Sylvester Mgbemfulu: A Priest and a Teacher

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By Valentine Obienyem

We cannot study our subject, Monsignor Sylvester Mgbemfulu in isolation, but must first look at the subtle interplay of culture, tradition and heritage all of which helped shape his outlook and even concept of reality.

Among these influences, perhaps after his parents, there is his home-town. Born on the 30th of September, 1945 inUgbene, in today’s ANorth Local Government Area of Anambra State, he attended primary schools in Ugbene, Ugbenu and Nando. These towns of relatively same level of development, tucked away from civilization at that time, may have contributed to his shyness. After his primary education, he stayed in the village helping his parents in their vocations, especially farming and fishing. He still recognizes the species of fish by their silent cries, speed and other aquatic characters which only fishermen understand.

While in the village, like other children, as testified by some of his age-mates such as Chief Simeon Dilinyeru, he was awed by the periodic visit of early priests to the area for spiritual ministration. At this point, he started yearning to become like them, particularly, as revealed by his immediate elder brother, Mr. Longinus Mgbemfulu, with the support of his father who saw it as a good omen that he was born on a day one of those priests first visited their community. Fortune smiled his way when, in 1962, another of his elder brothers, Hon. Mmee David Mgbemfulu took him to Aba to join him as a vendor of newspapers. The movement to Aba exposed him to another stream of influence as one experiences with the movement from primitivism to modernism.
As a young boy, Mons as he is fondly called by his people, seemed ready-made for the priesthood. This was attested to by his people of Ugbene, including his brothers and age mates and brothers who contend that he was made for the priesthood and nothing else. Speaking to them, this writer figured out that Mons has always been calm, reserved, soft-spoken and inclined to sanctity. Simeon Dilinyeru reveals that they “grew up together and went to school at the same time. At that time some people were against his becoming a priest but we knew that he would eventually become one because of the holiness of life that was decipherable even at that young age. Rather than struggle for anything, he would let it go”.

From Aba, Mons was enrolled at All Hallows Seminary, Onitsha in 1963. In 1968, he moved on to Bigard Memorial Seminary, Enugu. Due to the Civil War, the Seminary was largely peripatetic, moving from one town to the other as dictated by the uncertainties of the war. Eventually, he was ordained on the 20th of April, 1974, by Francis Cardinal Arinze, then the Archbishop of Onitsha. We can, therefore, say of him just like all priests and ex-seminarians who imbibed the right training, that he was moulded by the best institution for that purpose – the Seminary. There, his body and mind, character and disposition in life were profoundly formed. He was undoubtedly presented with the usual opportunity to devour books hungrily, to imbibe sound discipline, to think clearly, to inspire holiness by living a holy life, to realize how sweet and noble it is to work for God and perhaps as sometimes the case, he got intoxicated by over-dose of religiosity.
Even as a young priest, the priestly vows of obedience, poverty and chastity made the greatest meaning for him and he resolved to succeed rather than fail with them. As a new priest, he received the gift of a motorcycle from his people, which he put to full use in the propagation of the gospel. Seeing the competition of virtues in him, Cardinal Arinze took special interest in him and sent him to St. Paul’s Seminary, Ukpor as the Rector, after a stint as the Assistant Parish Priest to Monsignor William Obelaguat St Mary’s Catholic Church, Inland Town, Onitsha. Following Mons’ progress and love for education with keen interest, the Cardinal sponsored him to the University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN) to study Chemistry.

On graduation in 1981, while waiting to resume in the Seminary of the newly-created Awka Diocese under the pastoral care of Most Rev. Dr. Albert Obiefuna, Mons was posted as an Assistant Parish Priest to St Patrick’s Cathedral, Awka which then covered many towns. During this period, this writer served Mons at mass at St. Michael’s Catholic Church, Dodo, Oji River. We then usually referred to him as the Short Priest. He was about five feet tall, but the authority and majesty of the priesthood make him seem taller. Mons has maintained his stature over the years without any extra ounce of flesh to burden him simply because he is exceedingly temperate in food, drink and other worldly indulgences.

