Urhobo Historical Society

 

Remembering Monseigneur Anthony Ọmọnavrọvore Erhueh

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(1938-2014)

 

By Peter Ekeh

President, Urhobo Historical Society

 

Anthony Erhueh belonged to a generation that witnessed many tumultuous beginnings occasioned by important changes that were compelled by European colonial rule in Urhoboland and Nigeria. He came of age in the 1940s and 1950s in an Okpara community that was experiencing such changes at a quickened pace. Anthony Erhueh attended the famous Catholic Central [Elementary] School, Okpara Inland, which functioned at once as the cultural centre of an Urhobo inland community in British colonial times as well as serving as the pioneering grounds for training youngsters for the new enlightenment that colonialism and Christianity brought to Urhoboland. From the special corner of that era, it was an age that was animated by the actions of English colonial officers and Irish Catholic missionaries. Like most other young persons who grew up in Okpara in those days, Anthony Erhueh absorbed the lessons that flowed from the dramatic establishment, in 1947, of the first Catholic parish in the interior of Urhoboland at Okpara Inland – aside and away from the metropolitan townships of Warri and Sapele. An impressive number of Irish priests – beginning with the burly Fr. J. D. Sheehan and continuing with the charismatic Fr. Brown – these were the sturdy evangelists who brought Christian education and faith to a skeptical traditional society in Okpara and other Urhobo communities of the 1940s and 1950s. The towering Irish missionary of that era was Bishop Joseph Kelly whose occasional episcopal visits to Okpara Inland were inspiring in the minds of young people like Anthony Erhueh.

The appeal of Catholic evangelism in Okpara, especially to young people, was immeasurably strengthened with the arrival in 1955 of a senior Seminarian on his Pastoral Year Service (at that time termed as Probation Year). Peter Nyowheoma had extraordinary influence on the youth’s regard for Church doctrines because he could explain their tenets directly. There was clearly an uptake in the influence of the Church on young people due to his work. Anthony Erhueh and his friends gained enormously from this new trend, especially while he was back home on vacation from college.

Anthony Erhueh stood out in that generation of Urhobo youngsters of the 1950s because he was in the first cohort of youth who took seriously the spiritual challenges of their times. True, there were a good number of Urhobo priests before Anthony Erhueh was ordained in 1966. The doyen of Urhobo Catholic priests was Monseigneur Stephen Umurie, who was ordained in 1942. He was a grown man when he embarked on training for the priesthood in 1929. Other earlier Urhobo Catholic priests -- who followed in Stephen Umurie’s footsteps and were ordained before Anthony Erhueh -- these made their choices for priesthood in their adult years. For a memorable example, the late Monseigneur Joseph Efebe was a long-time teacher at Catholic Central School, Okpara Inland, before he entered the Seminary. In contrast, Erhueh’s journey into the priesthood was begun early in his adolescence.

Anthony Erhueh’s spirituality blossomed in his first year as a student of St. Peter Claver’s College at Aghalokpe in 1955. The ambience in that fledgling secondary school, the premier Catholic college in Urhoboland and in Delta Province of Colonial Nigeria, was right for pious acts. Begun in 1950 and initially located in Sapele, St. Peter Claver’s College was relocated to Aghalokpe in 1953. The two years before Anthony arrived at Aghalokpe saw a burst of building construction that culminated in the magnificent College Chapel. Also arriving at Aghalokpe in 1955 was Stephen Ogbeide, a Seminarian from SS Peter & Paul Major Seminary, Bodija-Ibadan, who was posted to St. Peter Claver’s College in his Pastoral Year (termed Probation Year at that time). Ogbeide not only taught Religious Studies throughout the school; he prepared students for various aspects of the Catholic faith and was very influential in his relationship with students who desired growth in the Catholic faith. The Seminarian from SS Peter & Paul profoundly helped in redirecting the character of key students, like Anthony Erhueh, whose spiritual lives he helped to reshape. Further enriching the religious atmosphere at Aghalokpe was the powerful presence of foursome Irish Fathers and teachers at the College: Michael Scully, Principal; Joseph Donnelly; James Byrne; and the youthful Science teacher, Father O’Shea. For many young boys studying at Aghalokpe in 1955, the spiritual aura emitted from these sources was impressive. For Anthony Erhueh, the new Christian appeal compelled an irresistible vocation. By the end of his first year at St. Peter Claver’s College, Anthony had made up his mind to become a Catholic priest. He left Aghalokpe for the Seminary in 1956, first to Benin City and then farther away at St. Theresa’s Minor Seminary, Oke-Are, Ibadan -- in order to create greater distance for Anthony’s father who initially strongly objected to his son’s priestly vocation.

