18, 2003


Rev. Father Gabriel S. Akemu, M.S.P. was born to the family of Mr. Akprekpre Akemu of Effurun and Madam Comfort Unuovorhaye Erhiaganoma of Orhokpokpo, Agbarho. His father died while Gabriel was only a boy. Consequently, his mother had to move back to her hometown of Orhokpokpo, Agbarho, and little Gabriel had to relocate with her.


It is noteworthy that neither of Father Gabriel’s parents was a Christian at the time of his birth. Both parents were strong believers in African (that is, Urhobo) Traditional Religion. In fact, Rev. Father Akemu's mother only became Christian just a couple of years ago.

Father Gabriel went to Catholic Primary School in Oviri-Agbarho which shared the same compound as St. Gregory Catholic Church, Oviri-Agbarho. Here little Gabriel came in contact with the Irish Missionary of the Society of African Missions (SMA), Father Brown. Father Brown was at that time the Parish Priest (Pastor) of Old Okpara parish. I say Old Okpara parish because Okpara parish then covered the whole of Agbon kingdom, all of Agbarho kingdom and a great portion of Okpe kingdom, including Orerokpe.  From time to time, Father Brown would visit the out-stations (these are towns and villages outside the parish headquarters in Okpara Inland). During these visits Father Brown would play and joke with the children that came around. He would even greet the children ‘Mi guo,’ a greeting specially reserved for the elderly in Urhoboland. This caused great laugher among the children, who wondered at the hilarity of this ‘Oyibo’ or white man.


Little Gabriel was one of those children, who enjoyed Father Brown’s plays, jokes and presence. Unknown to the mother and close relatives, little Gabriel was secretly admiring the white missionary but could not aspire to be like him because he (Gabriel) thought only the white man could be a priest. Since he was black and African, he thought all he can ever do was to admire the white priest. While he was still wondering in admiration, God showed him a sign that a black man, an Urhobo man can be a priest.  This strengthened his resolve to be a priest.  This sign came, when Rev. Father Peter Ovadje, an Urhobo, and even much more an Agbarho man, was ordained to the priesthood in Warri in 1970. As a result of this, Gabriel, now a teenager, decided to be a Christian and was baptized by Father Peter Ovadje in 1971.


A year later, Gabriel could no longer hide his feeling and desire to be a priest like Fathers Brown and Ovadje. Although he was aware that letting his mother know of his desire to be a priest, would be taken as bad news, he went ahead to tell her of his intention to go to the (Minor) Seminary at Effurun, to start his training for the priesthood.  His mother saw the idea as either madness or an expensive joke. She immediately informed other members of her family and a meeting of the extended family was convened. Gabriel was called upon to tell the entire family what he had told his mother earlier. Gabriel repeated with passion, all he told his mother.  The extended family told him that if he intended to live a life of no wife no children, then he should consider himself no longer a member of the family.


That night he had nowhere to go except to the home of Mr. Paul Onar’akpobe- ruo, the Catechist of the Oviri-Agbarho church.  Catechist Paul fed and housed him for a few days. When this became known, to his mother and family that he was in the Catechist’s house, they (the family) went there to pick a quarrel with the Catechist. But that was too late because Gabriel had moved the previous day to a friend’s place (Patrick Okorodudu). Not finding their son with Catechist Paul, they could not do much. From this time on Gabriel moved from one friend to another. He would spend the nights with these friends and go secretly to the Catechist and his Godfather for food. Two or so weeks later Father Ovadje came by to celebrate mass at Oviri-Agbarho and the Catechist mentioned to him Gabriel’s plight.  Father Ovadje asked to meet Gabriel before returning to Warri. During his meeting with Gabriel, Father Ovadje advised Gabriel to pray for a change of heart for his mother and family. He also encouraged him to be strong in faith. Finally, Father Ovadje asked him to visit him (Father Ovadje) in Warri. Father Ovadje gave him Gabriel three shillings. At that time, it only cost one shilling to go from Agbarho to Warri. For almost a year he depended on the generosity of Catechist Paul Onar’akpoberuo, Father Peter Ovadje, his Godfather and other Christian friends. He was forever grateful to all these people for their help, support and encouragement.


In January 1973, Gabriel was admitted into the Holy Martyrs of Uganda Minor Seminary, Effurun. All through his days in the Minor Seminary, Gabriel spent his vacations either with Fr. Peter Ovadje, his Godfather, Catechist Paul Onar’akpoberuo or one of his other Christian friends. As a student in the Minor seminary, Gabriel was given the responsibility of Food Prefect as well as Seminary Bursar; the latter is a responsibility that is rarely given to students. He held both responsibilities so well that in his final year, he was relieved of the food perfect responsibility and was given even a greater one of the Seminary Senior Prefect, while still the Seminary Bursar. He graduated from the Holy Martyrs of Uganda Minor Seminary in June 1978.


In October that same year, Gabriel Akemu proceeded to Saints Peter and Paul Major (Senior) Seminary, Ibadan, along with three others. After a month or so at Saints Peter and Paul Major Seminary, Ibadan, he moved to the newly established National Missionary Seminary of St. Paul, Iperu-Remo, Ogun State. This movement came about because of a new admission policy at the Major Seminary in Ibadan. The seminary was seriously considering affiliating its philosophy faculty to the Philosophy Department of the University of Ibadan at the time. This required all students entering Saints Peter and Paul Major Seminary to have not just a minimum of five credits but one of the five must be English Language.  Gabriel though had five credits but had only a pass in English language.  Feeling that he was being called to the priesthood, this obstacle would not stop him, hence his movement to the National Missionary Seminary of St. Paul, which was at the time accepting candidates with five credits and a pass in English Language. Years later Gabriel saw this movement as a design by Providence for him to fulfill his desire to be a missionary priest like Fr. Brown, his parish priest at Agbarho (Okpara parish).


At the National Missionary Seminary of St. Paul, Iperu- Remo, Gabriel spent his first year, studying spirituality, technically called “spiritual year”.  After his spiritual year, he proceeded to do his study of philosophy and theology, as required by Church Law for all students studying for the priesthood. He began in Iperu-Remo and in October 1984, when the Seminary moved to its Abuja Campus, Gabriel was a third year theology student.  He finished his seminary studies in June 1986 and was ordained a priest for the Missionary Society of St. Paul, on Saturday, June 28, 1986 at Our Lady, Queen of Nigeria, Pro-Cathedral, Garki-Abuja, Nigeria.


Immediately after his ordination, Father Gabriel Akemu, MSP, was assigned to Liberia. He was a pioneer Missionary of St. Paul to that country. In truth, Father Akemu is a pioneer in many areas. As a missionary of St. Paul, his class was one of the pioneer classes.  His class was the first ever to be sent out on mission by the Missionary society of St. Paul.  He was the first missionary priest of Urhoboland, the first missionary priest in Delta State and also the first in the former Bendel or Mid-West State.


While in Liberia, a civil war broke out in 1990 – 1998. Father Akemu and his parishioners became refugees in Ivory Coast for almost a decade. During this time, he endeared himself to the people of Liberia, whom he fondly referred to as “my people”. Father Gabriel Akemu stood by, with and for his people all through this difficult and trying period.  In recognition of his dedication to God and His people, the Catholic Bishop of Cape Palmas, Liberia, appointed him the Vocations Director and the Vicar General of the Diocese of Cape Palmas.


Father Akemu was the head (Superior) of the Missionaries of St. Paul in Liberia, 1988 – 1999.  Father Gabriel displayed a remarkable sign of leadership when he brought all the priests under his care safely home before deciding to return to his people, who had then become refugees in Ivory Coast.  He was recalled home to Nigeria because of ill health in June 2000. In January 2001, he was asked by his Superior General to go for a sabbatical.  At the end of which, he was assigned to the United States. This was done principally to take a better care of Father Akemu’s health, which was getting less and less wonderful. He arrived in the US in summer 2002.


Father Akemu became seriously ill on February 12, 2003 and was admitted to Christus St Joseph Hospital, in Houston, Texas, USA. He died about five weeks later on March 18, 2003.


