How it all started
In 1987, a pious organisation in Germany which promotes devotion to Our Lady of Fatima, sent a life-sized statue of The Blessed Virgin Mary to the Orlu Diocesan Block Rosary Crusade. Rejoicing over this great gift, the officers of the Block Rosary met to decide what to do with it. After due deliberation with the Diocesan Chaplain, it was decided to build a shrine or grotto in honour of Our Lady of Fatima. This proposal was presented by the chaplain to Bishop Gregory O. Ochiaga who asked him to suggest a possible site for the shrine. The chaplain later submitted the names of several parishes in the diocese devoted to the Blessed Mother, namely the St Mary’s parishes.
From the list the Bishop selected St Mary’s parish in Umuaka because of its large land area that could accommodate the shrine. Following this decision, the chaplain together with the officers consulted the architect Pat Obinna from Emekuku and the engineer Chief Nnabuife from Owerre-Ebeiri for technical advice. The estimated cost for building a model shrine drawn by the architect was about 90 million Nigerian Niara (USD 750,000.00). The Block Rosary Crusade did not have access to such money, yet it wanted a shrine erected, so the chaplain advised all the members to take up their rosaries and begin working for the project.
After a meeting in Rome in 1987, the Bishop returned home with the news that the Holy Father, Pope John Paul II had declared 1988 a Marian Year. The Bishop decided as a result to erect something to commemorate the year and thus took over the building of the shrine in Umuaka. An 18 foot statue of the Blessed Mother made by Mr Livinus Ekeocha was moved to Umuaka and fixed in an open area. A concrete canopy was erected over the statue to protect it from the elements and an altar and rail were constructed in front of the statue. However, instead of Our Lady of Fatima, the Bishop had decided on Our Lady of Perpetual Help (Nne Enyemaka) which was officially blessed in a solemn ceremony on 15th August 1988. A deacon, Reverend Anselm Ohanekwu, who hails from Umuaka was ordained a priest during the ceremony.
Although the chaplain of the Block Rosary Crusade at the time was Fr Evaristus Eshiowu, the Bishop entrusted the building of the shrine to Fr Simon Eboh, then the pastor of St Mary’s Umuaka. Fr Eboh erected a structure which served as a podium for the Mass on the 15th August 1988, and subsequently, raised much of the money for the shrine project from friends in Germany. After the formal blessing of the shrine, Fr Eboh was entrusted with the shrine’s rectorship. Some years later Fr Luke Odinkemelu (RIP) assumed the position of rector as his primary assignment. Then in 1998, on his return from the USA where he had been working under the Donum Fidei programme, Fr Evaristus Eshiowu was made rector.
Prior to this assignment, Fr Evaristus had initiated moves to change from the Novus Ordo to the Traditional Latin Mass (TLM, now the extraordinary form) of the Roman rite. Eventually Fr Evaristus joined the Priestly Fraternity of Saint Peter (FSSP) in 1999 with the approval of Bishop Ochiaga. On giving his approval for Fr Evaristus to join the FSSP, the Bishop insisted to the then General Superior of the FSSP, Very Rev Fr Arnaud Devillers that on having learnt the Mass, Fr Evaristus would be sent home to serve in the Orlu diocese. Thus on 15th August 2001 Fr Evaristus celebrated the TLM with a large crowd gathered from all over Nigeria. From that date onward the TLM was celebrated daily under a temporary roof built over the main altar of the shrine. On the great Feast of the Immaculate Conception (8th December) that same year, Fr Devillers celebrated a Sung Mass thus inaugurating the apostolate. The late president of Una Voce International, Mr Michael Davies also came from London for the opening. The event attracted an incredible crowd estimated at around 3000. Thus did the Mass of all ages come to stay at Nne Enyemaka Shrine in Umuaka in the Orlu diocese.
From that day onwards, the “Latin Mass Apostolate” as it came to be known, went through a roller-coaster ride with its fortunes swinging between tremendous highs and lows. Initially the bulk of those who attended the Masses came from various dioceses away from Orlu, whereas those within the Orlu diocese, under the steady and orthodox leadership of Bishop Ochiaga, felt less need to attend, often due to the more correct usage of the Novus Ordo in Orlu. The numbers of those who attended the monthly 2000 Hail Mary Devotion at the shrine began to drop due to timing and travel distances.
Worse still was the fact that the placing of the shrine within the premises of St Mary’s parish Umuaka, was viewed by some as problematic, and the apostolate seen as either a distraction or an intruder on the normal pastoral life and activities of the mother parish. Although there was never an open conflict, the feelings of the host parish were felt quite clearly by those attending the shrine. This state of affairs seemed to have influenced many residents of Umuaka, and although on Sundays people still continued to come from near and far, the local residents were conspicuous by their absences. There were however, a small number of dedicated locals who braved the “cold war” treatment they received and kept their loyalty to the shrine, attending every event they could.
On the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, 8th December 2003 Bishop Ochiaga made his first pastoral visit to the shrine since its inauguration in 2001. He came to bless the new marble altar which had been installed at a grotto constructed to house the enormous statue of Our Lady. His speech on that occasion, calmed the nerves of a number of those who were regular attendees at the shrine. He explained that any member of the faithful who attended Sunday Mass at the shrine, fulfilled his/her Sunday obligation. This was one of the ‘reasons’ why many people felt they could not attend the Mass at the shrine. Another effect of his speech was the return to the shrine of a number of people who had quit attending due to what they felt was the uncertainty of the situation. However, the difficult times lasted long and the misunderstanding about the Mass persisted. The knowledge that there were people who were outright opposed to the TLM, and were making every effort to have it removed or suppressed, although strengthening the resolve of the adherents, did make for a heavy load to bear.
Apart from the difficulties already mentioned experienced by the apostolate, the period between 2001 and 2007 was characterised by annual breaks in activity due to the Rector journeying to the USA for two to three months at a time. These breaks which were both to raise funds for the shrine and also for some ongoing medical treatment took the faithful back to their home parishes and had often contradictory effects. Firstly, they created a degree of uncertainty as to the continuity and stability of the apostolate, while conversely they re-united the members with their home parishes, thus debunking the false belief that members of the TLM are opposed to the Novus Ordo.
It needs be recalled that it was in response to the declaration of 1988 as a Marian Year by Pope John Paul II that Bishop Ochiaga established the shrine in that same year. Also that in response to the Motu Proprio: Ecclesia Dei adflicta (1988) which was issued by the same Pope, that Bishop Ochiaga introduced the TLM in 2001. One of the main reasons why the Motu Proprio was not popular in Nigeria was because it was unknown due to a lack of publicity. As such the Latin Mass was poorly understood by most priests and hardly understood by the laity.
The death of Pope John Paul II in 2005 and the uncertainty of who the new pontiff would be, seem to have thrown cold water on the lovers of the TLM. A lot of prayers no doubt were sent up to heaven to help guide the conclave being held to elect the new pontiff. The conclave was watched electronically from all around the world. The election of Cardinal Josef Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI, along with his well known interest in and love for the Tridentine Mass. To the group of followers at Nne Enyemaka shrine in Umuaka the election bought much hope.
Notwithstanding this great news, in March 2007 the Nne Enyemaka Apostolate suffered a reverse in fortune. The Mass itself was threatened by the departure of the priest who at that time felt disenchanted with the lukewarm attitude of, if not outright disdain shown by, some of his colleagues in the diocese, towards his interest in the TLM. This disenchantment was exacerbated by the priest’s disappointment with the slow rate of involvement in and appreciation of his efforts, by the host community. Disturbed by the prospect of what might happen to the Latin Mass, some of the members of the community from Umuaka met informally with the priest to better understand his problems, with a view to dealing with them as much as they could. The outcome of the meeting was unfortunately hardly mutually satisfactory as the meeting itself came too late. Next, they sought and received audience with the priest in charge of St Mary’s parish in Umuaka, the mother parish. Again, the problem did not yield to a ready solution, hence the decision to send a delegation on the matter to the Bishop of the Diocese, His Lordship, Most Rev Dr G.O. Ochiaga. At the meeting with the Bishop, the delegation acknowledged with sincere appreciation the numerous noble gestures Umuaka people in general, and the Catholic community in particular, had received from His Lordship: the founding in 1988 of Nne Enyemaka shrine as the centre for Marian devotion in the diocese; the appointment of a rector to oversee its activities; the dedication of St Mary’s Catholic Church in 1989; the approval in 2001 to celebrate the Latin Mass at the shrine for the diocese and the creation of four new parishes in Umuaka over the preceding decade. The delegation further requested the Bishop to re-visit the range of powers and authority granted the rector. The Bishop received the delegation warmly and promised to enlighten all in the diocese on the virtues and need to be more accommodating of the TLM. He was more than faithful to his word, and subsequently announced formally his plan to create an Extra-ordinary rite Parish in Umuaka.
In April 2007, the Latin Mass Apostolate sent a letter of appreciation, pledge and appeal to the Superior of the FSSP, Very Rev Fr John Berg. The appreciation was for the Fraternity’s support of the apostolate in Umuaka over the years, the pledge was in the form of a promise to support any programme of the order in Nigeria for the promotion of its activities, and the invitation was for him personally to visit at his earliest possible convenience. This letter was favourably received as evidenced by the reply assuring the Apostolate that its letter was being given the serious consideration of the FSSP Council. Shortly thereafter, Fr Evaristus Eshiowu, who had been on leave in the USA since February, was authorised to return to Nigeria to prepare for the Superior General’s visit in the coming September of that year. The occasion of the visit was marked with great celebration and fanfare by the Umuaka community, the greater Latin Mass Apostolate and devotees of the shrine in Nigeria. Fr Berg, for his part, being given the ‘full treatment’ as a kind of “chief”, was seemingly impressed with what he encountered and promised to send an assistant to the resident FSSP priest, a promise which was fulfilled a few months later with the arrival of Fr Vitali Leontiev, a native Russian in November of 2007.
The return of Father Evaristus Eshiowu in July of 2007 coincided with the release of the Motu Proprio : Summorum Pontificum by His Holiness, Pope Benedict XVI. Naturally the release of the letter prompted great joy and hope among the faithful of the TLM in Nigeria, and their optimism was well-founded when in compliance with the said Motu Proprio, His Lordship, Bishop Ochiaga announced, in December 2007, that he planned to raise the Latin Mass Apostolate to the status of Personal Parish. This great event took place on 15th August 2008 when the new Bishop, His Lordship, Rev Dr Augustine T. Ukwuoma, assisting at a Solemn Mass together with Bishop Emeritus Ochiaga and celebrated by Fr Eshiowu, proclaimed the Nne Enyemaka Shrine a Personal (non territorial) Parish, to be administered by the Priestly Fraternity of Saint Peter, with Fr Evaristus Eshiowu as the Pastor. Twenty years to the day after having been opened, the shrine was swarmed with thousands of people from all over Nigeria rejoicing and paying homage to Our Lady of Perpetual Help.
As of today (2010) the Parish is served by two FSSP priests, Fr Eshiowu as Pastor and Fr Antony Sumich as his assistant, and continues to grow.
Pray for us.