HILTON HEAD ISLAND — Danielle and Howard Haines, members of St. Francis by the Sea Church, sponsored a Dominican seminary student in Ibadan, Nigeria. Danielle wrote the following account of their journey to his country to attend his ordination.
Our trip to Africa was made to be present at the ordination and first Mass of Michael Akpoghiran, who we came to know through the Dominican Seminary Sponsorship Program.
Seven years ago, a Dominican priest gave the annual mission appeal in our Pennsylvania Parish from their province of Nigeria and Ghana. His message included a reference to the fact that each year, the seminary in Nigeria received over three hundred applications but were only able to accept ten. So the notion that on another continent, potential candidates were being turned away prompted us to take the information home.
After the second year of sponsorship, I wrote a note to the Dominican development office asking if we could find out who our student was and whether we could write to him.
Last summer we were given the name of our student, Michael, and were informed that we would soon receive a letter from him. Shortly thereafter a letter came, as well as an e-mail address. The autobiography gave us a glimpse of a very different culture and of what we believe is an extraordinary family.
As the seventh of eleven children, Michael is the second to follow a vocation to the priesthood. Peter, an older brother, is a diocesan priest doing graduate work at St. John’s University in New York.
We continued to learn more about the Dominicans and about the extent of the work of this Nigerian province. We asked Michael directly about the possibility of our making the trip. To our surprise, no other sponsor had ever made this trip. We communicated with the provincial at Lagos and the seminary prior at Ibadan, made our plane reservations, in spite of the war, and we were ready for what would be an incredible visit.
Our first stop was St. Jude’s Parish in Lagos, one of the Dominican-staffed parishes. Early the next morning, we set out for Ibadan in the white Dominican van with “Missionary” written on the front and the sides. We were taking five Dominican Sisters to their Ibadan convent. En route from the convent to our destination, the extent of the call to religious vocations in Nigeria became apparent. We passed a large campus; it was the diocesan seminary in Ibadan. The Carmelites, Franciscans and Redemptorists have seminaries in this city, too.
Finally we came to the seminary gate, with a sign proclaiming in bold letters “Order Of Preachers, Dominican Community.” In the year 1216, St. Dominic received papal permission to organize a religious order dedicated to preaching.
We arrived just in time for noon prayer in the chapel. After lunch we met Michael. Community preparations for the ordination were marked by a flurry of activity the afternoon preceding the ceremony. A dozen large canopies had been rented. They were being set up on three sides of the elevated outdoor altar. Michael’s family arrived in the late afternoon from the Delta Region of the Midwest. Michael’s father was unable to make the seven-hour trip because of his health. During evening prayer, a person with a familiar face came into the back of the chapel. It was Father Joe Keke, a hospital chaplain I had worked with in Pennsylvania. Father gave us the African ceremonial attire we had with us to wear for the ordination. He had made the 1,000-mile trip from his parish in the northern, sub-Saharan area of the country to be with us.
Ordination day, April 25, began in a festive atmosphere with clusters of families and guests, laughter, and brothers in their white habits scurrying about with last-minute arrangements. Anticipation was in the air.
The ceremony was celebrated in English but the hymns were in the various ethnic languages representative of the four candidates. The most impressive part of the four-hour Mass was the dynamic homily given by the Most Reverend Dr. Felix Job, Archbishop of Ibadan. In essence, the talk was a short course in everything a young man might need to know from an experienced priest about spirituality, challenges, goals and service necessary to fulfill the vocation of priest.
The next day eleven of us, including Michael and his classmates, and our luggage were packed into the white van for the seven-hour trip to Michael’s home village. It is tradition for the new priests to be present for each other’s Thanksgiving Mass. We drove south and east to the Warri area of the country, and then north out of Warri to Oha, Michael’s home. The family and extended family live in a small compound of buildings with a common area in the center. Many relatives had gathered, friends and the village chief mingled, children played games and a cooking fire provided perfect insect control.
Nigeria does not have daylight saving time, so darkness came early. Words weren’t needed to sense the pride and joy of Michael’s father, who had not been able to share in the ordination day activities. Every household has a character.
Here, we perceived a family, much like our own, sharing joy and the happiness of three or more generations coming together in celebration of one of life’s great events.
We were now ready to leave for Mass. Michael’s younger brothers would push their father’s wheelchair the three-quarters-of-a-mile distance to the parish grounds.
Oha’s small village church would not be able to seat the large number who would come to be part of the celebration of a village son saying his first Mass. The parish soccer field would be the church this day.
A reception followed the Mass and all those in attendance were invited. The ladies of the parish had worked hard to prepare a substantial meal for several hundred people.
Entertainment was provided by two groups of girls who performed some very intricate dances.
Michael told us of a tradition that he wanted us to experience. He spoke about the custom of the Oka-Orho, which means “the first in the town.” The Oka-Orho is the oldest person in the village who by advanced age is considered to have the most experience and wisdom.
With the passage of a major life event, it is a tradition to seek the blessing of the Oka-Orho and as a courtesy, to give him a blessing as well. His blessing for Michael was not only for him personally but also for his ministry and the people who would seek his advice as a priest. A blessing given to the Oka-Orho included gratitude and thanksgiving for his longevity, for health and for wisdom in his role in the life of the village. As we left we were aware that we had witnessed a meaningful tradition that strengthens the bonds of caring and community identity and cohesiveness.
Back at Michael’s home, it was time to say good-bye. We had only been in Nigeria a week, but we had become so comfortable with the Dominicans and Michael’s family members that walking away was difficult. There was an inclination to stay and absorb a little more joy, peace, and the spirituality we found in Ibadan and Oha. We realize that we had a rare opportunity to step into a very different world, meet a gracious people and encounter a more relaxed tempo of life.
Our experience gave us a deeper appreciation of the mystical Body of Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit. We know that what we shared in Africa was God’s grace.