Catholicism arrived in the territory that would come to be known as Nigeria with Portuguese explorers in the 15th century, though their missionary efforts were largely unsuccessful and Catholicism virtually disappeared by the 17th century. Modern Catholic missions were established by priests from the Society of African Missions of Lyon in 1865, beginning in Lagos, and a vicariate was established in Benin in 1870. By 1920, numerous missions had appeared throughout Igboland, eventually outnumbering Anglican Church Missionary Society missions. Holy Ghost priests and priests from the St. Patrick’s Society arrived in 1932. In 1950, the first archdiocese of Kaduna, Lagos, and Onitsha were established. The world’s largest Catholic seminary is located is Bigard Memorial in Enugu in southeastern Nigeria.
Catholic schools grew increasingly popular; while Protestant mission schools taught in local languages, Catholic schools promoted English, which was regarded as a means of advancement in colonial society by the Igbo. Catholic missionaries also reached potential converts in the provision of medical care. In 1957, the Eastern Region saw the introduction of universal primary education, which was intended to secularize education and to limit the influence of private organizations, such as the Catholic Church. Catholics protested, viewing the move as evidence of discrimination against the Church and eventually exceptions were made allowing the schools to remain in operation. However, under the 1970 Public Education Edict no. 2, the East Central State assumed control over all private schools following the civil war centered in Biafra.
The Catholic Church in Nigeria became deeply involved in the civil war between the Biafran Igbo and the Nigerian Federal forces from 1967 to 1970. Triggered by a series of attacks on Igbo communities in the north and an Igbo-led failed military coup, the civil war was, for the Biafran Igbo, a holy war in which the Biafran Igbo imagined themselves as a vanguard against Islam. Over half of the Catholic missions in Nigeria were located in the eastern region, and the few Protestant missions there tended to work outside of Igbo communities. Catholic missions, including the Irish Holy Ghost Fathers and the Holy Rosary Sisters followed their Igbo congregations into Biafran territory as the Federal forces encircled them. They provided news of the immense suffering wrought by the civil war to outside media, and helped garner support for the Biafrans from the international Christian community—so much so that they were criticized for prolonging a hopeless cause by encouraging relief aid and giving hope to the Biafrans. In 1968 a Vatican mission visited Biafra, and Pope Paul VI (who had been the first European cardinal to visit Nigeria in 1962) personally spoke out on behalf of the Biafran Igbo. Missionaries who supported the Biafran Igbo were expelled following the war—roughly 500 total—and no foreign priests were permitted to work in Nigeria until the mid-1970s.
Numerous lay organizations emerged in the post-war period that supplemented the Catholic Church’s missionary efforts, its charitable work, and which increasingly gave the Church an indigenous, Africanized flavor, including the St. Anthony’s Guild, St. Jude’s Society, the Legion of Mary and the Block Rosary Crusade. Lay societies provided an important space for internal dialogue and external interface between the Church and followers of indigenous religious traditions, and through them, certain concepts and traditions were accepted within Catholicism (for example, an acceptance of the Igbo ozo rank, a politico-religious title), Catholics were taught to be welcoming towards followers of traditional religions, emphasizing forgiveness instead of intolerance, and the terms “pagan” and “idolatry” were dropped in discussions of traditional religion adherents.
In recent years the Catholic Church has seen massive growth in Nigeria, where parishioners are attracted by schools, medical services, and social services that the state has failed to provide with quality and consistency. As seminarians dwindle in North America and Europe, Nigerian and other West African priests serve parishes far from home (one in five American priests is foreign-born). At the same time, churches in North America and Europe provide outreach to Nigerian parishioners, often led by Nigerian priests. For example, the Igbo Catholic Foundation at San Francisco’s Sacred Heart Parish provides a Catholic context in which Igbo immigrants can connect with, learn about, and celebrate their culture.
“Nigeria,” World Christian Encyclopedia, eds. David B. Barrett et al, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 549-555.
Adam Nossiter, “Church Helps Fills a Void in Africa,” The New York Times, February 23, 2013, accessed September 6, 2013
Jacinta Chiamaka Nwaka, “The Catholic Church, The Nigerian Civil war, and the Beginning of Organized Lay Apostolate Groups Among the Igbos of Southeastern Nigeria,” Catholic Historical Review, Vol. 99, No. 1 (2013), pp. 78-95.
Jacob Olupona, “Globalization and African Immigrant Religious Communities,” Religion and Global Culture: New Terrain in the Study of Religion and the Work of Charles H. Long, ed. Jennifer I. M. Reid (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2003), pp. 83-96.
Bengt Sundkler and Christopher Steed, A History of the Church in Africa (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000).
Ken Waters, “Influencing the Message: The Role of Catholic Missionaries in Media Coverage of the Nigerian Civil War,” The Catholic Historical Review, Vol. 90, No. 4 (2004), pp. 697-718.
Paul Yancho, “Catholic Humanitarian Aid and the Nigeria-Biafra Civil War,” Religion, History, and Politics in Nigeria: Essays in Honor of Ogbu U. Kalu, eds. Chima Jacob Korieh and G. Ugo Iwokeji (Lanham: University Press of America, 2005).
"Catholic Church, Abuja," Jeremy Weate, from Flickr Creative Commons.