History of Nigerian-Igbo Catholic Community of Atlanta (NICCA)
The European missionaries brought Christianity to Nigeria many years ago. In addition to evangelization, these missionaries founded many hospitals and schools in Nigeria. In southeastern part of Nigeria- the home of the Igbos- Catholic religion came first, followed by the Anglican faith, both of which are very prominent in the lives of the Igbos. With the catholic faith, education and the penchant for worshipping Christ embedded early in their lives, the immigrant catholic Igbos in Atlanta, Georgia – who already worship and serve in various committees in their respective parishes- were yearning for the opportunity to inculcate the Igbo style of worship in their religious endeavors.
In the early 1990’s, a Nigerian Igbo family invited Rev. Fr. Emmanuel Ede- founder of the Catholic Prayer Ministry of the Holy Spirit ( CPM )- to come and celebrate mass in Igbo language in Atlanta, Georgia. Being a very popular priest in Nigeria, the news about Fr. Ede’s visit spread like wildfire. The mass was celebrated at St. Paul of the Cross Catholic Church, Atlanta, Georgia and the attendance was heavy. In the audience were Catholics, Anglicans, many Nigerians of different faiths and several Americans. The theme of the mass was for the intentions of the sick and suffering people of God. It was during this visit that, with Fr. Ede’s help and blessing, the Catholic Prayer Ministry of the Holy Spirit, Atlanta Zone ( CPM Atlanta Zone ) was inaugurated.
CPM Atlanta Zone created four offices – the chairman, vice-chairman, secretary and the treasurer. Dr. Vincent Anigbogu was elected chairman while Paul Mgbodile became the vice-chairman. Registered membership of CPM Atlanta Zone continued to grow and each time Fr. Ede visited and celebrated mass, the church building would overflow with attendance. Fr. Ede’s masses, in addition to the exposition of the Blessed Sacrament and Adoration, included blessing of water and consultation for families and individuals with various needs.
With the assistance of Rev. Frs. Martin-Ralph Kalu and Ben Osuigwe, CPM Atlanta Zone was able to start offering monthly Igbo language Mass at 2PM every second Sunday of the month at St. Paul of the Cross Parish. The masses were usually followed by refreshments, music, food, social and religious networking.
With the emergence of Paul Mgbodile as the next chairman of CPM Atlanta Zone, interest in the activities of CPM Atlanta Zone continued to grow, but there were others who wanted to participate in the Igbo catholic activities but not necessarily as members of CPM. With the acceptance of our invitation and preparation for the visit of Francis Cardinal Arinze from the Vatican, Fr. Osuigwe, in an effort to accommodate everybody, suggested searching for a more central venue for our monthly mass and changing the congregation name to Nigerian Catholic Community of Atlanta. After some deliberations, Fr. Osuigwe’s recommendation was unanimously accepted. Dr. Clement Emeka Okpala was recommended to head the search team for the more centralized venue, and with the help of the archdiocese of Atlanta and the Office for Black Catholic Ministry, the Nigerian Catholic Community relocated to St. Anthony of Padua Parish in the west end section of Atlanta, Georgia.
As the Nigerian Catholic Community of Atlanta mass and religious activities were ongoing, Rev. Fr. Martin Ralph Kalu also started the annual New Year Igbo Language Mass at the Cathedral of ans ( catholics and non-catholics ) look forward to the activities at the New Year Mass at the cathedral which is usually followed by reception at the Hyland Athletic Center where the attendees are treated to the best Nigerian- Igbo delicacies and music. Dr. Uchenna Uchendu Otor wrote most Igbo religious songs and directed the choir at the early stages of the New Year Mass. Three seminarians in the archdiocese of Atlanta- Michael Onyekuru, John-Paul Ezeonyido and Samuel Utomi- also joined the Igbo catholic community during masses and various activities.
In 1999, a planning committee headed by Dr. Cyril Agu and Nony Mbaezue was set up for hosting Cardinal Francis Arinze of Nigeria who was visiting from the Vatican. Nigerians mobilized en mass, got the help of the archdiocese of Atlanta , local businesses and media, and hosted Cardinal Arinze in the grandest of style that is still being talked about today. It was indeed a shining moment for Nigerians in Atlanta as this heightened the visibility and popularity of the Nigerian Catholic Community of Atlanta.
The community held election in the fall of 1999 that ushered in Dr. Ifeanyi Anikpe as the chairman, Eddy Atunzu as vice-chairman and Dr. Boniface Emeka Otor as the general secretary amongst others.
In 2000, Michael Onyekuru of Emekuku, Owerri became the first Nigerian to be ordained priest in the archdiocese of Atlanta. The Igbo catholic community in particular and Nigerians in general participated so well during Fr. Onyekuru’s priestly ordination as well as the hosting of Cardinal Arinze that , indeed, we got the attention of the archbishop of Atlanta who was very impressed with the ‘can do’ attitude and catholic pragmatism of the Igbos. Archbishop Wilton Gregory subsequently was the chief celebrant in one of our annual New Year masses and, yes, he spoke Igbo!
To be more organized and accountable to the archdiocese of Atlanta, Rev. Fr. Michael Onyekuru, then the chaplain of Nigerian Catholic Community of Atlanta, suggested and presided over a constitution committee that was set up to guide the affairs of the community. Our name was officially changed to Nigerian-Igbo Catholic Community of Atlanta ( NICCA ) in line with the new constitution, whose mission is “ To unify The Nigerian-Igbo catholics in the metropolitan Atlanta area and the state of Georgia, by celebrating mass in our native Igbo Language as a way of fostering communal fellowship and passing our language and cultural legacy to our children”. Many Igbo priests such as Rev. Frs. John Ugobueze, Bedemore Udechukwu, Casmir Maduakor, Kizito Okeke, Azuka Iwuchukwu, Andy Okeke and the reverend sisters also helped the community to keep the Igbo Language Mass and activities alive and well.
In 2003, the Igbo community in Atlanta witnessed the second priestly ordination of a Nigerian seminarian – John Paul Ezeonyido - in the archdiocese of Atlanta. The community participated and rejoiced with Fr. John-Paul, who subsequently became our chaplain and spiritual director. During Fr. John-Paul’s first visit to Nigeria after his ordination, he bought and donated several musical equipments that we currently use. Under Fr. John-Paul’s leadership, along with his Igbo brother priests, a list of NICCA liturgical needs such as Igbo hymn books, vests for priests and mass servers amongst others were compiled. “Think Big” project was launched. NICCA members participated fully and made generous financial donations which helped to procure the liturgical needs, some from Nigeria. Fr. John-Paul presided over the NICCA elections in 2007 that produced our current chairman Dr. Clement Emeka Okpala and vice-chairman Chimezie Okoye. The community embarked upon and celebrated its first Annual Bazaar in 2009 and it was a huge success. Our Annual Retreat continues to get bigger and better. In 2009, NICCA co-hosted the annual convention of the African Catholic Clergy and Religious in United States ( ACCRUS ). As membership continues to grow in NICCA and the organization tackles more religious, social and community activities, it is our hope that with the help of the archdiocese of Atlanta and the Office for Black Catholic Ministry, God willing, we will eventually get our own parish.
Currently, NICCA is being ministered to by Rev. Frs. John-Paul Ezeonyido (chaplain), Greg Anatuanya, Dan Onyeayana, Deacon Chijioke Ogbuka and Rev. Sisters Rosetta Offordum and Rosemary Gill.
The mass is celebrated every 2nd Sunday of the month at 2 PM at St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church, Atlanta. The annual New Year Mass is at 12 noon at the Cathedral of Christ The King. To honor a great servant of God, Blessed Cyprian Michael Iwene Tansi of Nigeria (1903-1964), the community also celebrates mass at St. Anthony’s on the second Sunday of every January. Rev. Fr. Tansi’s prayer cards, pictures, books and presentations usually accompany this special day. We appreciate the time, effort and love the Igbo clergy puts into ministering to Ndi-Igbo. We will eternally be grateful to Charles Prejean, director of the Office for Black Catholic Ministry of the Archdiocese of Atlanta who supports our community in so many ways.
Compiled by History Committee :
Dr. Boniface E. Otor and Chimezie Okoye