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Both at Aghalokpe and Oke-Are, Anthony Erhueh proved to be a brilliant student. He was particularly outstanding in Latin and Mathematics. Having completed his academic studies at St. Theresa’s Minor Seminary at Oke-Are, Ibadan, towards the time of Nigeria’s Independence in 1960, Anthony was one of several Nigerian students who were selected to study for the priesthood in Rome. Both spiritually and academically, the Roman experience was a good one for Anthony Erhueh. It certainly deepened his appreciation for Church history. Remarkably, he loved the Italian language which he spoke and read fluently. Anthony Erhueh’s ordination in Rome in 1966 was an achievement that brought pride to his Urhobo people.

Anthony Erhueh’s studies at Aghalokpe, Oke-Are, and Rome prepared him well for his pastoral work as well as his academic pursuits which he craved. Most of the lasting friendships and associations which stood him in good stead throughout his priestly life were formed in these settings. Among notable leaders of the Nigerian Catholic Church who were friends with Monseigneur Erhueh were his classmates or schoolmates at St. Theresa’s Minor Seminary, Oke-Are, Ibadan, or at Urbaniana University, Rome: Cardinal Anthony Okogie of Lagos; Archbishop Felix Adeosin Alaba Job of Ibadan;  and Cardinal John Onaiyekan. These backgrounds also prepared Anthony Erhueh well for his doctoral studies in Fordham University, New York, USA, whose Ph.D. (Theology) he was proud to earn.

The subject-matter of Anthony Erhueh’s Ph.D. thesis at Fordham University was a theme that dominated changes in ways that the values of the Church were conveyed to Catholics and non-Catholics alike in the 1960s and onwards. Anthony Erhueh’s training and experiences in Rome took place in the era of Pope John XXIII in which several changes occurred in the Church. For instance, the Latin Mass was modified in ways that allowed local languages to be employed in celebrating the Mass without altering its Sacramental essence. In order to enable the Church to communicate more effectively with the modern world, Pope John XXIII empanelled the Second Vatican Council in 1962. Its principal recommendation was dialogue with key segments of the modern world.

Anthony Erhueh’s Ph.D. thesis focused on the dialogue aspect of the Second Vatican Council. It was published in 1987 by Urbaniana University Press with the following title: Vatican II: Image of God in Man. An Inquiry into the Theological Foundation and Significance of Human Dignity in the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, “Gaudium et Spes.” Erhueh’s theological treatise examined the premises and significance of the Second Vatican Council. Accepting Vatican II’s far-reaching call for dialogue between Catholicism and other Christian and non-Christian as well as non-Biblical confessions of faith, including atheists, Erhueh urged such dialogue to be extended to African Traditional Religions. In the last chapter of his impressive book, Anthony Erhueh applied these insights from the lessons of the Second Vatican Council to his native knowledge of Urhobo religious practices and beliefs in an original effort to include African cultures in the promise of Vatican II. Such knowledge prepared for Anthony Erhueh the grounds for many years of fruitful teaching of Theology at the Major Seminary at Bodija-Ibadan in the 1980s and 1990s.

There is a fragment of Urhobo history pertaining to Monseigneur Anthony Erhueh that deserves to be sketched out. At the time of Erhueh’s ordination in 1966, the young priest was justifiably proclaimed by the people of Okpara as their first Catholic priest. Meanwhile, in his mature years, the Reverend Monseigneur has been claimed as Otovwodo-Ughelli native. This apparent discrepancy owes to Monseigneur Anthony Erhueh’s father’s parentage. Anthony’s father’s given names are Ojagberevwe (by which he was known in Okpara) and Eyamu (by which he was known in Ughelli). The name of Ojagberevwe’s father is Erhueh. Ojagberevwe was raised by his mother in her native hometown of Okpara. As a young man, Ojagberevwe was quite active in the affairs of Urhuvwu r’ Igbere, his mother’s quarter in Okpara Inland. Ojagberevwe married a local young woman, Ọnorhọ, from Urhuvwu r’ Uno of Okpara Inland. Together, they had six children among whom Monseigneur Anthony Erhueh was the second born. Unfortunately, Anthony’s mother died rather young – while he was in his first year at Aghalokpe. With the loss of his Okpara spouse and, later, with the death of his own mother in 1968,  Ojagberevwe Eyamu Erhueh left Okpara and returned to his father’s hometown of Otovwodo-Ughelli where he successfully plied a community life as a leader of the Erhueh family.

