Adieu, Rt. Rev Msgr. Nathaniel Obiagba
Oh, what a great loss. The Archdiocese of Onitsha is once again thrown into a mourning mood, this time that of its eldest and most energetic, hardworking priest.
Ordained on June 1, 1965, Rev. Msgr Nathaniel Obiagba, a priest of the Catholic Archdiocese of Onitsha was a native of Achina.
Msgr Obiagba was the first Catholic priest in the whole of Old Onitsha Ecclesiastical Province to study and practice Civil law. He first studied for his bachelors and masters degrees in Civil Law at the University of Nigeria (UNN), and did his doctorate at the United States of America.
In fact, all his priestly ministry, was a humble and dedicated service to the Church in our land in the area of legal profession. It is hard to see any major Church building or land acquisition in most parts of Igboland and beyond which hasn’t the legal imprint and approval of Msgr Obiagba.
A lover of Latin, for years he taught seminarians English literature at the All Hallows Seminary, Onitsha.
One of the best things I cherished most during my teaching years at the All Hallows Seminary Onitsha before coming to Rome, was living together at the Seminary Rectory in the company of Msgr Obiagba and others. His jokes and jovial regular Latin quotations were a great delight that used to lighten and ease our busy schedule and work at the Seminary. He combined his work in his Law Chambers with his teaching apostolate at the seminary. Most of the priests that passed through All Hallows Seminary, especially since 1970 till early 2000s were ex-students of him. He impacted many of us into loving not only Latin but especially, English literature and of course, Civil and Canon Law professions.
Perhaps this is the best opportunity to honour Msgr Obiagba with the following story he told us one evening after super at the seminary rectory, concerning how our Junior seminaries in Igboland came to be recognized and started taking WAEC exams after the Nigeria-Biafra War by the then East Central State government of Ukpabi Asika!
Msgr recounted to us how our Junior Seminaries in Igboland got registered to join other secondary schools in the Old East Central State to do the WAEC Exams. This was made possible, of course, thanks to the doggedness of Msgr Obiagba.
When the inglorious government of Ukpabi Asika and the then commissioner of Education in the defunct East Central State, Offia Nwali seized all the Church Schools after the Nigeria-Biafra War in Igboland (Biafra), the government refused to allow our junior seminarians to participate in the West African Certificate Exams (WAEC). Seminarians continued to take only the GCE London Cambridge Exams while their counterparts in the state secondary schools were taking the WAEC exams. This was when Msgr E. Otteh (later Bishop of Issele-Uku) was the Rector of All Hallows Seminary Onitsha.
I remembered how Msgr Obiagba recounted to us at the seminary rectory one evening, how they received series of humiliations at the Office of the East Central State Commissioner of Education, Offia Nwali and others, while pleading with them to allow seminarians join their counterparts in secondary schools in taking WAEC exams. Several times they traveled to Enugu from Onitsha to meet the commissioner of education and his board, but all to no avail. He said at point they reminded the commissioner and his board members that these seminarians are also your children. “Please allow them to take their WAEC exams like other children of the state!”
At the consternation of all, one of the board members on hearing this particular appeal from All Hallows Seminary delegation, told them that the children (seminarians), if you like could go and get drown at River Niger if you people (the Church) don’t want the government to takeover your seminaries like other secondary schools in the State School Education Board.
This annoyed Msgr Otteh, the Rector so much that they left them there and returned to Onitsha that day.
However, as God would have, Msgr Obiagba decided to continue with the appeal and visit to the State Education Board Office, Enugu, persuading the Rector Msgr Otteh not to lose hope.
In their next meeting and visit to Enugu, Msgr Obiagba brought into their contingent, Very Rev. (Mother) Sr. Domenica Odita (IHM), who was then teaching Chemistry at the seminary. He reasoned that since Sr. Odita is a native of Onitsha and the Administrator (governor) of East Central State, Ukpabi Asika was also from Onitsha, at least they would listen to the voice of a woman, native of Onitsha.
However, in spite of this, the East Central State Education Board at Enugu refused to heed to the appeal of the seminary delegation. In any case, after several trials and visits, on this particular last day of their visit to Enugu, the State Education Board members used harder and abuse words not just against the priests and the Rev. Sr and the seminary, but also against the Catholic Church as a body of Christ. This annoyed the seminary delegation, especially priests among them that they left the meeting in annoyance.
But there was one person who refused to leave, that was Rev. Sr. Odita. Even though tears filled her face for the humiliation, yet she stayed back and continued pleading.
The priests were waiting outside near the car in annoyance, for the Sister to come out so that they could return to Onitsha. But the Sister delayed for more than an hour before coming out to join them.
According to Msgr Obiagba, Sr Odita stayed inside there, pleading with the State Education Board for so long that at a point they wanted to leave her behind to return to Onitsha. They waited outside for hours for the Sister. At last, lo and behold, Sr. Odita was coming out to meet them. And on her hands was the “almighty” approval letter from the East Central State Education Board, authorizing our junior Seminaries in the State to begin to participate in WAEC exams.
That is the power of the patience of a woman, Rev. Sr. Odita had represented in this particular incident. And also the wisdom and intelligence of a priest-barrister who loves the Church, that he remembered that in such a critical moment, there is need to bring in a daughter of the Church into the bargaining table.
Msgr Obiagba told us that the All Hallows Seminary set of Rev. Fr. Ignatius Obinwa was the first group to sit for WAEC exams after the permission was obtained. Those before them were taking GCE London Cambridge University Exams (as external students).
This is just an iota of the contribution to the Church, of this man of God, Msgr Nathaniel Obiagba that the Church is mourning today!
What a great man of God and the Church!
Are we to talk of how through his instrumentality, the legal provisions that made it easy for the Church to acquire the Papal Arena at Awada (a land under dispute between Onitsha and Obosi people), was made easy for the Church’s use during the Papal visit to Onitsha in 1982? That was why it appeared that time he was like a pro-parish priest to yet to be developed Awada parish. That was one of his legal acumen and tactics of resolving cases of intricacies for the Church.
These are just few of examples of silence services Msgr Obiagba rendered to the Church in our land.
Msgr Nathaniel Obiagba was a great man. He was the first priest in the country to be appointed special Commissioner for Public Complaints. After him, as would be expected, other priests started craving for such an appointment from the civil authorities.
Until his demise, Msgr Obiagba was an invaluable asset to Catholic Bishops Conference of Nigeria, especially to all the Bishops of the Old Eastern region. He loved his job, legal profession, and had inspired and mentored many other Catholic priests that took to the legal profession after him. His legal chambers at Onitsha is one of the most respected in Nigeria today.
He was blessed with humor and good human relation which he utilized perfectly well in serving the Church and in winning for the Church the favours of many highly placed politicians, men and women of ‘timber and calibre’ in the society, whenever the need arose.
Msgr Nathaniel Obiagba was a good priest and man of strong faith. He loved the Church, was always ready to work with whoever was his Archbishop at Onitsha. He never for once spoke ills of his ecclesiastical authorities, priests or religious. But he was a very disciplined and principled man.
May God reward this faithful priest and servant of His, Rt. Rev. Msgr Nathaniel Obiagba with the gift of heavenly bliss.
Adieu, Msgr Nathaniel Obiagba. May the Angels of heaven welcome you into the throne of God in heaven. Amen!
Rome, September 14th
Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross