For His Lordship, Bishop Anthony Ewherido
By Sunny Awhefeada
The evolution of Christianity in Urhoboland was in chequered phases. The earliest dated back to 1689 when Fr. Monteleone from Sao Tome reached the Urhobo hinterland. It was a fleeting trip whose memory remains enabled only in dim imagination. The next phase was at the turn of the 19th century when freed slaves especially of Yoruba descent spread out to propagate the gospel in places like Kokori, Ovu, Eku and Abraka.
By the middle of that century, the famous Bishop Ajayi Crowther visited Okwagbe, but was not well received and he sailed on to Onitsha. However, some five decades later Urhoboland witnessed a consolidation in Christianity that was to begin in 1901 when hitherto disparate worshippers got formally organized into two groups in Warri and Sapele respectively.
The 1901 resurgence was credited to Bishop Johnson of the Anglican Church. Catholicism was to register its presence in Warri 1916 through the efforts of the Italian priest, Rev. Fr. Cavagnera. The new religion was greeted with enthusiasm as it also brought a new way of life to the people some of whom became converts. A lot of progress was made by the churches as they built schools and won more souls in their bid to take the gospel everywhere.
In less than two decades Urhobo converts had become not only deeply immersed in the ways of the new religion, but had become catechists and priests in the mold of fishers of men.
They became proselytizers winning others to the new religion. By 1928, Rev. Agori Iwe who had gone to St Andrews College, Oyo, to train as a catechist had completed his studies and had returned to Warri as a teacher and minister in the Anglican Church. Rev. Ejovi Aganbi who broke away from the Anglican Church also braved daunting odds to get trained at the Baptist Seminary in Ogbomosho and was ordained in 1935. A year before Aganbi’s ordination, G. M. Urhobo founded the God’s Kingdom Society in Warri in 1934. Urhobo Catholics were to get their first indigenous priest, Rev. Fr. Stephen Umurie in 1942.
After many years of service in the vineyard of God, Rev. Agori Iwe became the first Urhobo Anglican Bishop in 1961. That was a glorious and unprecedented feat that the Urhobo celebrated. In the next decades, the Urhobo people, bitten by the bug of modernization and rapid urbanization, were to witness significant decline in traditional modes of worship to the advantage of Christianity. Many more converts were swayed by Christianity and the message of redemption and in many cases prosperity that sweet tongued Pentecostals offered.
A significant trait of Christianity in Urhoboland is the abiding presence and sustained resilience of the orthodox churches like Anglican, Catholic and Baptist. These denominations served humanity and brought unimaginable progress to Urhoboland.
They established schools that opened the gateway to western education in Urhoboland. Most Urhobo men and women who bestrode and still bestride the world were products of such schools, primary and secondary. Many of such schools survived into the present era and there are families where parents, children and grandchildren passed through such schools. Some of the churches were profoundly humanitarian and built hospitals. The Baptist Hospital at Eku was so central to medicare in Urhoboland that it has been woven into Urhobo lore. The popular perspective in Urhobo thought system at a time was that any ailment that couldn’t be cured at Eku will have no remedy anywhere in the world. The Catholic replicated a similar medical facility in St. Francis Hospital at Okpara-inland. In return, the Urhobo people remain faithful adherents to the churches that brought the word and the world to them and also took them to the world.
The Catholic Church ensured the training of indigenous priests who could celebrate the Mass in Urhobo language.
Many families encouraged their sons to attend seminaries and get trained as priests. That is why today a high number of Catholic parishes in rural and urban Urhoboland offer the Mass not only in the English language, but also in the Urhobo language. There are today many a Catholic priest (Owaran) of Urhobo extraction who have Doctor of Philosophy degree and have even become professors. Catholicism has taken roots in Urhoboland and it continues to grow. As at today there is hardly any community without a parish or more.
The evolving narrative of Catholicism in Urhoboland has gone up notches higher with the installation one week ago of the fifth Catholic Bishop of Warri Diocese and first Urhobo Catholic Bishop in His Lordship, Bishop Anthony Ovayero Ewherido at the Holy Martyrs of Uganda Minor Seminary at Effurun. The installation of Bishop Ewherido meant so much to the Catholic faithful of Warri and more significantly to the Urhobo people who had “yearned for a Bishop of their own”. Taking place sixty-two years after the installation of Bishop Agori Iwe, which happened when Bishop Ewherido was just a year old this incident is a milestone for the Urhobo people in more ways than one.
The road that led here for Bishop Ewherido was not strewn with rose or hibiscus petals. Teacher-born, housewife bred, (apologies to Niyi Osundare’s farmer-born, peasant-bred), Bishop Ewherido grew up in a home of Spartan discipline for which teachers of old were famous. His father, the Late Joseph Ukanidife Ewherido was a teacher, while his mother is Mama Paulina Powder Ewherido now an octogenarian. Second out of eight boys, he was gritty and demonstrated signs of leadership and religiosity quite early in life. He was also remarkably brilliant, humble, disciplined, but humane. After an itinerant primary education due to his father’s frequent transfers, he attended the Holy Martyrs of Uganda Minor Seminary at Effurun from 1973 to 1978 before proceeding to the Ss. Peter and Paul Major Seminary in Ibadan in 1978.
He was ordained into sacred priesthood in October 1986. He was to settle down to the rigorous and self-sacrificing priesthood in different places and parishes in Urhoboland. He also taught and became the Rector of his alma mater, the Holy Martyrs of Uganda Minor Seminary. The quest for more training saw him attending universities in the United States of America and also serving as a priest and teaching medical ethics in the University. Endowed with a brilliance that is sparkling in the real sense of the word, Bishop Ewherido earned distinctions in all the tiers of education.
When he returned to Nigeria in 2006 after his studies overseas he settled down again to work as a priest. He served at the Sacred Heart Parish in Abraka before he was transferred to the SS. Peter and Paul Major Seminary, Ibadan in 2007, where he not only taught generations of priests, but became the Head of the Department of Theology, Registrar and later Rector. It was from the Major Seminary that he got appointed as the fifth Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Warri on the twenty-eight day of December 2022.
The host of heaven descended on the day of the installation of His Lordship, Bishop Anthony Ewherido. The hardship that had become perennial in Nigeria in the last ten years took leave of Warri and environs in the days leading to the installation and immediately after. The celebratory mood pushed depression whether it was economic, emotional or mental to a distant corner and a wholesome ambience ruled the landscape. Many people confessed that they had never witnessed the installation of a Bishop before now and thought this might be the only opportunity. The event was also salutary because it confirms the consolidation of the emergence of indigenous Bishops in the Warri Catholic Diocese. The first was the immediate past Bishop, His Lordship Bishop John Afareha. The earlier three Bishops were Europeans.
There is no doubt that Bishop Ewherido is truly God’s anointed. He stands out in physical height, profound spirituality, devotion and brilliance. Having been parish priest over and again, having been exposed to the Lord’s vineyard beyond Nigeria, having been a Rector superintending over the training of generations of priests, having demonstrated rare humility, leading a sacrificial life and coveting nothing, God felt he should be elevated to the Bishopric. He thus experienced the transition from Father Tony to Bishop Ewherido.
I rejoice especially with the Ewherido family and even more with Mama Powder, the mother of the Late Senator Pius Ewherido, Gogorogo! There is indeed a season for everything! Congratulations, My Lord Bishop!