Monseigneur Anthony Erhueh treasured his family ties to Ughelli and Okpara remarkably well – albeit in different ways. The affairs of the Erhueh family of Ughelli were of huge significance for the mature Anthony Erhueh. Following the death of his father and of his elder brother, James, Monseigneur Erhueh did play an elder’s role of offering advice on family matters to the members of the Erhueh family. Meanwhile, Anthony Erhueh maintained his ties to his mother’s relatives in Okpara as well as to his father’s maternal family of Urhuvwu r’ Igbere of Okpara. It is striking that when Monseigneur Erhueh needed a reliable driver, he went to his mother’s family to seek help. Some of the closest advisers that he consulted on personal and family problems were his Okpara relatives. For two prominent examples, the late Justice Mitaire Unurhoro and Chief Thompson Okpoko (SAN) – both Okpara relatives of Anthony Erhueh – were his life-time confidants and supporters.

Anthony Erhueh was a strong family man in another sense that will forever be honoured and treasured by the Erhueh family. His father, Chief Ojagberevwe Eyamu Erhueh, was re-married following the early death of Anthony’s mother. Chief Erhueh therefore had many more children, some of whom were born in his old age. Anthony paid full attention to the spiritual welfare of these younger members of the Erhueh family. He also sought sponsorship for their education in Catholic schools. Thus, Friday Erhueh, now a businessman in Ughelli, and his younger brother, the late Augustine Erhueh, were helped to attain good standards by their Reverend elder brother through the assistance of a benevolent Catholic woman, Madam Obiomah, of Warri. Monseigneur Anthony Erhueh’s intervention in the case of another vulnerable younger family member was even more dramatic. Painfully, Anthony’s immediate younger sister, Ọmọtẹkoro, had died early, leaving five young children behind. The youngest of these, Benedicta, needed multiplex care. Anthony helped his little niece in many ways, seeking assistance for her upbringing and training in Catholic institutions and schools. Now resident in the United States, Benedicta has grown up to be a successful professional woman. Remarkably, she has followed in the footsteps of her gracious uncle: she has adopted four orphaned members of the Erhueh family whom she is assisting to develop into successful and responsible adults.

Friendship was another precious institution that Monseigneur Anthony Erhueh valued greatly, almost next in strength to the family. Several of his personal friends date back to his young days in Okpara. His earliest and best friend was Chief Joseph Imo Otite. Anthony Erhueh and Imo Otite were baptized on the same day at the Catholic Church in Okpara Inland in 1953. Their friendship was deep and abiding and lasted till the end. They uniquely addressed each other by that Urhobo moniker of endearment: Oko-o. When Monseigneur Anthony Erhueh’s illness turned grave, he asked quite often to be driven to Okpara to be with his old friend. There were other friends that Anthony Erhueh retained from his youth in Okpara: Professor Andrew Evwaraye and Simon Agbro were often mentioned by Anthony Erhueh as trusted friends. At St. Peter Claver’s College, Aghalokpe, Anthony Erhueh’s closest friend was another Catholic devotee: Francis Okezie (later known as Professor Francis Onofeghara). The Reverend Monseigneur must have developed, during his years as a student in Oke-Are (Ibadan), Rome, and Fordham University (USA), other close friends who are not known to this writer. However, at SS Peter & Paul Major Seminary, Bodija-Ibadan, his friendship with Msgr. Michael Mozia was well celebrated and greatly treasured by Anthony Erhueh.

