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Wednesday, 11 July 2012

A Personal Description of the Man: Bishop Anthony Ekezia Ilonu (1935-2012)

I am short of words to describe a colossus I have known right from my childhood. I wonder if I am ignorant of the correct vocabularies to activate from my linguistic system or simply over-taken by anxiety, sadness and sorrow. Perhaps both. All the words I know are not enough to describe him, the sentiments I have about him cannot also be verbally expressed in words because they are more experienced than heard or read.
Nevertheless, words cannot completely fail me, ignorance cannot pardon me neither can my emotion and sentiments excuse my failure to say a little about him.

Born on November 13, 1935 into the family of late Mazi Mathias Ilonu of Ndiogbuonyeoma, Arondizuogu in Okigwe Local Government Area of Imo State, Nigeria, he grew up in a Christian home and has sustained the faith he inherited from his parents who were benefactors to the early missionaries. The presence of the early missionaries inspired and motivated his decision to become a catholic priest, a decision not ordinarily made but a decision powered by a divine call. This decision first took him to St Peter Claver Seminary Okpala in 1953, and to St Paul’s Seminary Enugu (now Bigard Memorial Seminary Enugu) from where he was selected to complete his studies in Rome in 1961. On 19th December 1964 after graduating from the Pontifical Urban University Rome, he was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Umuahia after which he went on to study the Sacred Scriptures. He also acquired other certificates in languages, history, education, etc, from academic institutes in Italy and the UK.

In 1971, urgent pastoral needs brought him home to his alma mater Bigard Memorial Seminary Enugu to teach the Biblical languages, Sacred Scripture and other related courses. His footprints as a lecturer and formator have remained indelible even after several decades. His great services to the Seminary were extended to larger beneficiaries as he was appointed the pioneer bishop of the newly created diocese of Okigwe on January 27 1981 after a decade. On March 29 1981, he was consecrated a bishop by Archbishop Carlo Curis as his Principal Consecrator with Francis Cardinal Arinze and Bishop Anthony Gogo Nwedo CSSp as his Principal Co-Consecrators.

Since then, for 25 solid years, he led the entire Catholic Diocese of Okigwe as a Chief Shepherd. For us all, he was not only a Bishop but was also a founder, a model, a teacher, a prophet, a pace-setter, an original thinker, an initiator and a motivator just to mention but a few. His pastoral zeal was unquestionable, his concrete and practical spirituality was an example to be followed, his courage was enough virtue for a soldier going to the battle field, his vision was even unimaginable for our political leaders, his simplicity was like that of a child, his aesthetic consciousness was like those of Bigard altar decorators, his ingenuity can be compared to that of Apple and Android software developers, his wisdom was likened to that of Solomon and the tribulations he suffered were like those of St. Paul. I only speak of those I know.

He initiated the idea of bringing the faith closer to the people in his creation of parishes-in-building, he made provisions for the development of Ecclesiastical structures in the large expanse of land he acquired for the Church, he fought for the resurrection of Catholic education after the war by establishing several catholic schools in the diocese, he was interested in the health of the people under his care by the establishment of hospitals and clinics and saw to the qualitative and quantitative training of medical personnel by seeing to the establishment of two schools of nursing in the diocese. He knew the extent of work in the Lord’s vineyard which would require several labourers that he established seminaries for the training of his priests. He was quite conscious of the need for a befitting Diocesan Cathedral that he initiated and began implementing the erection of a magnificent Diocesan Cathedral which can compete as the best Cathedral in Africa after its dedication. He also achieved a lot of things time and space would not permit to be reviewed. He retired in 2006 and handed over the leadership of the diocese to Most Rev. Dr. Solomon Amanchukwu Amatu.

Among other things, he confirmed me, received me into the seminary, clothed me and dedicated our family chapel. He was a spiritual director, a father and a special friend to my family, (Uwakwe’s family in Ugiri-Nna, Isiala Mbano ). As a junior seminarian, I admired him from afar, and as a senior seminarian, I looked up to him as a model. I was challenged one day as a junior seminarian when on a free day, I went to the Cathedral to meet Fr Cletus Ehiem for confession and was told he went to see Bishop Ilonu. I waited for him and on his return, he told me he went to hear the Bishop’s confession and that he hears the Bishop’s confessions at least once a week. I was marveled and was challenged to frequent the confessional more often, a practice I have persevered in. At his retirement home, the huge statue of Our Lady in front of his house, convinced me of his sincere love and devotion to Our Lady and challenged me to be more devoted to her if I want to be successful like him. For me, the late Bishop is simply a saint.

Despite my lack of words to describe him, I believe when I go on, the Lord will multiply the little words I have about him and that I will be inspired to write volumes about him. I believe his wisdom, works and ideas will be put into print at least for the unborn generation. 

Adieu Bishop Ilonu! Rest in Peace and please pray for us especially for me that I may attain the status your attained and continue your good works as a priest.

Uwakwe Chibuike 
Bigard Memorial Seminary Enugu

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