The following year, 1982, his long sojourn in the Seminary began at St. John Bosco Seminary, Isuaniocha. Except for three years he was in the USA on sabbatical, he was in the Isuaniocha Seminary for thirty-eight years variously as the pioneer Rector, Academic Dean, Co-ordinator of Science Laboratories, Spiritual Director, from which he retired in 2020, after reaching the canonical years of seventy-five. Only priests that are manifestly free from every kind of corruption and superior to the consideration of money can stay in such an environment for almost forty years without some protest. On the 17thof December, 2020, during his send-off at Isuaniocha, Mons exposed his inspiration in his address: “One of the past Rectors of this seminary, Very Rev. Fr. Ikem Oliobi did inspire me with the newspaper cuttings he used to paste on the walls of his living and sitting rooms. One of such cuttings read: ‘Bloom where you are planted’. What a statement with lots of lessons”.

With the fore-going, the search for Mons’ secret of remaining in the seminary during his pastoral work ended. The popular view about his long stay in the seminary was captured by a priest of the diocese, Rev. Fr. Dr. Cosmas Ebebe this way: “For his many years of teaching in the Seminary, some priests used to joke that he has been ‘forgotten’ there because his location remained the same when other priests were given new postings”.

But his stay in the seminary was eventful and could be seen from the reactions of many of the students that passed through him. Each epoch had its own identity of Monsignor Mgbemfulu. During the writer’s own time, 1987 to 1989, we called him “Omo”. The set of the late 1990s nick-named him “Sawan”. The Chemistry laboratory was his second home; and the students joked he did not buy fuel for his brown Corolla panel van but rather mixed some chemicals in the lab. with which he powered the car. As a teacher, he is Chemistry-intoxicated as he could be seen now and then fiddling with specimen, opening and closing the descanter or pouring one chemical into a test tube. His name provided chemistry with a synonym.
Fr. Obinna Dike remembers his first day in the Chemistry lab., where he usually had his lectures and how Mons welcome the class with the song: “ Come and see American Wonder”. Was it meant to frighten them? Not at all; knowing Mons, it was a joke he used to welcome some of his students who were thinking about what Chemistry had to offer.

Whatever impression students had of him, mostly informed by the exuberance of the youth, one thing is clear: Monsignor is a person that can reason and be reasoned with. He is possessed of great personal warmth and what can be called spiritual charm.

The sentiments of his former students were summed up by the Chairman of Old Boys of the seminary and a lecturer at Oko Polytechnic, Mr. Celestine Ostende Oguegbu in a compact paragraph: “Permit me to remark that throughout his stay in this Seminary, he was an outstanding tutor and committed to promoting excellence in both our education and spiritual life. Monsignor is ever smiling, always tolerant and eager to help when students have things bothering their minds”. Earlier, in an eloquent exordium, he had described Monsignor as “great teacher of teachers”. Bursting with compliments, Mr. Tochukwu Oboboegbunam described him as a “rare synthesis of ability and integrity”.

Though he occupied all positions available in the seminary, one constant thing was that he remained the Chemistry teacher and the Chemistry lab. was his office and second home, thus echoing by his life-style, the statement credited to Democritus: “I would rather discover a single demonstration in Geometry than win the throne of Persia”. Sometimes, it was even rumoured among Seminarians that the secret of his looking young every day could be explained on the possibility of Mons having discovered through chemical mixtures an elixir to look younger which he kept to himself and periodically sipped in the chemistry lab.

The end of the story is that Mons was married to Chemistry as to the priestly vocation; and for years was one of the resource persons for JAMB and WAEC on the subject. Unable to separate himself from Chemistry, let us sample some lines in his address during his send-off party, where, referring to his preceding statement, reduced it to some Chemical analysis: “… the statement takes me to one of the topics of study in practical Chemistry, ‘Theory of Indicators’. Under the topic, we observe that an indicator is selected such that its end-point will be close to the stoichiometric point of the acid-base titration it indicates and that choice of an indicator depends on the strength of acid and base to be titrated. Due to the fact that many acid-base indicators are plant pigments, plants of the same type have flowers of different colours in soils of different pH. So every indicator has a pH range at which it changes colour, i.e., at which it indicates and this is the basis for choice of indicator in volumetric analysis. When this natural law of behaviour of plants is applied in the deployment of personnel in the Church and government, the result will be a wonderful beautiful mosaic of outcome. Let every administrator take good note of this. Everyone has the potential to bloom where he/she is planted and if planted within the right pH range of his God-given talents”.

