In between the Oshimili south arcade and the popular Ogbeogonogo Market on one side, and the expansive Grand Hotel on the other side, is this tower of a Catholic Church building right at the heart of the popular Nnebisi Road in Asaba, the Delta state capital.
The towering and ancient building is the St. Joseph Pro-Cathedral believed to be the first Catholic church within Asaba metropolis. Believed to have been built in 1886, the structure has not be remolded to reflect contemporary architectural designs.
It has remained its old self, even reflecting in the solemn mode of worship which to an extent, is different from other Catholic churches in the metropolis. However, there is a story behind this church.
River goddess disrupts early attempts to build the church
Historical myth has it that there was a spiritual battle between humans represented by early missionaries and a strange goddess called Onishe believed to be residing at a portion of the majestic River Niger where stones were being collected to build the church.
Onishe was said to be a protective goddess of Asaba people, and anything alien that would invade her jurisdiction, she would rise and fight back in anger. Such eventually played when her stones were collected by supposedly alien missionaries to build the church.
Rev. Fr. Patrick Isichei, a retired priest and over eighty years of age, attempted to recollect the story of his grandmother as far as the church building is concerned.
“What I know is that it is an old church, and when they started building it from some of those documents, it was alleged that they were bringing stones from around the portion of the Niger said to be inhabited by Onishe.
“Onishe is a goddess that Asaba people traditionally worshipped. She is described as Nwanyi Anyagbotae, Alangbogodo (a woman with a heavy bust). Onishe supposedly inhabits some corner of the Niger as you move towards the Cable Point area, and she is supposed to be a goddess that is protective of the Asaba people, and looks after them.
“All kinds of stories told about her, and the reason I connect her with the cathedral is that my grandmother told me the story that they started collecting the stones used for the building from around the area inhabited by the goddess but she got upset that they were taking the stones.
“She decided that she was going to take them back each time they took it, and in the night she would come with a long wooden thing. And when she arrives she will say ‘my children please come out, line up here’ and then the stones will come out and they will line up.
“Then she will lift the stones, put it back on her shoulders, and move it back to where they took it. So, I think it was Fr. Stoops, according to my grandmother, that when he comes out he will discover that the stones collected were no longer there, he would wonder what was happening.
“Every time he collected the stones to work with, the following day the stones will disappear. After sometime he actually noticed it, and tried to watch out and actually confirmed, according to that story, that this was the case. So he gave instructions that nobody should carry stones from there again.
“They now went miles away to a location known as Okutugbor, and started bringing the stones from that area. Then the stones that were disappearing stopped, so they could continue the building of the cathedral,” Fr. Isichei recalled.
To Fr. Isichei, an Anthropologist, the mythical story is a symbolic way of saying that there is a difference between “what this church stands for and what Onishe stands for, an indication of the difference between the two places of worship.”
He explained that the construction of the church took time to build, lasting “for years, I don’t know how long. It was built by stones that were collected by the locals.”
Even Asaba natives resisted catholicism
Just as it took time to build the cathedral, so also it took time for catholicism to penetrate into the territory called Asaba because the inhabitants then did not easily buy into catholic faith. It was a Herculean task for the early missionaries who were initially from Lyon in France to spread catholicism.
This was because Asaba people, according to history, were a traditional people so solidly contented with their way of life that they did not like this intrusion of catholicism into their system. They were said to have taunted those who embrace the church and the missionaries as lazy people who could not cope with the traditional way of life.
When the missionaries arrived from Lokoja, they tried to settle at the neighbouring Illah but the agrarian community was as hostile as the confluence town of Lokoja where the white men were coming from.
Fr. Isichei said they finally arrived Asaba and discovered that “this neat town, not as it is now, well planned and found out that this is not easy either. They tried but they could not make in roads.
“But then what gave a shot in their arm is when, I don’t remember the date, a white, I think it was an education officer or an administrator went on a motorcycle to somewhere in the east. And the people there gathered and killed him, and in order not to allow the motorcycle to run off, they tied it to the tree.
“It was not long before history caught up with them, as the people who were guilty were found out. The authority descended upon them with vehemence of the colonial masters. I think they sentenced some of them to death, and others to different terms of imprisonment.
“The prison then in Ogwashi-Uku could not take the number, what they did to some of the significant elders in the town, they gave them some of the people to work for them as prisoners. I remember that some of them were attached to my grandfather, and they worked with him for many years.
