In a particular month in 1965, I can’t remember which month exactly now, two major events happened in our young lives for those of us who were in the Catholic Church owned and run St. Martin’s Primary School, Ikom, my hometown.
The Headmaster, Mr. K.E. Bassey the burly, strict, cane loving Efik man announced at the morning assembly that we were having very important visitors that day. The first turned out to be a group of Malaysians. They came with an official of ENDC (Eastern Nigeria Development Corporation). We were told they had come to pick samples of Nigerian palm fruits. In my juvenile mind, I was in Standard or Primary 3, I wondered why they had to travel that far just for palm fruits. I am told that from those palm fruits Malaysia is today the second largest producer of palm fruits, next only to Indonesia.
The second visitor was a young, dark handsome young priest in an immaculate white soutane. He had just been ordained the first Ogoja Priest. He was only twenty seven years old and had become a man of history. He visited classes at random. My class was one of those he visited maybe because my teacher then, David Ebi Assima was the Parish Secretary. Fortuitously, he chose my desk to sit on while addressing the class. For me this was more than a coincidence.
I had been baptized a Roman Catholic at birth by the then Irish Parish Priest, Rev. Fr. Sullivan. At the time of my birth my mother, a Catholic mission trained teacher was the first Parish Secretary of the Holy Family Parish, Ikom. I suspect Father Sullivan did not want to take chances with my faith since my father and his family were Presbyterians and have remained so.
Until recently I was the only male member of my larger family who was Roman Catholic. Growing up my life therefore revolved around school, farm and church. I was actively involved in virtually every church activity for those of my age, from the choir to serving at Mass, cleaning the church, serving Priests etc. My world was the church and I had naturally developed an aspiration, strongly encouraged by my mother and grandmother, one of the earliest converts at the cost of her marriage with whom we lived, for the Catholic Priesthood.
Father Ukpo sitting on my desk that day was a confirmation that I was indeed heading to ordination. Thenceforth all my decisions, including my going to Mary Knoll College like him were calculated steps to the Priesthood which has not been actualized till date. He rose very quickly in the Catholic hierarchy. By 1971, at the age of thirty three he was appointed Auxiliary Bishop of Ogoja. Same year he was appointed Titular Bishop of Chullk, Algeria.
By 1973 at the age of thirty five years he was Bishop of Ogoja. He served as Bishop of Ogoja for more than thirty years spreading the faith, building schools and seminaries, hospitals and training Priests, many of whom are today in different parts of the world. He became synonymous with the Catholic faith. He was the face of the church and faith. Through his younger brother, Mark, of blessed memory I got to know the persona behind the Episcopal vestments. He was humane, gentle and humorous. I was in England when the novel “In God’s Name” by David Yallop was first published. I bought him a copy which I personally handed over to him.
I was expecting a toxic reaction when he said “thank you Victor. I am anxious to know what the author thinks of my God”. A few weeks later we animatedly discussed the book. I often engaged him on the doctrinaire stiffness of the Catholic faith and he would patiently explain the doctrines. He loved his siblings of six females and seven males, he being the second but first male and has tragically buried all the younger males. The most recent was the 2021 serial loss of three siblings in a matter of days, his immediate elder sister and first of the Ukpo’s, Mrs. Lily Udeozo, his US based brother, Emmanuel, who came to visit their ailing sister and Anthony the public spirited retired Army General who was at different times Minister for Information and Military Governor of Rivers State. He was physically drained when I went to condole with him yet he had totally submitted to the will of the Almighty whom he served to the very end, and his faith was unyielding.
His Grace was a pioneer in many respects. He was in the pioneer set of the famous Mary Knoll College, Okuku then in Ogoja now in Yala. His story was still being told when I entered the same school with the aspiration to the Catholic Priesthood many years later. He was a pioneer Ogoja Priest, the present Ebonyi State was then part of Ogoja Diocese. He was just twenty seven years old. By the age of thirty three he was Bishop. Does today’s environment permit of such attainments? Is it the fault of the youth of this day that at those ages they are either aspiring to be youth leaders or beneficiaries of “food on the table”? Or is it our society that has failed us? Or should we like Cassius say “The fault dear Brutus, is not in our stars. But in ourselves that we are underlings”. Do we need to take steps that we ordinarily cannot take to redeem our situation or circumstances? This discussion should be for another day. Today is for us to honour a great man, a father of the faith who has gone to Heaven which is the home of Angels, the home to which he truly belongs to.
In spite of his many trials and travails His Grace’s life was rich and full. After all, it is said that grief purifies the soul. He had length of days and life in each of his many days and has earned eternal rest in the bosom of his Maker whom he faithfully served while on this mortal plane. While he rests peacefully with his Creator he lives in our hearts. Farewell the people’s Bishop, farewell as you turn that face of faith to Heaven. Rest in Perfect Peace.