From the fore-going, we imagine what long marriage to Chemistry has done to Mons! He sees life and living from the prisms of Chemistry. Fr Ebebe got it right when he said: “He was perhaps the best Chemistry teacher of his days”. He reminds us of Napoleon Bonaparte, who expressed part of his strategy in mathematical formula: “The strength of an army, like the amount of momentum in mechanics, is estimated by the mass times the velocity”. We are profoundly influenced by what we do well.

Mons was kept in the Seminary precisely because of his virtues and the seminary provided the right pH range for his development through time and he really bloomed through his work. Again, Fr. Cosmas Ebebe was apt: “Msgr. Sylvester Mgbemfulu is a consummate, humble, hardworking and service-oriented priest. He was called to the altar of the Lord as a priest but he ascended to altar of holiness by his submission to God and to authority in the Church. He keeps the laws of God and so does not find it impossible to keep human regulations”. Mons’ Parish Priest and a retired Army Officer, Rev. Fr. Ignatius Ukoh said of him: “Monsignor is an example of what priests should be: obedient and completely detached from material things. He stayed long in the seminary with apostolic patience, forming the young ones, teaching and being faithful to the Church”.
In 2015, some old priests, including Mons that had served the Church in various capacities were elevated to Monsignors. What are the attributes that qualifies one to become a Monsignor and what are the criteria? Purely an honorary title, it is often bestowed by the Pope on the recommendation of bishops, on priests who have distinguished themselves in the service of the Church. Monsignor Sylvester Mgbemfulu’s elevation shows that he really bloomed to fruition where he was dropped.

Another criterion for naming one a Monsignor is the age factor. At a time we started witnessing very young priests being named Monsignors, Pope Francis in 2014 made it mandatory that for any priest to be so named, he must have reached the age of sixty-five. Yes, at sixty five, everybody can effectively and objectively measure one’s contributions on its own very terms. This is a welcome development. It is not about the magnitude of our achievements, but the fact that we did our best and put up utmost sacrifice where we found ourselves. The children of these days and those that attended Isuaniocha in late 2000 may not understand what the town was or looked like when Monsignor started his apostolate there. It was then devoid of all the trappings of modern development including electricity. As a student, when it rained, no vehicle plied the road to the town from Awka. One could just imagine how many times Mons slept outside the school because the rains prevented him from getting back to the station. For a priest like Mgbemfulu, his apostolic triumphs lay neither in the Naira he has made nor the mansions he has erected, but on how many times rains denied him access, how many priests he has formed for God and how many souls he has saved. Even in his home-town of Ugbene, his people said of him: “Mons was instrumental to so many people that embraced Christianity in Ugbene, our town”. His niece, Onyinye Mgbemfulu said: “Mons taught us so many things, namely, how to pray, respect for sound values and love for education”. Profoundly fond of him, his elder brother, Mr. Longinus Mgbemfulu said he was the best brother anyone could ever hope to have; not in terms of material things to gain from him, but his concern for one’s salvation.
Beyond preaching Christ to his people, he also identifies with them in various other ways, especially in infrastructural development. He loves his town, attends meetings with them and contributes to the development of the area. He was the Special Assistant to Archbishop Albert Obiefuna on the construction of access road to the Ugbene and other neighbouring communities in the 1980s. He contributed perhaps more than any other person to the construction of the bridge over the Ezu River to access Ugbene from Amanuke. Simeon Dilinyeru reveals that he was granted the honorific title of Ike Ugbene because of his devotion to the progress of the town: “He joins the town’s meeting every December, and we rely on him to know the truth at times of doubt or deliberate falsehood. Once he says what he knows, everybody believes. There is nothing that goes on in the town that he is not rightly informed”.
On their expectations, still representing the voice of this people, Dilinyeru said they had long awaited his ascendancy to the Episcopacy, but are handicapped to do anything about that since it is the prerogative of Rome.

If popularity is determined by how widely one is known, Msgr. Mgbemfulu, from his little corner, is unarguably the most-known priests among other priests of Awka and Ekwulobia Dioceses. This is so because priests ordained in the 1990s till date in both dioceses passed through him.

