The Catholic Church is the largest Christian denomination in Nigeria with an estimated population of more than 24 million baptized members.
With an explosion in its membership numbers – especially in rural areas, the Catholic Church has had to contend with a myriad of challenges. Over the years, the Nigerian Catholic Church community has faced a critical infrastructure deficit and has struggled to upgrade many of its many small, rural parishes to accommodate its burgeoning membership. In the midst of many other challenges, Catholic Churches in remote areas across Nigeria have been victims of Nigeria’s security crisis, with a growing call for more fortification of Churches in order to check the infiltration of violence in the Catholic communities in Nigeria.
On the 8th of August 2017, at least 12 people were killed and 18 others injured in a shooting during Mass at a Roman Catholic Church in southeastern Nigeria, according to news reports and the Vatican. Pope Francis was “deeply saddened” by the attack and invoked “the divine blessings of consolation and strength” upon the diocese.
As a result of that attack, and the current pervasive security crisis across the northern and southern parts of Nigeria, the Catholic Church across many Nigerian communities has adopted a heightened sense of awareness about security concerns. In fact, small Catholic parishes in many rural areas of Nigeria are controlling the security infrastructure of not only their parish premises, but are seeing to the entire security and well being of their inhabited communities.
I recently paid a visit to Nigeria, and visited a number of states. During my trip across Nigeria’s northern region, I visited a small remote town in Niger state called Gildan Taki. It is situated in the Mariga Local Government Area in the state. Gildan Taki is a rural community where the St Jude Church, Mariga is located. This beautiful, well-secured, ultra-modern parish is a stabilizing and unifying force in the community, and the primary worship center for catholic faithful in this area.
But this parish was not always like this. Six years ago, in 2014, St Jude Church, Mariga was a small, makeshift edifice. It was built with bamboo sticks and wooden planks and roofed with natural raffia. The altar was made of sticks and wooden planks. Even though it was not necessarily aesthetically pleasing – or the most ideal place for worship, Catholic faithful in the community still thronged there in their droves all the time to worship. The space was tiny and limited, and it was difficult for the structure to even accommodate up to 20 people each mass. The community also struggled with clean drinking water, and electricity was non-existent in the parish.
The fortunes of the community and St Jude Church, Mariga changed dramatically when a young, charismatic Priest named Rev Fr. Musa John Gado was transferred to the community as the new Parish Priest. On realizing how dire the community’s situation was, and how vulnerable his parishioners were to attacks as a result of the high tension of insecurity in the region, he resolved to transform the parish and give the parishioners a secured, befitting place of worship.
Father Gado Musa recently celebrated his tenth year of Priesthood, and recounted how he struggled to raise the funds to fulfill his ambitions of building a befitting chapel, until a serendipitous meeting with an incredible lady who eventually became his mentor. The lady– a devout Catholic and a member of Mother of Redeemer Catholic Church in Warri – offered to introduce Reverend Father Musa to one of her non-biological ‘sons’. She subsequently introduced the Reverend Father to the ‘son’ in question – Igho Sanomi – an immensely successful Nigerian energy entrepreneur and the Founder/Chairman of Dickens Sanomi Foundation. Through a series of generous donations from the businessman, Father Gado Musa was able to build a 500-seat capacity, ultra-modern Catholic Church, to house the entire community for masses and social activities. Sanomi also boosted Power supply in the church with an alternative power. Also, the entire environment has been made secure with gated fences, while a water borehole system was built on the church premises to allow the flow of clean drinking water. This today has become a proverbial fountain of life for the many women and children of the village who troop to the parish for bible studies with their buckets and containers to fetch water after a fulfilling day at the new church building, which Sanomi sponsored.
Recounting his testimony at the new building to celebrate his 10th year anniversary, Father Gado explained that Sanomi’s gift “surely elevated the spirit and the moral of the entire Parish and the community.” He expressed his gratitude and offered prayers to Mr. Sanomi and his Foundation for funding the entire project from start to finish.
The euphoria I obtained from this visit ignited a great interest in me to find out more about the intention and drive behind the intervention embarked on by the Dickens Sanomi Foundation in such a remote area in the Northern Nigerian Village of Mariga, where Sanomi has no economic interests. After sending several emails to the foundation, I was fortunate to get the opportunity to discuss with Mr. Goodluck Hayi, a representative of Mr. Sanomi’s foundation in Abuja.
Goodluck Hayi, a director of the foundation explained to me that Mr. Sanomi, who is a devout Catholic, grew up under a relatively strong Catholic family and prefers to keep his work with the church low-key, and for God’s attention only. I was impressed by that response. However, I personally think it is important for people to understand the extent of the work the Dickens Sanomi Foundation has done in the Mariga community, and how these contributions have enhanced the security of Catholic worshippers in the community, and improved their quality of life, hence this article.
Impressed by the effects of Sanomi’s philanthropy on this rural community, I set out to locate the southern town from where the Sanomi family comes from. It is a town called Ughelli in Delta State in Nigeria’s south-south region. According to Wikipedia, Ughelli is one of the 24 Kingdoms that make up the Urhobo Nation. It is ruled by a Traditional Ruler known as Ovie. It is also an oil-producing township with a strong, large Catholic population.
I made a visit to the Ss. Peter and Paul Catholic Church, Ughelli – a major parish in the Warri diocese. Unfortunately, the parish priest was not around at the time I visited. I was however, able to have a chat with one of its parishioners – an elderly, educated, retired man in his seventies who was sitting at the parish. As I had some water and light snacks, I engaged him on some conversation and asked him about the Sanomi family to find out about any initiatives the Dickens Sanomi foundation has made in furthering the Catholic Church in Ughelli.
His face immediately lightened up at the mention of ‘Dickens Sanomi’, and he grabbed my hands enthusiastically. He immediately began to tell me about the family.
“May God bless Dickens, he was a Police Officer … such a wonderful, honorable and diligent Man. This church, SS Peter and Paul Ughelli, is the family church of the Sanomi family. Dicken’s father, a London-trained Barrister, the late Igho Sanomi, the first, is just buried down the road on Mission road,” he spoke with gusto, pointing me to the direction of the road as if I were familiar with the place. He spoke glowingly of the Sanomi family’s generosity to the Catholic Church in not only Ugehlli, but also other smaller villages around Warri.
During my one-day journey in Ughelli, I visited a construction site where an impressive Bishop Court is being built by the Sanomi Foundation to create befitting and secured residences for Bishops, Parish Priests and Reverend sisters. An indigene of the community who I spoke with explained that this was aimed at elevating the Order of the SS Peter and Paul parish to a higher parish in Ughelli town, if approved by the Archdiocese in Warri and ultimately the Vatican. I also visited the small riverine villages of Orere and Arhavbavien, situated about 30 minutes by road and 5 minutes of river crossing from the Ughelli Township. In these two villages, the Sanomi foundation is building two new churches namely Saint Patrick Church Arhavbavien and St Peters Church Orere, for the Catholic community and the village congregation.
As I concluded my Nigerian trip, and prepared to head back to my Nairobi base, I could not help but marvel at the generosity and resolve of Igho Sanomi and his foundation to create safe, secure and conducive spaces for Catholic faithful to worship and thrive.
The invocation of Pope Francis’ divine blessings of consolation and strength has certainly found its way to these towns, with such exemplary measures by its Catholic members in Nigeria.
Arthur Peters is an Investigative Consultant/writer for Religious and Social Awareness matters, based in Nairobi Kenya.