From Aloysius Attah, Onitsha

It was a historic moment in Anambra State recently as the Catholic Supreme Pontiff, Pope Francis formally erected the newly created Diocese of Aguleri and also installed Dennis Isizoh as its pioneer Bishop.

According to church history in Nigeria, Catholic Church in Aguleri started in May 1888, with the first visit of Rev. Fr. Joseph Emile Lutz, C.S.Sp. and his missionary entourage to the community when they were received by Onyekomeli Ogbuanyinya Idigo.

Later same year, a mission station was established at Aguleri and  on May 27, 1890, Fr. Lutz paid a formal visit to Aguleri Mission Station and led in the Eucharistic celebration for the formal opening of the new station.

On February 12, 2023, 133 years later, Pope Francis announced the creation of the new Diocese of Aguleri and appointed Bishop Isizoh,  a former auxiliary Bishop of Onitsha as  the first Bishop of the new diocese.

On its formal inauguration day on March 17, 2023, three cardinals, 43 bishops, over 1000 clergymen and hundreds of other people were in attendance .

It was a solemn moment as the ceremony for the erection of the new diocese and installation of the diocesan Bishop began with the introductory rites at the door of the cathedral of St. Joseph Aguleri where all the priests present proceeded to the sanctuary, venerated the altar and took their seats.

When the new Bishop for installation got to the main door of the cathedral which remained closed before then, accompanied by other Bishops, he paused momentarily and the Metropolitan Catholic Bishop of Onitsha , Most Rev. Valerian Okeke introduced him to the leader of the Council of Priests as the newly appointed Local Ordinary who has come to take possession of his diocese.

The most senior priest in the procession handed over a crucifix to Bishop Isizor to kiss and a sprinkler with holy water which he collected and sprinkled himself and those gathered round him.

He then proceeded to open the main door of the Cathedral through which the Bishops continued the procession into the church.

On entering the Cathedral Church proper, the Chief Celebrant, Papal Nuncio to Nigeria, Most Rev. Anthonio Guido Filipazzi who represented Pope Francis in the celebration was also introduced formally by the Metropolitan Archbishop, Valerian Okeke.

The Papal Nuncio while proceeding in the Eucharistic celebration read out the Apostolic Letter known as Papal Bull written by Pope Francis granting authority to the new Bishop to take full canonical possession of the diocese.

Bishop Isizoh was also led by a Papal Delegate to formally sit on the cathedra, a special seat of a Bishop in the Cathedral while staffs of office was given to him by the Papal Nuncio amidst applause from the congregation to complete the installation process.

Preaching the homily, the Papal Nuncio, Fillipazi charged Bishop Isizoh to make Christian formation of the people of God the primary mission of the diocese.

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“The new Diocese of Aguleri has first of all, this great mission to form Christians – priests, religious and lay –who are “entirely for God”, who give Him more and more a “total response”. “Let us not ask ourselves how many Catholics there are, how many buildings and institutions the church has , how much wealth , power and prestige she possesses but how great is the commitment of all her members to live “entirely for God” he said.

From the Papal letter written , the Nuncio  disclosed that Pope Francis found Bishop Isizoh worthy of shepherding the flock of Aguleri Diocese as their Bishop.

“We are thinking of you , Venerable brother, who in your apostolic labours as a Bishop showed gifts of heart and intellect , and you appear  to us suitable for governing this part of the Lord’s flock . Accordingly, having heard the advice of the Dicastery for Evangelisation, with the fullness of our Apostolic authority, by virtue of this letter , having resolved upon the title and office of the shepherd of the church, we have appointed you the first Bishop of the newly erected Diocese of Aguleri with due rights  granted and appropriate obligations imposed” he said.

The President,  Catholic Bishops Conference of Nigeria, Most Rev. Lucius Ugorji in his remark described the event as a historical moment which he was privileged to be part of , adding that it was an honour for him to set his foot in the ancient town  of Aguleri, the  ancestral  home of Blessed Micheal Iwene Tansi.

He disclosed that he was glad that Church in Agulari as a mother of many other  parishes has become a Diocese, praising the earlier Irish missionary Priests for their selfless services and courage to establish the Church in Agulari and also eulogized successive Archbishops, priests and laities who he said had been consolidating the Church in Onitsha  ecclesiastical province.

Appreciating his guests, the celebrant, Bishop Isizoh said he never took the event for granted and never expected that it would be so great. He praised the Apostolic Nuncio in Nigeria, Most Rev. Anthonio Guido Filipazzi for his efforts and other Cardinals, Priests,  Religious and lay people  who graced the  occasion. 

In a special way, he lauded the Archbishop of Onitsha Archdiocese,  Most Rev. Valerian Okeke whom he invited to the podium describing him as a good man. He said he worked with Archbishop Okeke for eight years and nobody came to settle any issue between both of them even as he solicited for the cooperation of all to succeed.

“I am an old priest but a new Bishop and so I will keep learning from you” he said.

Bishop Isizoh also announced some appointments to take immediate effect in the diocese noting that   that he would not work alone.  He appointed Monsignor Francis Akwanya as the Vicar General, Rev. Fr. Innocent Egbunike as the Chancellor and Fr. Paul Ekwealor as the Financial Administrator respectively.

He also disclosed that the diocese will establish a Seminary for the training of aspiring priests at Igbariam with Rev. Fr. Henry Nweke as the pioneer rector.

Governor  Chukwuma Charles Soludo in a remark welcomed all to the state which he described as the light of the nation expressing gratitude that within one year of his being sworn into office , the state has witnessed several testimonies of God’s goodness both to the church and in the society.

Soludo’s announcement of the presence in the church of former governor of the state and presidential candidate of Labour Party, Mr Peter Obi and inviting him to come over to the front row elicited a thunderous ovation that disrupted activities for over 20 minutes.

Former President General of   Catholic Men Organization (CMO) Onitsha Archdiocese,  Ifeanyichukwu  Nnajiaku in a  felicitation appreciated  Bishop Isizoh  for embracing his  pastoral vocation with zeal, humility and love.

Other dignitaries at the event included Obi of Onitsha,  Igwe Alfred Achebe, Senator Victor Umeh, Traditional Ruler of Aguleri, Igwe Idigo,  Senator elect Dr. Tony Nwoye among others.