Nigerian Archbishop, Cardinal Rigali celebrate Mass at St. Cyprian

By Lou Baldwin
Special to The CS&T

The Blessed Iwene Tansi Igbo Catholic Community, composed of Igbo immigrants from Southeastern Nigeria and their children, welcomed Cardinal Justin Rigali and Archbishop Valerian Okeke of Onitsha, Nigeria, on April 26 to their weekly Mass at St. Cyprian Church in the Cobbs Creek section of Philadelphia.

The liturgy was celebrated in English by Cardinal Rigali but with all music and readings in the Igbo (Ibo) language. Archbishop Okeke was a concelebrant and homilist and also confirmed nine children and administered first Communion to five.

During his opening greeting, Cardinal Rigali urged the people “to do everything possible to maintain the religious traditions of your people, and bring them and offer them as a gift here in the United States.

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“We ask God to keep you faithful forever to the wonderful legacy given to you by missionaries and priests so many years ago,” he added.

The level of faith among the congregants had already been evidenced by the reverent attendance at a Holy Hour with exposition of the Blessed Sacrament which preceded the 2 p.m. Mass.

This was Archbishop Okeke’s first pastoral visit to the many members of his flock who are now scattered across the United States.

“All families move, all families are in motion one way or another,” he told the people. “There is only one family that is permanent and that is the Church. The Church is the family of God, and the Church is missionary, reaching out to all of God’s children.”

Urging the congregation to remain faithful, the Archbishop said, “In the Church of God there is no visiting, we are all one.”

For this group at least, there seemed to be no inclination or temptation to stray from the arms of the Church.

“They are one of our largest African Catholic communities and they have Mass here every week. It’s a great joy and pleasure to have them. They are a very strong faith community,” said Msgr. Federico A. Britto, pastor of St. Cyprian.

The Igbos themselves reflected the same sentiment. Chioma Njoku, who travels from West Grove, Chester County, every week for the Mass, said, “I feel very elated and I just can’t explain how happy I am now.”

Of course, a special reason for the elation was the conferral of the sacraments by Archbishop Okeke, and Christian Mduka, a young man being confirmed, said “We are happy because we are becoming people of God.”

There are about 350 Igbo Catholics in the Philadelphia area, according to Dr. Jude Iheoma, the coordinator of the celebration who himself came to America 30 years ago. Like Njoku and most of the other worshippers, he does not live in St. Cyprian Parish, and is a member of St. Vincent de Paul Parish, Richboro.

Their Philadelphia worshipping community, Blessed Iwene Tansi Igbo Catholic Community, takes its name from Father Iwene Tansi (1903-1964), an Igbo priest who was beatified in 1998.

It is appropriate that the community worships at St. Cyprian. Blessed Iwene Tansi’s full name was Cyprian Michael Iwene Tansi. He was given the Christian name of Michael at his baptism at age 8. Ordained in 1937, he served as a priest in his home diocese, then in 1950, with the blessing of his archbishop, he entered a Cistercian monastery in England, where he became Brother Cyprian, the name he used until his death.

The Igbos who come to America are often well educated, like Iheoma, a psychologist who teaches at Rider University. Nigeria has a number of tribal languages such as Igbo, but English is the common national language, and it is taught in the Catholic schools which were mostly founded by Irish missionaries. The people come to America “because this is the land of dreams, the land of opportunity,” Iheoma said.

Today, most Igbo priests and religious are Nigerian-born, carrying on the faith given by the missionaries but with a distinct national flavor.

“We want to replicate how we worship here in Philadelphia,” Iheoma said.

Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.