For Christians, and indeed Catholics, the keyword in the major themes of Christ’s message in the Gospels, is Love and Charity as exemplified in the message of “love your neighbour as yourself”.
Sir Patrick Igwilo and his Wife Lady Funke Igwilo experienced this firsthand in their recent trip to Evansville and Sparta, Illinois, in faraway United Sates of America, where they had gone to visit a son, brother, friend and a Vincentian Priest, Rev Fr. Iuvenis Iheme, CM.
According to Sir Igwilo “The initial purpose was to go and see how our son, our brother and priest was doing over there, in a faraway place without family, considering that he had gone for a while, and so we needed to see how he was coping and if he was accepted”.
The Igwilos were pleasantly surprised that this priest was not only welcomed and accepted, but he had even become one of them. The bond and fond were unmistakably evident at every turn and run. Fr speaks so wonderfully well of the parishioners just as they equally speak of him in superlatives. Fr. Iuvenis didn’t mince words in telling them that he had found a family there. “So, as we were leaving, the joy was there that our son, our brother and priest is in excellent hands as represented by the wonderful parishioners of Our Lady of Lourdes Parish, Sparta and St. Boniface Parish, Evansville.”
Fr. Iuvenis is a Catholic Priest of the Congregation of the Mission, otherwise known as Vincentians. Ordained some fourteen years ago in Lagos, Nigeria, his priestly ministry has taken him to other countries of the world. Now multi-cultured and naturally talented, Fr Iuvenis seems able to fit in so nicely and readily with diverse peoples and places.
The Vincentians are a Religious body, founded by St. Vincent de Paul, a 17th-century French Catholic priest. This Religious Congregation he founded draws inspiration from his unique charisms, teachings and examples which center on giving succour to the poor and needy, practicing charity, and evangelizing through acts of mercy. The Vincentian spirit and indeed the Vincentian way of life as espoused by the founder, St. Vincent, reflects what our Lord Jesus Christ states in Luke 4:18 – “the spirit of the Lord is upon me. He has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and sight to the blind; to free the oppressed.”
The universality of the church becomes particularly manifest in the Sparta-Evansville visit experience and, more so, through the demonstrable acts of deep love and charity to the stranger. Funke is still overwhelmed that even as a stranger her birthday, which incidentally fell in the period, was not only surprisingly remembered but celebrated for her in a most memorable fashion by the great and kind souls of St Boniface and Our Lady of Lourdes parishes.
All the parishioners turned up in honour at a banquet of rich drinks and meals organized and prepared by kind hearted and generous group of parishioners. “The gifts so ceremonially presented to us by each parish as a collective remain an eternal memento of the beauty of the souls of a thoroughly Christian people. This is to say nothing of the great individual gifts; those who brought meals and fruits to the rectory; those who faithfully visited us in the house with their lovely children because they were travelling and would miss the party. The warm words of welcome skillfully presented by a parishioner in each parish on behalf of all are unforgettable.”
Funke says the greatest tonic of all was the magical words written in bold graphics on Our Lady of Lourdes Parish signpost mounted right on the highway by the church premises, announcing: “Welcome to our parish, Mr. and Mrs. Igwilo”! This parish simply has it! And the pastor has most certainly animated the place.
On his part, the pastor, Fr. Iuvenis thinks “it was nice to host Sir Patrick Igwilo and his wife Lady Funke Igwilo and also for my beautiful communities of St. Boniface Evansville and Our Lady of Lourdes, Sparta, to interact with a wonderful family that has strong faith in God and which has had an extensive firsthand experience of the Vincentians back in Nigeria.”
The visit is heavily memorable for the Igwilos and they seem to have a lot to reminisce about on their weeklong visit, “it was like a whole year to us, and the take away from the visit is much: to start with, the peoples of Our Lady of Lourdes, Sparta, and St. Boniface Evansville were fantastic hosts. We appreciate the gifts presented to us both as a parish, individuals and families and we’d treasure these for life”.
“On a spiritual level, the highpoint of the visit was the day Fr. Iuvenis took us to the Shrine Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal in Perryville, Missouri; it was like a whole city of its own. A fantastic and inspiring place to be, but, regrettably, the place seems dying for the reason that the once world-famous Seminary no longer has any seminarian!”
Looking back, Patrick thinks that there is a lot that the Nigerian Church can emulate therefrom. “The Nigerian Church may presently be quite vibrant in terms of the worship mode, vibrant in terms of the population, age structure and mix in the Church; we are a lot more fortunate in the number of priests that are available to attend to us. The Parishes out there may not have many priests, seminarians and altar servers to attend to them. Their worship is solemn and brief”.
Continuing, Igwilo thinks that “the one thing I would want the Nigerian Church to learn generally from the parishes in America and Europe, is the fact that these parishes proudly show off their buildings of some 300 years standing and yet kept in an excellent state of repair. Their church buildings are not pulled down every now and again. When churches are built, they are built to last and routinely maintained and not pulled down. This I believe is a huge drain on the available resources of the Nigerian church. This is one area that the Nigerian Church must learn from. There is usually a sense of history and pride in preserving their ancient church buildings. For instance, there is a sense of connect between those who built these churches over 200 years ago and the present worshippers. Pulling down existing structures at the least excuse and rebuilding same is a common practice which needs discouraging.”