…Narrates hurdles he crossed as priest from polygamous home of traditional worshippers


From Wilson Okereke, Afikpo


Rev. Fr. Gabriel Obazi Owoh, who is the first indigenous priest of Mgbolizhia extraction from Odebor Umuimama, Umuogodoakpu Mgbo, Mgbo West Development Centre in Ohaukwu LGA of Ebonyi State, was recently elevated to the position of Monsignor by His Holiness, Pope Francis through the recommendation of the Catholic Bishop of Abakaliki Diocese, Most Rev (Dr) Peter Nworie Chukwu.

He shared his experiences on how he crossed many huddles in a large polygamous family of traditional religion practitioners to become a Catholic priest and his 40 years of priesthood. Excerpt:


Father when were you ordained?  

I was ordained on May 28, 1983 at St. Oliver Parish, Mgbo by Bishop Emeritus, Dr Michael Nnachi Okoro. I am the first indigenous Catholic priest from Mgbolizhia extraction then under Ishielu LGA with its headquarters at 135, but because of the political development, the entity was divided into Ishielu and Ohaukwu council areas, the place was one LGA when I was ordained and presently, I am the oldest priest from the area.


You have just been elevated to the position of Monsignor by the Pontiff, Pope Francis, for the sake of the non-Catholics and others, what is the status all about?

It is honorific title given to priests by the Pope based on the recommendation of the local bishop, it is usually granted to individuals who have rendered valuable service to the church or who provide some special function in church governance.


What are the factors behind your appointment and did you lobby for the position?

I come from a background of four wives and my mother was the third while I am the first male in the home and they were all traditional religion practitioners, I have no relative in the priesthood except my colleagues as to lobby, so it is God’s grace upon me. I did not dream about it and suddenly the news came to me at the altar while I was celebrating my 40 years priestly ordination anniversary and unexpectedly, Most Rev. (Dr) Peter Nworie Chukwu pronounced my promotion as the Monsignor and immediately tears of joy began to trickle down my cheeks followed by other priests who surrounded me for solidarity. If they were to do it by merit, I am not the most intelligent and if it were by size, I do not have a reasonable size, I do not know the criteria used, but I know that I do not joke with my priestly functions at all times.


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Forty years down the line, how would you abridge your experiences as a priest?

Shortly after my ordination, I was sent to St. Mary Parish, Afikpo and it was a wonderful experience as I was enthusiastic exercising my priestly function, after two years and six months, I was transferred to Assumption Parish, Ikwo where I had good rapport with my fellow priest, Rev. Fr. (Dr) Clement Osunwoke who has recently been elevated to monsignor. I was living with him as a curate and when I was transferred, he said and I quote “I should have been worried, I would have asked the bishop not to send you away from this place, I love to stay with you, but since you are going to the place as a parish priest, it is a blessing and promotion, I will bear it.” To show how I lived with him, I spent my first Christmas with him at his home town, Umuaka Orlu in Imo State and I was the one who celebrated Mass for his people and after the Eucharist celebration, the people jokingly requested that I should be swapped with Fr. Osunwoke, meaning that I should stay back at Amaiyi Umuaka Orlu while my colleague would return to Abakaliki. After my stay at Ikwo, I was sent to Catholic Institute of West Africa (CIWA) for my Master’s Degree Programme and I also enrolled in Post Graduate Studies in Education at University of Port Harcourt and I was running the programmes concurrently until I graduated with two certificates within three years, Masters in Theology and PGD in Education.


Are there other places?

Yes, other places include Afikpo, Edda and Ikwo when there were only two parishes in the area unlike now that the people have about nine parishes, I have worked at Ntezi, Okpoto, Ezilo and I have worked in my home town at Mgbo where my mother, step mothers and siblings were my parishioners. Though, it was a terrible experience, but I enjoyed it, thereafter, I worked at St. Micheal Parish, Ogboji where the people loved me to the last letter, at the same place, four individuals who are Mama Monday, Mr Geoffrey Obasi, Mr Okogba and Mathew Nworie named their children after me, presently I have four namesakes at Ogboji. On April 26, 2006, I left for America for studies and came back after three years later in 2009, but unfortunately, my mother died 25 days after my arrival, on that note, the bishop directed that I should stay close to my home to enable me prepare for the funeral. On this note, I was sent to St. Oliver Parish at Mgbo where I was ordained and after the burial, I spent 12 years and people were happy for the level that I elevated the church, they even agitated for my time to be elongated, though the action was not open.


