The Federal Republic of Nigeria, made up of 36 states, is in West Africa and shares land borders with the Republic of Benin, Chad, Cameroon and Niger and has a coastline on the Atlantic. It was colonised by Britain, and gained independence on October 1st 1960. It is by far the most populous country in Africa, with an estimated 174 million inhabitants. Rich in oil, it recently surpassed South Africa as the largest economy in Africa.
St. Patrick's Missionaries in Nigeria
The history of the Society in Nigeria is truly the history of the Society, for the first twenty years after our foundation. The Society was founded on St Patrick's Day 1932 and, until new missions were opened in Kenya in 1951, Nigeria is where all our overseas missionary activity took place.
The story of the Society can be traced back to the work of Fr Patrick Joseph Whitney who was ordained for the Irish Diocese of Ardagh and Clonmacnois in 1920. He had studied for the priesthood at Maynooth College, the national seminary in Ireland. While a student he had heard the appeal of Bishop Joseph Shanahan, an Irish member of the Holy Ghost Fathers (known now as the Spiritans). He was in charge of a huge area, the Vicariate of Southern Nigeria, with maybe six million people. Shanahan was very short of priests and appealed to the students at Maynooth to make a temporary commitment of five years, before they would return to their own diocese. This was not unusual at the time. There was an abundance of priests in Ireland, and similar arrangements had been made for India and China.
He arrived in Nigeria in December 1920 with Fr Thomas Ronayne, a priest of the Archdiocese of Dublin, who had been ordained for seven years. In the following December Pat Whitney writes of his developing idea to set up a 'Maynooth Nigerian Diocese'. In the following decade another ten Irish diocesan priests travelled to Nigeria to work with Bishop Shanahan and the Holy Ghost Fathers. Over this period they came to believe that what was needed was a permanent commitment In due course they decided to set up a society of secular priests who would be full-time missionaries. Fr. PJ Whitney was chosen to lead the Society.
In March 1930, St. Patrick's Missionary Society was set up on a trial basis with Fr. PJ Whitney as Superior, with headquarters in Kiltegan, Co. Wicklow, where a house and land had been donated by John Hughes. Fr. PJ Whitney appealed in Maynooth and by the end of 1930 seven more diocesan priests had gone to Nigeria. He also travelled Ireland, speaking of the needs of Southern Nigeria and seeking the support he needed to establish the Society as a permanent missionary body within the Church. He was very successful at this and, in 1932, the time was ripe for the official establishment of the Society. The first students for the Society arrived in Kiltegan and were ordained in 1939. Others were ordained earlier, who had studied at other seminaries.
The initial concentration of the Society men was in Calabar and soon after in Ogoja, in the South East of Nigeria. Over the years the numbers of priests increased greatly. The particular concern of the priests was primary evangleization, the preaching of Christianity to those who had not heard of it before. There was also a strong commitment to the work of education and, in cooperation with the Medical Missionaries of Mary, care for those suffering from leprosy. James Moynagh was appointed Bishop of Calabar in 1947. Thomas McGettrick was appointed Bishop of Ogoja in 1955 and Bishop of Abakaliki in 1973. Ned Fitzgibbon became Prefect Apostolic of Minna, in the north of Nigeria in 1964. In these years the Society flourished in Nigeria.
The secession of Biafra in 1967, and the subsequent war with Federal Nigeria, were dark days for the country. Members of the Society stayed throughout the war and suffered alongside the people, which was much appreciated: a very authentic Christian witness.
Over the years, Diocesan volunteer priests have made a huge contribution to the work of the Society in Nigeria, providing a close link with the origins of the Society.
In recent years, as the Society ages, the number of men working in Nigeria has declined. At the same time Nigeria remains very important to the future of the Society as it is one of the centres for the formation of future members of the Society. The initial formation house was established in Ijebu-Ode in 1997. To date thirteen young Nigerians have been ordained as members of St Patrick's Missionary Society and have ministered in Nigeria, Kenya, Brazil and South Africa.
Society members are still working in the Archdioceses of Lagos, Abuja and Calabar, in the Dioceses of Bauchi, Calabar, Ijebu-Ode and Minna and in the Apostolic Vicariate of Bomadi.