At his funeral mass in St. Peter the Apostle Church, Houston, Texas, Father Patrick Weah, a priest of the Diocese of Cape Palmas, who represented the Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Cape of Palmas, Liberia, said: “Father Gabriel, in very concrete and unique ways fulfilled Matthew 25: 31-46, because he fed the hungry, gave something to the thirsty to drink, gave clothes to the naked, visited many people who were sick as well as burying the dead. He risked his own life many times to help my (Fr. Weah’s) people.  He took Liberians as his people. He shared his life with them and he served them with love." Continuing Fr. Weah said: “We call him ‘Pa Gab’ because he was like a father to many of us. I was a seminarian under him; he cared greatly for us (Seminarians). Pa Gab was both Vocation Director and Vicar General of the Diocese of Cape Palmas, not because there were no other priests around but he was the most capable and most deserving”. He concluded by saying: “The Church has lost a very committed missionary, a dedicated priest and a good man. Pa Gab rest in peace”.  Also present at the funeral were many Liberians from different parts of the USA.

Nigerian Reverend Sisters (Nuns) in Houston and the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word of Houston, to whom he ministered before he took ill, visited Father Akemu several times while he was in hospital. Their presence at Father Akemu's funeral was most significant and very visible.They were very much present during the wake and funeral masses. The Missionaries of St. Paul and indeed this writer are grateful to them for all their prayers and support during our moment of grief. May the Good Lord bless and reward them.


All who knew Father Gabriel Akemu, MSP, will agree that he was a dependable, unassuming, dedicated, hardworking, generous and selfless priest as well as a committed missionary. He was a man of great faith.


According to the Constitution of the Missionary Society of St. Paul “Members are buried …in the last place of work” (Article 123).  Following the constitutions, Father Gabriel Akemu, MSP, was laid to rest at Sacred Heart Catholic Cemetery, Raywood, Texas, USA.


Father Akemu has left behind an aged mother, a brother, two sisters, nephews and nieces all back home in Nigeria. All his confreres in the Missionary Society of St. Paul, his family and all the people he ministered to in Liberia, Ivory Coast, the United States and Nigeria will seriously miss him. May the soul of Fr. Gabriel Akemu, MSP and the souls of all the faithful departed rest in the peace of Christ. Amen.

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Many thanks to members of the Urhobo Progress Association of Houston, Texas. They made several visits to Father Akemu while he was in hospital. They put up a strong presence during the wake service and the funeral, dressed in their colorful Urhobo attire and songs of final farewell. Urhobo priests from all over the United States flew in to bid their final farewell to their brother, Father Gabriel Akemu. God bless them all for their brotherly love.   The Very Rev. Hyacinth Egbebo, Superior General of the Missionaries of St. Paul flew in a day before the funeral from Nigeria.  Also present was the delegation from the Diocese of Galveston-Houston led by Bishop Vincent Rizzotto. The Missionaries of St. Paul are grateful to all of you for sharing in our grief.  May the Good Lord bless all of you.                


I am sure some might be asking, what does “MSP” mean? Or who are the missionaries of St. Paul? The Missionaries of St. Paul or The Missionary Society of St. Paul is a missionary order of priests established by the Catholic Bishops of Nigeria in 1977 in response to the call by Pope Paul VI in 1969 at Kapala, Uganda. “It was time the African Church joined in the missionary work of Universal Church.” It is the first indigenous missionary order in Africa. There have been many missionary orders in Africa established by Europeans working in Africa, but this one is different because it is the first to be established by Africans themselves in the Church.  As I have already mentioned above Fr. Akemu is the first Urhobo priest of the Society. Following Fr. Akemu’s lead are seven other Urhobo sons, one of whom is this writer. They all need your prayers and support.  The Missionary Society of St. Paul too needs the prayers and financial support of good men and women to provide for the training of students at the National Missionary seminary of St. Paul, Abuja, Nigeria. For more information visit www.mspfathers.org or email: mspusa@aol.com or call 713-747-1722 in USA, in Nigeria call 09-882-1413; 09-8821402 or 09-671-0629.