In the last few years, one of my customary practices during Lent is to log out of all my social media pages (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram) as from Ash Wednesday until Holy Saturday night so that I can have some quality time for introspection. I know how much of my time social media tends to consume and so this practice of technological fasting is something I always look forward to when Lent approaches. But this year, I have to break that practice for today to log into Facebook just to post this tribute in honor of the first priest I ever saw in my life, Rev. Fr. Aloysius Isua, who passed away last Friday at the age of 72. When Cardinal Onaiyekan made a video call yesterday to inform me, I told him I had read the sad new on our Priests Platform. I didn’t quite know what to say. I was only able to mutter, “May God rest him.” The death of a priest is a touching experience, and I knew the Cardinal himself was visibly moved as I was able to read from his countenance.
I cannot remember exactly when I first saw Fr. Isua. It must have been sometime around 1990. He was at that time the parish priest of my parish, Sacred Heart Airport, located at the Airport Quarters where we were living at the time. One of the cherished memorabilia of my earliest acquaintance with Fr. Isua is a photograph taken on my parents’ wedding day, 24 November 1990, which Fr. Isua officiated. I was five years old then and in this photograph were my dad and mum in their native attire with Fr. Isua between them, then the two witnesses to the marriage (who I cannot now remember), with my elder brother Donald and me squatting in front. Only one of my three younger sisters, Prudence, had been born at the time. She was two years old and wasn’t in the picture.
My parents married in 1981, but they received the sacrament in 1990. My father came from a mixed family of Muslims and Anglicans. His father was a Muslim while his mother was Anglican, but he took the faith of his mother. My own mother came from a Catholic family. They had to contract a mixed marriage between an Anglican and a Catholic and Fr. Isua put them through the whole process and wedded them in 1990. My father and mother were both 31 years old when they received the sacrament, and it is to Fr. Isua’s memory that this was possible. While my father continued with his Anglican faith and even became the Pastor’s Warden in St Michael’s Anglican Church Airport, my mother continued with her Catholic faith and was very active in the choir and the lay readers. All of us five children were raised in the Catholic Church. It was only after our parents’ wedding that my siblings and myself were baptized in the Catholic Church. I was baptised on 29 September 1991, on the Feast Day of St Michael the Archangel by Fr. Isua.
During his time at the Airport Parish, Fr. Isua was also a teacher of Christian Religious Knowledge (CRK) at GSS Airport, where I had my secondary education, but he had already left before I entered the school, although I remember seeing him everyday driving past my primary school, which was just a few metres away from the secondary school. This must have been around 1992 to 1994. After his pastoral ministry at the Airport, Fr. Isua was appointed Rector of Ss. Simon and Jude Seminary in Kuje. From Kuje, he went on to work in Karmo, Kubwa, Wuse, Jikwoyi, and Byazhin parishes, until his death last Friday. He also taught CRK in several other secondary schools in the FCT.
In the course of his priestly ministry, Fr. Isua also served as Vocations Director of the Catholic Archdiocese of Abuja as well as member of the Board of Consultors amongst other responsibilities he was assigned. He was a very good teacher, having taken graduate degrees in education in the United States. He was also very happy and jovial man.
He was fond of calling my mother “Mama Donald” after her first son, and whenever we met he would always ask me with a smile written all over his face, “How is Mama Donald doing?” He loved me very much and would not hesitate to introduce me to people around whenever we met as one of the tiny little boys running around without clothes when he was at the Airport Parish. I don’t remember ever running around without clothes, but that was Fr. Isua’s way of calling attention to the fact that he saw me growing up as a little boy.
He was one priest who won my deepest admiration and respect because of the manner he regarded me. When I about to receive the Sacrament of Confirmation in 2001, I was searching for a name until I read the story of St. Aloysius Gonzaga, a young Italian Jesuit seminarian at the Roman College. Aloysius died in 1591 at age 23 after contracting an infection while caring for victims of an epidemic. In admiration for the life of St. Aloysius, I took his name for my confirmation, which I received at the hands of now Cardinal John Onaiyekan on 17 June 2001, four days to the memorial of St. Aloysius Gonzaga. I have a photograph of Archbishop Onaiyekan anointing me with the holy oil, flanked on the left by Fr. Aloysius Isua (who was smiling when he saw that I took after his name) and on the right by Fr. Daniel Agber, then parish priest at the Airport. I only learnt yesterday that Fr. Isua was born on the same day that St. Aloysius Gonzaga died – 21st June. When I was serving at the Cardinal’s residence after my ordination, Fr. Isua would call in at different times to find out how I was doing. Whenever we met, he told me how much he enjoyed reading my articles in our Archdiocesan Catholic weekly The Good Shepherd and encouraged me never to stop writing. Fr. Isua celebrated forty years as a priest last December and, as Fr. Kenneth Agwu wrote in his own tribute, that milestone was a sign of the fullness of his years of dedicated service to God in the sacred ministry. While this tribute is in his honour, for the full measure for his pastoral sacrifices which led to the growth of the seed of faith in my natural family, it is also a testimonial of gratitude to the many other dedicated priests who have played great roles in my own spiritual development and that of my family.
