Africa: Onyeabo The First Igbo Man To Be Ever Ordained A Bishop
Anyone who knows Enugwu and its street names well enough, especially the GRA, can identify a street named “Bishop Onyeabo” in GRA. Just after descending the IMT Roundabout adjacent to the rear of Polo Mall (Shoprite), the very first street/road by the left side which snakes behind the students’ hostels, Anglican Chaplaincy and Mortuary of ESUT Park lane Teaching Hospital compound bursting out to the main road leading to Trans-Ekulu Bridge is called “Bishop Onyeabọ Street”.
Alphonso Chukwuma Onyeabọ was born 140 years ago in 1879. An Ọnịcha man educated at St Andrew’s Training Institute, Oyo College. Onyeabọ rose through the ranks of the Church Missionary Society then and became the first Igbo man to be ever ordained a bishop in orthodox Christianity on September 11, 1937 at St Paul’s Cathedral, London.
The next Igbo man to become a bishop in orthodox Christianity was in the Catholic denomination and it was John-Cross Anyọgụ — another Ọnịcha man — ordained in the 1940s. He was followed by Samuel Nkemena (Anglican) ordained in 1955 who came after Anthony Gogo Nwedo (Catholic) ordained in the late 1940s. Cardinal Francis Arinze of Eziowele in today’s Idemili of Anambra State would become about the 5th Igbo man and the 3rd Igbo Catholic to be an orthodox Christian bishop (catholic denomination) as he was ordained in1965, succeeding the infirmed Archbishop Charles Heerey. As at 1965, Arinze made history as the world’s youngest bishop at the age of 32.
Of the committee headed by Archdeacon T J Dennis which developed the Union Igbo and its literacy earlier in the 20th century, Onyeabọ was next in command as a major translator having served and lived in Egbu, Owere of today’s Imo State in the second decade of the 20th century. The committee worked hard to develop and recommend what’s now known as Igbo Izugbe (predominantly Imo dialect) which was rejected by the Roman Catholic Mission then who preferred Ọnịcha Igbo dialect that’s now referred vaguely to as Anambra Igbo.
Onyeabọ saw it all through the politics of developing and unifying Igbo language and for that, I personally hold him in very high esteem. I shudder at what would have been of the Igbo now if Onyeabọ and Dennis with others hadn’t set out to do the groundwork as well as kept on the harmless struggles, acrimonies and politics between Catholics and Anglicans that ended up giving direction to our ever-embattled Igbo language which still suffers neglect today by no other than the Igbo themselves who chase foreign acquisitions with great energy and abandon theirs with profound foolishness! Arị ize Onyeabọ na ndị ọzọ! Ọ kaara ịkadị njọ taata. Chukwu gọzie ha.
N.B: There are other schools, roads named after Onyeabọ in Aba, Ọnịcha and other places I can’t list here. But be sure that any monument or property named after “Bishop Onyeabọ” in Nigeria points to him. Inset is Bishop Alphonso Chukwuma Onyeabọ (left) on the day of his ordination in London in 1937.
By Chijioke Ngobili, 2019