New Owerri, Nigeria. “Today a great work begins,” with these words of St. Anthony Mary Claret to the five priests gathered around him in a small room of the Seminary of Vic, on 16 July 1849, the life of the Congregation of the Missionary Son of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, (Claretian Missionaries) began. Anthony Claret’s initiative was not a spur of the moment. He had been thinking about an opportune time, first of all, to prepare priests for the preaching of the Gospel, and then, to be with those to whom the Lord had given the same spirit so that together they could do what he could not do alone. Claret realized that people needed to be evangelized and there were not enough priests, prepared and zealous for this mission.
Like Anthony Claret, Very Rev. Fr. Christian Mary Ihedoro, the “Nigerian Claretians Founder” usually recounted with some feeling of nostalgia how he carried all the members of the Congregation in Nigeria in a Peugeot 404 wagon. Today, one would require more than six luxury buses to transport the Nigerian Claretians. After his ordination, Fr. Ihedoro who spent the early part of his priesthood in Spain, England and Equatorial Guinea returned to Nigeria in July of 1970, after the Nigeria-Biafra War. It was during the course of that visit that he lost his travel documents, and he could not return to Malabo, Equatorial Guinea. This became the felix culpa that birthed the Nigerian Claretians in 1973.
On Sunday 30 October 2022 marked the celebration of the Claretian Family Day and the kick-off of the Golden Jubilee Year celebrations of the Claretians in Nigeria. The day’s celebration began with a Eucharistic Celebration presided over by the Provincial Superior of East Nigeria Province, Very Rev. Fr. Nathaniel Eke, CMF at the St. Anthony Mary Claret Parish, Area ‘A’, New Owerri, Imo State. In his homily, the Provincial Superior thanked God for the presence of the Claretians in Nigeria for close to Fifty Years. Basing his reflection on the encounter of Zacchaeus with Jesus, Fr. Eke stated that,
“God is interested in our conversion and that we should seek and desire to see Jesus like Zacchaeus did. Like The Son of Man came to seek and save what was lost, so St. Anthony Claret desired to save souls. Claret believed that every soul deserves to be redeemed and as such he was willing to stand at the gates of hell to prevent anyone from suffering the pains of hell.”
The Provincial Superior continued, “this mission of bringing souls back to God, the Claretians continue to do today all over the world. Today, the Claretians work in five continents with close to 3000 members, 24 bishops, 2,233 priests, 114 brothers and students in formation. The Claretian Family, comprising Institutes of Consecrated Life, Societies of Apostolic Life and Associations of the Faithful share from a wellspring and charismatic source of St Anthony Mary Claret are expanding throughout the world.” The Mass was concelebrated by 13 Claretian priests. The visible presence of the Claretian students, the Religious of Mary Immaculate (Claretian Sisters), Missionary Sisters of Mary Immaculate, the Lay Claretians and the parishioners of St Anthony Mary Claret Parish and other nearby parishes where the Claretians work, and the students of Claretian schools gave a colorful blend to the celebration.
The high points of the curtain raiser celebration were the historical excursus of the Claretians in Nigeria which was narrated by one of the first fruits of the Claretians in Nigeria, Very Rev. Fr. (Prof.) Izu Marcel Onyeocha, CMF. He recounted with mixed feelings of nostalgia and gratitude the Claretian Story in Nigeria from 1973 till date. The Provincial Superior unveiled the Jubilee Logo, which was designed by a Claretian student, Paschal Meke, CMF. He then declared the Jubilee Year open with the theme: “Fifty years of Claretian Presence in Nigeria: Rooted and Audacious.” The Jubilee Prayer was said, and the choir of St. Anthony Mary Claret Parish gave beautiful rendition of the Jubilee Anthem – “See, Lord I Have Come” composed by Rev. Fr. Rowland Onyenali, CMF.
At the end of the Eucharistic celebration, the Claretians and their collaborators were entertained with wide range of social activities.
The commencement of the Jubilee celebrations was simultaneously done in the mission positions of the Nigerian Claretians in Chad, Ghana, Enugu, Lagos, Abuja, and Northern Nigeria.