Sister Catherine… Parents’ only child who became mother in the convent
Meeting Reverend Mother Catherine Omoaka at Sisters of the Eucharistic Heart of Jesus Convent, Ikeja, Lagos, one could easily align her peaceful personality with the serenity of the Convent.
For Mother Catherine, year 2022 is a special one, a year of double celebration. Just last week, she celebrated 60 years since she took her professional vows as a Reverend Sister. And by April, she will be marking her 80th birthday.
“I feel very happy and fulfilled that I’ve been able to live all these years with God’s grace. God is the one doing it, not myself. I cannot do anything for myself except God assists me. He’s the one upholding me till today,” the elated Rev. Mother enthused.
Born 80 years ago in Afashio-Uzairue in Edo State, to Mr. and Mrs. James Omoaka, young Maria (her name before she joined the convent) entered the congregation of the Sisters of the Eucharistic Heart of Jesus on December 28, 1958, as a postulant, after completing her Grade three Teacher’s Training in Ugheli, Delta State.
Looking back, she said, “Well, God has just been so good and merciful to me. I have also offended God and done things that are not too good, but He has been merciful, always guiding me. Whenever I fall, He picks me up and helps me to continue. He has been helping me till this very moment. It’s not easy but His sufficient grace is there, you only have to tap from it.”
On her journey into the convent, the Rev. Mother recalled, “Those days, there were no reverend sisters in our village in Auchi where I was born; we only had two Reverend Fathers who were Irish. When I told my father I was going to the convent after I finished my Grade three in Ughelli, his brothers said they had never seen a female Reverend Father; they only knew of male Reverend Fathers. So, they said I shouldn’t go, because I was a girl and the only child of my mother; I was told a snake bit her on her way to the stream when I was just seven months old and she died.”
Young Maria grew up knowing her stepmother until she came across a picture of her father with a woman she had never seen.
“I was cleaning my father’s drawers in his library and I came across a picture of my father with a woman in a wedding dress and I wondered who the woman was. I asked my father and he told me that she was my mother. I’ve always heard of how she died, but I had never seen a picture of her. I took the picture and placed it on my chest; I was between 10 and 12 years olds then, still in primary school.
“Then, my father told me not to worry that God knows best. He took the picture from me to keep and that was the last time I saw it till now. My father saw that I was sad when I saw the picture and because he didn’t want me to feel bad, he hid it from me,” she recalled.
While her father’s brothers strongly kicked against her going to the convent, young Maria’s mind was already made.
“I looked and pointed at my father’s brothers and said, ‘any one who contributed to my schooling, I will ensure I do a refund.’ They didn’t take this well; they got angry that such a small child like me could point a finger and say that to an elder. So, they threatened me and told me, ‘You will see.’
“My father then told me that those words meant a lot, so I shouldn’t wait till the date we were asked to report at the convent to begin the training at Ibonwon, near Epe. I complained and protested that we were told to report after Christmas, and that I wanted to celebrate my Christmas at home. So, my father told me that if I was sure I wanted to go, I would go before Christmas, because he didn’t trust his brothers and didn’t know what they could do.”
She continued: “He told me to take all my Christmas clothes along with me to the convent, even when we were not asked to come with those things. He bought me Buba and aso-oke and all other things, because it would be my last Christmas.”
Young Maria eventually set out on December 27 and the journey took almost two days as a result of the mode of transportation system then.
“On December 28, 1958, when we were asked to resume, I had arrived at the convent. I underwent a three-year training before professing my vows, which began my journey, 60 years ago,” she noted.
Reminiscing her humble beginning in the profession, Mother Catherine said, “On the day I was to receive my crucifix to be professed, my father and my stepmother came with my stepbrother, Lawrence; my father saw me and wasn’t happy. He complained that I was so thin; he said that they weren’t giving us enough food and even threatened to take me back home. One of the white reverend sisters even told my father that I always ate little. My father was really not happy to see me looking so thin, but I reassured him that I was fine and that I wasn’t being punished by anybody.”
After her training, she was first transferred to Ughelli, where she started initially. She was later sent to London to study where she had Montessori education in Child Psychology. On he return in 1973, she was sent to Our Lady of Apostles Nursery and Primary School, Sapele to take over the administration of the school from the Notre Dame Sisters who were leaving at the time.
Mother Catherine was elected Vicar General in absentia, as she was sick in the hospital at the time of the election. Following the development, she left Ilorin to St. Anthony’s Nursery and Primary school, Ijebu Ode in order to be close to Ibonwon the seat of the congregation’s administration.
Three years after, the Superior General died and she was elected to replace her. After traveling abroad once again on a mission to the United States of America in 2006, she worked at the Sacred Heart Private School, Ring Road, Ibadan, St. Monica, Iju and Eucharistic Heart of Jesus Christ Convent, Apapa respectively.
Even at 80, Mother Catherine still bakes sumptuous healthy pastries. This she imbibed from her days of training in Ibonwon where she learnt from the white sisters who were willing to teach the skills.
“When I was in Ibonwon during training, I was the one cooking for the white sisters. And I saw how they cooked and baked; I learnt how to do them. There were no machines to mix the cakes and so I would help them mix it manually and they would put it in the oven. Before we even got ovens, we used charcoal and a big pot. We would fill the pots with water and put the cake or bread on top to bake,” she recalled.
Being the only child of her mother, Reverend Mother Catherine shared a special bond with her father.
“My father was very loving; he didn’t want anything to touch me at all. He was a carpenter who worked with the foreigners to build schools and churches. So, if they had to pass the night, when he comes back the next day, his first question would be, ‘Where is Maria?
“There was this fateful day, I was sent to the stream. My father had warned my stepmother never to send me to the stream, because it was on the way to the stream my mother was bitten by the snake, which led to her death. So, I went to fetch water from the stream and my clay pot fell and broke. I cried all the way home and stayed outside for fear of what my stepmother would do to me. My father came back and saw me crying, with my two hands on top of my head. When he found out it was because of the pot, he sternly warned my stepmother never to let me go to the stream ever again.
“My father was a very kind and loving man. Even when his brothers came, they would enter his room, open his wardrobe, wear his clothes and leave. Whenever my father returned, he would tell them to keep whatever they collected for themselves and more. It is from my father that I got that value of generosity,” she hinted.
On where the interests to be in the convent stem up, she said, “I think its God that just put it in me, because there were no reverend sisters at that time. At a time, some sisters came to our village and asked who would be interested in going to the convent, I put my hands up and that was it.
“God put the inspiration in me, the eagerness to serve Him and He also gave me the grace to continue, because I came in with other girls who couldn’t continue; they stopped along the way. Even my stepmother’s sister whom I met in the convent wasn’t able to continue. She advised me that I wouldn’t be able to stay, because the people who trained us were wicked. But I resigned and told her that God would help me.”
Asked about the secret to her youthful look and advice to young sisters who are looking up to her with the hope of becoming a Reverend Mother like her, she said, “They should take care of themselves and mind what they eat. Some of us can take six or seven lumps of sugar inside one cup of tea. Now, I don’t even take sugar at all, just a little bit of honey in my tea or Quaker Oats and that’s fine. I also take herbal tea, with ginger and garlic before I go to bed. I advice people generally to eat what is good for them, don’t eat because you see a lot of food and you want to finish it all.”