I remember with fond affection Fr. Willy Ojukwu, the first parish priest of Airport Parish in the late 1980s, under whose tenure my mother cut the teeth of her active participation in the life of the church. I remember Fr. Isua who wedded my parents and baptised their five children in the 1990s. I remember Father Martin Mbeledeogu who administered First Holy Communion to me on Easter Sunday, 30 March 1997, and admitted me to the Altar Boys three months later. Fr. Mbeledeogu was fond of calling me his “Vice President” after I won the election to the post in the Altar Boys. He always took me with him for Mass to Zuba during those years. I remember Fr. Paschal Nwachukwu, MSP. It was during his brief time at the Airport Parish that I remember first nursing the idea of becoming a priest. Fr. Paschal was a very wonderful singer. He loved to sing the Gregorian Chants during the Latin Mass. It was from his lips I first heard the name of Saint Angela Merici, and I have a very graphic memory of the way he pronounced “Merici” at a weekday Mass in Sauka Outstation on 26 January 1998.
I remember with gratitude Fr. Daniel Msugh Agber (who is still alive). It was during his tenure that I became President of the Altar Boys and later went into the major seminary. Fr. Agber is a priest who is very dear to my heart for the remarkable support and friendship I have enjoyed from him since 1998 till date. I remember very fondly too Fr. Adem Emaikwu whose love and care for me never ceased to surprise me from the very first day he saw me when I came on vacation from the seminary in 2006. I am grateful too for Fr. Chris Inegbenoghu who was posted to the Airport Parish after the death of Fr. Adem in 2010, and Fr. Celestine Ejim who took over from Fr. Inegbenoghu in 2012. It was during Fr. Ejim’s tenure that I was ordained both deacon and priest.
When my father decided on his own volitionto become a Catholic after my priestly ordination, it fell to Fr. Ejim to take him through the catechetical process. It was a thing of joy for me that I was able to administer First Holy Communion to my father in December 2015 on the same day that I presided at the wedding of my elder brother Donald. Fr. Ejim was quite impressed, as he told me, by the fact that whenever he had a catechetical session with my father, he saw that my father already mastered the sections of The Catechism of the Catholic Church that he wanted them to study. These are the priests whose sacrifices and dedication have been instrumental to the spiritual progress of my natural family. As a priest myself, I know how much sacrifices priests make every day to serve the People of God, and I am grateful to God for sending these his servants to us at the Airport.
Let me end this tribute with a quote from a homily given by a priest at the funeral Mass of another priest. I found it while I was preparing the brochure for the funeral of Fr. Willy Ojukwu in October 2016. It says: “The death of a priest is unlike the death of any other: we feel it differently, deeply. We sense that in losing him, we have lost not only the man but also his unique way of manifesting God. The voice that spoke of God has been silenced; hands that once blessed are impotent. Since a priest is one who takes on the person of Christ, his leave of us is somewhat of a loss in our very communication with the Lord. No one will ever again exemplify Christ for us in the singular way that this particular priest has done.” These words are profound. I believe they speak to us about the need to pray for our priests and to support them as they do for us with their lives.
At the Airport Parish, Fr. Isua succeeded Fr. Ojukwu; Fr. Mbeledeogu succeeded Fr. Isua, and Fr. Nwachukwu succeeded Fr. Mbeledeogu. Fr. Agber succeeded Fr. Nwachuwku, and Fr. Adem succeeded Fr. Agber. Painfully, Frs. Mbeledeogu, Adem, Nwachukwu, Ojukwu, and Isua have all gone to their eternal reward in that succession in the last few years. May they enjoy perpetual light, happiness, and peace in the habitations of Heaven, ministering before the holy throne of God as priests “forever in the order of Melchizedek” (Ps. 110:4) as they did while they were with us here below.
May the soul of Fr. Isua and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.
The writer is a Priest of Catholic Archdiocese of Abuja.