“Just as Asaba was becoming catholic, the prisoners also joined catholicism and in time they built up the strength of the church. Besides, the missionaries enticed the locals with what I may describe as American goodies.”
He explained that they first of all bought slaves whom they groomed in such a way that the owners of the land went grin with envy, adding that the ‘slaves’ were given education and plum jobs in cozy offices to the envy of Asaba indigenes.
“And the time they found out those who had learned to speak the English language were the ones who got employment in John Holt and the available places then, and getting such employment meant earning the kind of money that you would use in buying American goodies.
“So the locals began to see that the slaves were becoming more important, they buckled down and learn from these people. They started going to the Roman Catholic schools and so on and so forth. And in the end, gradually they became catholics.
“So what was initially meant for slaves began to be for the main people. It was a kind of pressure that you want some of these goodies, you got to adopt our faith. That pressure which was economic, which was social gradually got them to become Catholics, and the number grew, and then they had the number who could participate in the building of the church.
“As they built it up, a certain priest who was Bishop Broderick began to head the church and under him, Asaba made quite a bit of progress in becoming Catholic. In local dialect, they will sing for instance, ‘We go to the Roman Catholic School so that we will learn how to understand the truth and also learn how to speak the English language’. So all that pressure to speak English and the truth telling of the European/American is what got them into the Catholic church.”
Catholicism pays off for Asaba indigenes
According to Fr. Isichei, because of the early education of Asaba people through catholic schools “in the forties, fifties and even up to the sixties, the majority of the pensioners in the whole of the country came from Asaba because they really understood that this is the key.
“And you had Asaba people in all parts of Nigeria heading important establishments because they had learned how to speak the language. Even today, the flare to speak the language, is still in a way unique with us, you find out that the accent is a little bit smoother in the mouth of Asaba people than in the mouth of other people. That is because they bought into the English way of life and master the subject.”
Meanwhile, investigation revealed that the cathedral actually started from a smaller church. The small structure which is now a bookstore, was occupied by certain trainee priest, Ignatius from Onicha-Olona in Aniocha north local government area of the state.
Ignatius was said to be a humble man who worked with the missionaries and wanted to be a priest but because of some challenges, he could not continue his training. He stayed at the small structure after the cathedral was built, and worked devotedly to Asaba people.
He died, according to Fr. Isichei, with Asaba people in the mass grave where they emptied the machine gun on the people who came out to welcome federal troops during the civil war of 1967 to 1970.
At a time when structures of churches are being pulled and rebuilt to reflect contemporary designs, the shape of the cathedral remains in its rectangular form, and Fr. Isichei believes that it is traditional.
“Well, just like if you travel to Europe or America, you will find the churches with history. The oldest churches are found in those places. We believe in tradition and tradition is churches are not just buildings for us, churches are epochal and they reflect different styles of worship with the characteristics of the time.
“You never really demolish them. Different conceptions of that can be traced down historically in the different ways churches were designed in the history of Europe. They tell you that this is a 13th century church. Churches are not just houses where people live and where people do things but they also refer to the dignity of the person who is worshipped there,” he stated.
Fr. Isichei also believes that the mode of worship at St. Joseph Pro-Cathedral which is always solemn reflective of the doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church is not different from other Catholic parishes were some features of protestantism have been infused into the mode of worship.
“I don’t think there is any distinction in the mode of worship. One thing about catholicism is that there is no deal of room for working on your own. Liturgy is the same in Asaba as it is in Rome, America, new found land, North Pole, South Pole, liturgy is centralized. Having said that, I don’t think you can explain the differences along the line of mode of worship. You have a bit of Pentecostalism even in St. Joseph here.
“And that came I think about 1967 when some prophecies were given somewhere in America that the Holy Spirit which is beginning to be alive in Pentecostalism the world over, the prophecy was given in one Catholic Church that it was going to invade the Catholic Church.
“And that what they were seeing then will be a play thing when it enter the Catholic Church, it will be like a wild fire. And again in the late sixties, Catholic Charismatic Movement started and it was like a wild fire. And the church is struggling to accommodate it, allowing the Catholic Charismatic Movement to arise.
“In some cases, it tried to move on a tangent away from the mainstream of catholicism, and that struggle has continued. Roman Catholicism, because of its centralization, is always struggling to accommodate them but also clipping their wings, making it impossible for them to fly in the direction that cannot be stream lined into the main direction of the Catholic Church,” he argued.