By Joe Barkovich, Scribbler-at-large
WELLAND – A Catholic priest who returned home to Nigeria to visit his family, only to pass away in his sleep while there, will be missed at his Port Colborne parish, parishioners say.
Father Obioma Anyanwu died Saturday, April 9 in his sleep, according to his obituary and also a post on the Diocese of St. Catharines website. He left for Nigeria March 30 and was scheduled to return to St. Patrick Parish, Port Colborne, in early May. He was 52.
Anyanwu became pastor at St. Patrick’s in August. Prior to that he was pastor at St. Martin of Tours parish in Smithville. He also served at other parishes in the diocese since his arrival in 2005. Prior to coming to Niagara he was a priest in the Archdiocese of Gatineau where he served as pastor at Our Lady of the Annunication Church from 2001-2005.
Bettina DiGiulio described her pastor as a man who was “warm, hospitable and happy, he liked to laugh.”
She said Bishop Gerard Bergie came to the church at last Saturday’s 5 p.m. Mass and shared the sad news. DiGiulio was to have been there but had to change her plans.
“Bishop Bergie announced that Father Obioma had passed on,” she said. “He wanted to break the news himself.”
She got to know Anyanwu socially when he had asked her to cook for three or four parish functions. One was a Confirmation dinner for about a half dozen guests, including Bishop Bergie.
“Father enjoyed entertaining,” she recalled. “He was a good host.”
Anyanwu was deeply committed to the parish church, DiGiulio said. St. Patrick’s is in need of repairs, she said, and the pastor “was on a mission” to raise money and see that work would get done. When she served as a reader at Mass, he would ask her to have the congregation pray: “Lord show us your plan. Lord fulfill among us your promise to build your church. Lord whatever you ask of me I will do.”
She described him as spiritual, knowledgeable in matters of the faith, and “a priest who knows the Lord.”
Shortly before he left for Nigeria, Anyanwu told DiGiulio he was in need of prayers because of what lay ahead. He would be flying first to France, where there would be a layover, then a flight to Nigeria and then a car ride of several hours to his home.
“I’m going to need a lot of prayers,” she said he told her.
As one who believes in “divine intervention”, DiGiulio said her pastor’s death at home may have been “what was meant to be.”
She said: “The Good Lord directed him there so he could die in his homeland. I believe in divine intervention and that, to me, is divine intervention.”
Mieke Van Es was at that Saturday afternoon Mass where the pastor’s death was announced.
She said the priest filling in for him while he was on vacation told parishioners they were getting a visit from the bishop.
“That made you think something was up,” she said. “People thought maybe the church was closing. But the bishop made the announcement, he said he had just learned that Father had passed on.”
The news was met with a collective gasp she said: “You could hear it, like everyone inhaled at the same time. It was unbelieveable. He went there on a holiday and that’s what happened.”
Lifelong St. Patrick’s parishioner Tom Lannan said he had known Anyanwu for only eight months, but had taken a liking to him soon after his arrival.
“He had a contagious laugh, he loved to laugh” said Lannan. “He was easy to talk to. I warmed up to him quickly ”
He said Anyanwu enjoyed ministering to children and young people.
Despite his brief period at the parish, the easy going pastor will be missed said Lannan, who is a member of the pastoral council and building and maintenance committee.
“The news came as quite a shock to us. People are still talking about it, how sad it is,” he said.
A post on the St. Catharines diocese website says in part: “We have all been deeply saddened and shocked by the sudden death of Father Obioma Anyanwu. He was a good and faithful priest filled with enthusiasm, joy and love for the Lord. These qualities were appreciated by all of us, especially by the parishioners he has served. He will be greatly missed.”
A Memorial Mass will be celebrated by Bishop Bergie at 11am tomorrow, Friday, April 15, at St. Patrick’s Parish, 123 King St., Port Colborne.
The post on the diocesan website concludes with: “The souls of the just are in the hands of God, no torment shall ever touch them.” (Wisdom 3:1)