What is today the North-West Africa Province of the Society of Jesus started in a small way through the initiative of Father General Jean-Baptiste Janssens and the efforts of the New York Province from the 1960s onward.
God planted the small seed through the pioneering work of Fr. Joseph Schuh, Fr. Joseph Schuyler and Fr. Joseph McKenna when they took up apostolates in the Archdiocese of Lagos in the 1960s. Fr. Schuh and Fr. Schuyler served in the nascent faculty of the University of Lagos while Fr. McKenna worked at the National Catholic Secretariat in Lagos. Fr. McKenna was soon asked to offer leadership to the small band of Jesuits in the Nigeria Mission of the New York Province. With the arrival of other Jesuits, their mission diversified to include retreat ministry, chaplaincy and pastoral work, collaboration with bishops in the training of personnel, and the teaching apostolate. As a result of the increasing numbers, the stress shifted to corporate apostolates.
These pioneers believed that the yardstick for measuring the success of missionary work was in recruiting indigenous people. In 1969, the first two indigenous novices entered the novitiate at Lusaka, Zambia. At the same time, the civil war in Nigeria (1967-70) was a time of uncertainty in the history of this fledgling Nigeria Mission. Some Jesuits chose to stay on, subject to the agreement of the local ordinary, while others moved on to other apostolates in the Lusaka novitiate in Zambia and La Faculté St. Pierre Canisius in the former Zaire or returned to the New York Province.
Regular Jesuit presence was established in Ghana in 1974 when Fr. Patrick Ryan took up a teaching position and chaplaincy duties at the University of Ghana in Accra. Fr. Vincent Novak, Provincial of New York, officially added Ghana to the Nigeria Mission in 1986, transforming it into the Nigeria-Ghana Mission. The number of Jesuits working there increased steadily in the first few years as did the number of apostolates they served in.
Many of the pioneers who laboured in Nigeria and in Ghana came from the New York Province. There were Jesuits too from the Maryland, Wisconsin, Jamshedpur, Sri Lanka, Australia, Philippines and Zimbabwe provinces who served in Nigeria and Ghana. They contributed to the establishment and growth of the secondary schools, the novitiate, the retreat centres, the parishes, and the chaplaincy in the province today.
Each of the phases of growth in the Nigeria-Ghana Mission was the result of communal prayer, careful planning, diligent study and serious reflection. The establishment of various apostolates within the province are fruits of these discernment processes. They are indications of a visible Jesuit presence and a help to stimulating vocations. The Nigeria-Ghana Mission morphed into the Nigeria-Ghana Region in 1992, and in 2005, Father General Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, S.J. erected it as the North-West Africa Province comprising of Nigeria, Ghana, Liberia, Sierra Leone and the Gambia.
Presently, the province has the lowest median age in the Society of Jesus and is only eight years old this year. In spite of its age, the province has a 51-year graced history behind it. From the three Jesuits in the 1960s to the 106 Jesuits who today make up the membership of the North-West Africa Province, God has been a very intimate part of the growth. He continues to be the reason for our mission of service of faith and promotion of justice in this corner of his vineyard.
By Isidore Bonabom SJ
Source: JHIA diary