Mons is also profoundly charitable within his limited means. He made a lot of sacrifices for the good of students but always within what he could afford; and that defines true charity. Again, let Fr. Ebebe who worked with him as Auxiliary let us into Mons’ considerate nature: “His selflessness is perhaps his most hidden virtue but counting in his Favour before God. When I did one year apostolic work at St. John Bosco Seminary, after graduating in Philosophy in 1984/1985, Fr Sylvester Mgbemfulu was on the staff as the Chemistry teacher. A senior Seminarian, Mr. Peter Okoye from Nanka had severe liver problem and was declared terminally ill. The course of his treatment entailed taking him to University Teaching Hospital Enugu once a week while he remained hospitalized at St Joseph’s Hospital, Adazi Nnukwu. The problem of taking the seminarian to Enugu in a private vehicle rather than use of public transport came up for discussion. Fr. Mgbemfulu donated his one and only panel van for the service. He gave what he had for the course of charity. When I got to Adazi Hospital, the hospital Chaplain and manager who had a relatively brand new Peugeot 504 was touched by the kind gesture of Fr. Mgbemfulu and in following his footsteps asked that I left the panel van at Adazi and conveyed the sick seminarian with his 504. That began my weekly journey of driving Fr. Mgbemfulu’s car to Adazi and driving the 504 to Enugu with the sick seminarian. It lasted for some months before the seminarian later died. His selflessness spoke loudly to other priests. Secretly, many of us admire him for his obedience, humility, and holiness of life. We cherish his whole-hearted cheerfulness and his detachment from material things. He is a loving saint for whom we are praying for his final perseverance. Sometimes, some of us say, ‘I wish I had the good disposition of Fr. Mgbemfulu’.”

Many people corroborate Fr. Ebebe’s position. I heard a former Acting Rector of the institution telling how Mgbemfulu challenged the spirituality of the priests that worked with him. He said that while in the Seminary, Mons’ magna silencia started at 4am daily, when he would always be seen in the Fathers’ chapel meditating and praying even before others woke up. Most Fathers who worked with him, like Fr. Barr. Clement Muozoba, remembers him very well as a priest who hates oppression, extravagance and display. “No one”, Fr. Muozoba says, “ever questioned his assiduous devotion to his many tasks”. Fr. Anthony Umeh also expressed the character of Mons with great exactness: “His quiet, staid character, his modest simplicity and indiscourageable honesty and just nature won him the hearts of many who have worked with him”. Indeed, he is the living embodiment of Aeschylus poetic line: “for not seeming just, but being so”.

Mons has a shy disposition and that could be noticed even at first meeting with him, but like St. Francis of Assisi, he loves nature and cherishes its company. Once not in the lab., he would be busy under the mango trees watching and appreciating nature. The guinea fowls that found sanctuary in the Seminary fly off when anybody is at sight except Monsignor Mgbemfulu. Even at the point of leaving the Seminary, he was thinking about what happens to them and made a final plea for the animals in the following words: “As I retire from the seminary, I shall miss the fraternal company of the priests on the staff, my classes, the chemistry laboratory which has become my second home, the mango trees especially those behind the lawn tennis courts and our harmattan season cherished and welcome but evasive guests: the guinea fowls who have been given sanctuary in the Seminary over the years and for whom I plead on their behalf that the tradition is not allowed to die”.
As a priest, though soft-spoken, every word that came out of his mouth is loaded with wisdom. As a student, this writer carried a note-book and biro at all times to catch ideas or wise sayings in their flight. I just came across one of my jottings thus: “Today being Sunday, the 25th of September, 1988, Fr. Mgbemfulu during his Sunday Homily said that ‘self-preservation is the greatest instinct in man’.” Such are bits of wisdom contained in his utterances and those of formators everywhere. Such words leave powerful impressions upon one’s emotions.

As he enjoys his deserved retirement at St. Felix’s Catholic Church, Nibo, I am sure the place will become a pilgrimage for the Old boys and others in society. Who would not like to visit such a person for diverse reasons: to thank him for remaining an exemplary priest, for his contribution to education in the State, for the training received under him, among others?

The first pilgrimage to the great priest was on the 4th of January, 2021 by the former Governor of Anambra State, Mr. Peter Obi. During the visit, he thanked Mons for his contributions to education in Nigeria. In reply, Mons, pleasantly surprised, thanked Mr. Obi for championing education revolution in the State through the return of school to the church.
As we cherish the example of Msgr. Mgbemfulu’s life, let us endeavour to learn from him and pattern our lives after his. This is the best legacy to learn from him.

…Obienyem, Special Adviser to Mr. Peter Obi, wrote from Lagos.