Augustine Echema: The making of a bishop
The consecration of Reverend (Dr) Augustine Ndubueze Echema on February 13, 2020 as the Bishop of Aba Diocese in Abia State is the climax of a successful priestly vocation of Echema (as he is fondly called by his peers). As his former classmate at the St. Peter Claver’s junior seminary, Okpala, I savored Echema’s early life as a junior seminarian. His devotion and total commitment to his chosen vocation was palpable; his convivial disposition was not hidden even when the journey appeared bumpy at that early stage.
ike any other journey in life, Echema’s trajectory was bumpy at the junior seminary. The song we used to sing, “It’s not an easy road,” was our consolation. Our class of 76 set, was vilified by our rector, the late Rev. Fr. Lambert Nwigwe (may his soul rest in peace), who expelled our entire class in Class 5, just weeks to our final WAEC examination. We all packed our boxes and went home and had to come from different places to take our November/December GCE of 1976. That incident affected the performance of most of the members of our 1976 class and even derailed the vocation of many. Echema was among the few that scaled the hurdle.
Bishop Augustine Echema’s priestly career began in 1972 from St. Mary’s junior seminary, Umuowa Orlu, Imo State. After completing Class 2, the class was transferred to St. Peter Claver’s Seminary, Okpala (as was the arrangement then), to continue Class 3 and finish up. It was at the point of finishing up that our entire class was expelled by our rector. It was a nasty experience that trounced many of us.
What happened, one may ask. It was one evening that we went to the refectory to eat. On getting there, the food was watery beans and little. We found it extremely offensive. How can we eat this tiny watery beans and then go to burn night lantern (there was no electricity at Okpala seminary, we used bush lamp all through to study at night). Not impressed with the food served us, we quickly decided to boycott the food. We abandoned the food and left for night studies.
Some time into the night studies, the rector, Fr. Lambert Nwigwe, appeared at the door. Everyone was filled with fear. He asked who are those who refused the food. Everybody kept quite. He asked again, who are those who refused the food. Nobody answered. He asked the third time, who are those who refused the food. There was no response from anybody. He then said you are all hereby expelled. Tomorrow morning, you should pack your things and go home, and he left. That was it, irrevocable.
There was silence in the class. We knew we had entered into trouble because Fr. Nwigwe was such disciplinarian that his words were final. There was no room for begging or pleading with him. No priest among the reverend fathers could beg him to rescind his decision. And so it was, the next morning we packed our boxes and went to different directions heading home.
Going home and coming without adequate preparation to take the GCE was not easy. We managed to take the examination and only a few of us made it at the first sitting. Most of us had to take subsequent GCE examinations as private candidates to be able to get five credits that qualified one for future academic career.
Augustine Echema, to God’s glory, was among the few that were able to scale the hurdle. After completing his apostolic work in 1977, he proceeded to the Bigard Memorial Seminary, Ikot Ekpene for his philosophy studies from 1978 and completed in 1982. Thereafter, he continued his theology studies at the Bigard Memorial Seminary, Enugu and finished in 1986. He was ordained a priest in August 1986 for the clergy of Owerri. Between 1989 and 1994, Augustine Echema studied at the Philosophisch-Theologische Hochschule Sankt Georgen in Frankfurt, where he obtained a doctorate in theology, with specialization in liturgy.
Since he was ordained, Fr. Echema has held various positions. He served at St. Peter Claver Seminary Okpala (1986-1988); parish priest of St. Mark Umuneke Ngor (1988-1989); parish priest of St. Joseph parish in Schwalbach, in the diocese of Limburg, Germany (1994-1995); lecturer in liturgy at the Catholic Institute of West Africa (CIWA) in Port Harcourt; president of the Liturgical Commission of the archdiocese of Owerri and chaplain of the Owerri Provincial Laity Council.
The Aba diocese bishopric became vacant following the death of the first bishop of the diocese, Most Reverend Doctor Valentine Ezeonyia, CSSp in 2015. Aba diocese was created from Umuahia Diocese on April 2, 1990.
Five years after the death of Bishop Ezeonyia, on December 27, 2019, the Holy Father, Pope Francis, appointed Rev. Monsignor Augustine Echema as the new Bishop of Aba Dicoese. Echema’s ascendency to the bishopric of Aba Diocese vindicates the Okpala 1976 set that was vilified. As it were, after the entire class was expelled, nobody believed that anything good could come out from the set.
Interestingly, in addition to Bishop Echema, several other members of the set have attained great heights in their various fields of endeavour. Those that also made it to the priesthood include Rev. (Prof) Tony Nwachukwu (Azuma), Rev. Fr. Godwin Ama, Rev. Fr. Charles Anolam, Rev. Fr. David Iheanacho, Rev. Dr. Emmanual Nwogwugwu, Rev. Fr. Hycinth Njoku and Rev. Fr. Abrose Ugwoegbu in far away Sacramento, California, USA.
Outside the priesthood, we have eggheads like Dr. Anthony Ndukwe, a practicing medical doctor in Edinburg, Scotland, Professor Cyril Ibe, Central State University, Ohio, USA, Dr. Kenneth Nwalor, University of Ibadan, and my humble self a former Coordinator, School of Environmental Sciences, Imo State University, Owerri and former UN Consultant.
There are numerous other successful classmates that are too many to mention, including Remigius Ekweariri (USA), Ernest Nwaneti (USA), Hon. Nic Ndedigwe, Paschal Uche of the Imo Broadcasting Service, Owerri, Barrister Anselem Eleonu, Barrister Nichodemus Okoroha, Robert Onwuliri, Tony Ibenacho (Der Bruder) USA, Emmanual Nwogu and Timothy Osuji (Abuja).
Others are Elias Akano (businessman Onitsha), Alex Igwe (retired principal), Chief Thaddeus Mgbediche, Chief Canice Orji, Ethel Anyanwu (USA), Sebastine Onu (Italy, Elex Emenogu (Belgium) and Engr. Simon Jude Ohaji.
The class passed through the crucible of priests whose watchword is discipline. There was Rev. Monsignor Clement Chigbu (our first rector at Okpala), Rev. Monsignor Clement Obielu (who taught us German language), Fr. Nwokeneme, Rev. Fr. Christian Mary Ihedoro, CMF, Rev. Fr. Matthew Iwuji.
We cannot forget our senior prefects who also handle us in different subjects, namely, Francis Uwahemu, Rev. Fr. Casmire Chimeziri and Rev. Dr. Cyril Akalonu and Godwin Enerem of Radio Nigeria, Abuja. All these great brains contributed immensely in molding us and making us what we are today.
Now that we have Bishop Augustine Echema among us, the Holy Spirit of God has become our portion and will continue to flow around us. We can now wine and dine with the bishop anything we get to Aba. We pray that God Almighty will give the new bishop the grace and strength to carry out his onerous duty as shepherd of the flock of Christ. Shalom.