Being the first male child in the family of four wives with traditional religion background, how were you able to manoeuvre your way to become a priest?

I was very close to my father when the idea came to me, actually it was a difficult situation because all my elderly siblings were females, it was based on the development that my father named me after his own father and when I made my intention known, he said no. It was hard to convince them for me to be enrolled into Junior Seminary, but through the instrumentality of an indigene of Amaede in Ehamufu in Enugu State who happened to be my former teacher in Standard 3, Mr. Thomas Ogbu, I was able to have my way after much troubles. My idea was still in the incubator when the civil war broke out and I stayed back with my father without knowing that he had made secret arrangement for a lady that I would marry in the family of Ugwoke Eze at Ndulo Nwakpa. One of my step mothers who did not have male child also told me that she was looking up to me as her own son, so she gave her own condition that I should marry to name one of my children after her to enable her feel comforted. My maternal grandmother too gave her condition that I should marry or make all the arrangements for her burial as she would die before I would start the school, at the eve of my interview for the admission into Junior Seminary, the woman further threatened to protest against the government once I enter the school.

So, how did you manage to participate in the examination with all this pressure?

Lucky enough, I was neither beaten nor tied by anyone and after the interview, I passed even the non-refundable payment of £3 needed for the test was given to me by a member of St. Patrick, Ndiebor while Mr. Thomas Ogbu kept on preaching to my parents until they accepted. The interview required non- refundable payment of £3 and going by the reactions of my parents at the eve of the test for the Junior Seminary and it was impossible to collect such amount from them. Mr Ogbu appealed that my father should remain calm for fate owing to the fact that it is only fatalism that would determine whether I would continue or not, but if I am not successful concerning my ambition that attending secondary school would be an advantage to his family. My father eventually succumbed to the pieces of advice, but after he discovered that I was set for the priesthood, he accused my mother of supporting me secretly and drove her out of the family. What I suffered before becoming a priest out-numbered my unpleasant experience as a priest. I will forever remain grateful to Bishop Peter Chukwu and Pope Francis for elevating me to the position of Monsignor, I appreciate them for counting me worthy for the new office as I can now go with new name and title, I am also grateful to all the members of the catholic community, Abakaliki, Diocese.


Were your parents still traditional religion worshippers after your ordination?

I made it a point of duty to convert my father into Christianity, on this note I did go to him with Fr Moses Aligwe, I had visited him with Fr. Martins Sukpa and Moses Aligwe, I also went with Job Ogah and another Mr Igwe from Igweledeoha in Ikwo to plead with my father, but he said no and attempted pushing me out of his compound. But following much persuasions from the people, shortly after, the man, Mr Lazarus Owoh Obazi Ulebe was baptized and confirmed some months later. My mother, Mary Owoh became a Christian (catechumen) in 1974 and baptized in 1982, that was before my ordination and when I became a priest, other four wives were converted and became Christians. On 1st October 1984, my grandmother died, but before then, she fell sick and I was the person who rushed to her house and brought her for baptism while she was unconscious.


You are into mechanized agriculture, what is your motivation?

My motivation is simply to encourage people to produce what they will eat rather than feeding from hand to mouth, if they can cultivate the rich soil of Ebonyi State, they shall produce enough for the teeming population, people will not be struggling so hard on daily basis in search of food. My aim is to inspire people in the aspect of agriculture and keep myself happy over what I know how to do best, concerning the implements. I have planter, driller, tractors and other machines. The reason behind their acquisition is to make the work easy as my work does not require manual labour as such will likely make me to encroach in the period of church activities. I also have rice mill and with all these, I can assist my parishioners and contribute in the church projects, this is why I am appealing to other young priests to stop complaining.