It is fair to say that I enjoyed a relationship with Anthony Erhueh that he valued greatly and that went well beyond the ordinary Urhobo meaning of friendship. This is so on two counts. First, I was four years older than Anthony Erhueh and I did serve as his mentor on occasions, particularly at St. Peter Claver’s College, Aghalokpe. Second, Anthony Erhueh and I were old-fashioned namesakes for which reason we called ourselves Ọkpọ. This is because in the whole of Urhuvwu r’ Igbere quarter of Okpara, from which both of us hailed as children, only two of us bore the colonial name of “Palmer.” Anthony did drop that colonial name from his set of names, although his contemporaries in Okpara still address him as Palmer. In any case, he and I called ourselves Ọkpọ -- that is, namesake – for the six decades in which we interacted with each other. Our relationship was strengthened – but also complicated -- when Anthony Erhueh became the second boy from Urhuvwu r’ Igbere, after me, to attend St. Peter Claver’s College, Aghalokpe. Anthony’s father especially asked me to take care of him. Ojagberevwe Erhueh therefore thought that I betrayed him when he learnt that his son had left for the Seminary with my encouragement. As he complained to my father, “Palmer allowed ‘Father’ people to take away my son.” My own father’s response could not have been reassuring to Anthony Erhueh’s father. My father told Anthony’s father that his own son, Samuel, my immediate younger brother, had absconded and that he, too, had left with the ‘Father’ people.

The relationship between Anthony Erhueh and me became complex and interesting in later years. In 1957, my younger brother, Samuel, took ill at St. Theresa’s Minor Seminary, Oke-Are, Ibadan, at which he and Anthony were students. Anthony was thrust into the position of closest available relative to my brother and he did his best to give him care. When Samuel died and was buried in the Seminary grounds, he more or less became the chief mourner. Meanwhile, Anthony Erhueh spent his vacation months with me at Irrua, Ishan Division, where I was teaching Latin and a few other subjects at Annunciation College (1958-1960). By the time Dr. Anthony Erhueh came back to Ibadan to teach at the Major Seminary at Bodija, in the 1980s, I was settled at Ibadan as Professor of Political Science at the University of Ibadan. Our relationship deepened as he served as my family’s spiritual adviser, baptizing three of my children. I recall, especially, in 1989, while I was away on Sabbatical leave in the United States and one of my sons became difficult, dropping out of his university classes, it was Anthony Erhueh who intervened and probably saved the young man’s future.

As far as Monseigneur Anthony Erhueh was concerned, such services to friends and to his own family were all part of his ministry. He saw his care for the vulnerable, especially unprotected children among us, as part of God’s work that he was called upon to do. By nature, Anthony Erhueh was a humble man who preferred unadvertised services in favour of the poor to the brazen limelight of association with the mighty.

Aside from such personal and individual ministration in unpublicized settings, we in Urhobo Historical Society have a special reason for remembering the work of Monseigneur Anthony Erhueh on the occasion of his death. In 2004, Urhobo Historical Society had its first Conference in Urhoboland. In preparing for that Conference, we wanted to have an Ecumenical Thanksgiving Service as a way of ending the three-day Conference. Not confident on how such service would work out, we asked Monseigneur Erhueh to help with its organization. With the help of Rev. Dr. Samuel Erivwo of the Anglican Communion as well as a Catholic Choir from the Catholic Cathedral at Warri and an Anglican Choir from St. Luke’s Church, Sapele, a magnificent Thanksgiving Service was produced. That pattern of Thanksgiving Service, first established by Monseigneur Erhueh, has since been repeated by Urhobo Historical Society and other Urhobo organizations. We salute and thank Monseigneur Anthony Erhueh for this and many other services to the Urhobo people.

I believe I speak for Monseigneur Anthony Erhueh’s friends and associates when I say that the organization in which he offered his services for five decades has done well for him, spiritually and physically, in his last days. We salute the Roman Catholic Diocese of Warri and its Parish of Our Mother of the Redeemer, Effurun, for offering solace to Monseigneur Anthony Erhueh in the midst of an overwhelming disease. In particular, we thank the Parish Priest of Our Mother of Redeemer as well as the humble Seminarian assigned to take care of Monseigneur Anthony Erhueh in his last days. This work of charity is deserving of a man who devoted his life work to serving the poor and the vulnerable. We extend in these words of thanks our gratitude to Mrs. Theresa (Piano) Ukre, Anthony Erhueh’s beloved younger sister, for her passion for her brother’s well-being. We are aware that Monseigneur Anthony Erhue’s two surviving younger brothers – Mr. Leventis Erhueh (Atlanta, USA) and Dr. Wilson Erhueh (Ughelli, Nigeria) who shared the agony of losing their mother at an early age -- have been consumed with grief for the loss of their beloved elder brother. We cherish their love for Anthony Erhueh. While we all remember and praise such works and acts of Charity, we pray for a dear friend and sincere pastor among his people:

MAY THE GOOD LORD BLESS ANTHONY ỌMỌNAVRỌVORE ERHUEH’S SOUL AND MAY HE REST IN GOD’S ETERNAL PEACE



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