Pictured above: Iyom Uche Onyla, right, and Sister Mary Theodora Ajagu dance down the aisle to offer their gift during the Igbo Mass. Photos by Dwain Hebda.

By its nature, a Catholic Mass is a celebration and feast in a deeply symbolic way. Each third Sunday of the month, however, the Catholic Igbo (pronounced EE’-boo) community of central Arkansas gathers at St. Augustine Church in North Little Rock to hold a much more literal celebration of not just their faith, but their culture and community.

 

The Igbo are a predominantly Catholic people primarily from southern Nigeria who form one of the largest ethnic groups in Africa by population. There is a significant Igbo diaspora across other nearby African nations and countries such as the United States, Jamaica, the United Kingdom and Canada, in some cases due to the Atlantic slave trade and in others due to much more recent immigration. The Catholic Igbo community of central Arkansas is made up of these recent immigrants and their children or grandchildren, and the community consists of about 50 to 60 families.

 

All Catholic churches share many of the same basic characteristics — the order of the Mass, for example, will be effectively the same no matter where in the world one is. Yet in many other respects, individual parishes have their own local flavor that varies from place to place, culture to culture and country to country. As one of only three predominantly Black Catholic churches in Arkansas, St. Augustine reflects the African heritage of its parishioners in the design of its stained glass windows and stations of the cross, but the monthly Igbo Community’s Sunday celebrations go far beyond a stylistic homage.

Father Ibeh delivers the homily, or sermon, in the native Igbo language.

 

If one were to visit St. Augustine Church on the third Sunday of the month without realizing it, the first thing they might notice would likely be the men and women dressed in colorful Nigerian clothing. The next thing this visitor would notice would no doubt be the fact that the Mass is not in English.

 

“We have an African priest, Father James Ibeh, and when the Igbo Catholics gather to celebrate Mass, it is said in our language. Most of the people here belong to different parishes, but on this particular day, every Igbo person who is a Catholic comes here.” said Hyginus Ukadike, chairman of the Igbo Catholic Community in Arkansas whose regular parish is Our Lady of the Holy Souls Catholic Church in Little Rock.

John Ekeanyanwu welcomes congregants to the Igbo Mass at St. Augustine Church in North Little Rock.

St. Augustine became the center for the Igbo Catholic community because it was the parish of Father Remigius Okere, the priest who first organized the Igbo Mass. Today, the organization is led by three officers hand-picked by the priest: Ukadike, the chairman, Joseph Onyilagha, the secretary, and John Ekeanyanwu, the liturgist, who assists the priest in organizing the Mass and leading worship.

 

“It has been over a decade since the Igbo Catholic community came about,” Ekeanyanwu said. “At that time, many of our parents and relatives did not speak English very well, so it was difficult for them to understand and follow what was happening in the Mass. So the community decided to get together with the blessing of the bishop. All of the proceedings of the Mass are done in the Igbo language, though sometimes the homilies are repeated in English for the children.”

 

“The main purpose is for us to worship the way we do it back in Nigeria, to try to teach our children how Catholic Mass is celebrated in [our homeland],” Onyilagha said. “We also try to engage in the activities that we do at home.”

celebration community

Families bring forward gifts of food, fruit, beverages and other items, as well as sport native dress, to celebrate their culture and religious tradition.

The first of these activities occurs during the part of Mass called the presentation of the gifts, when the communion bread and wine are brought forward. Also called eucharist, this sacrament is the central and most crucial part of the Mass, where bread and wine literally become the body and blood of Jesus and are then taken in a symbolic feast.

 

In many American Catholic parishes, this is a rather solemn event, but in an Igbo Mass, the entire Igbo community joins the presentation of the gifts. Singing and dancing to worship music in their language, they bring gifts of their own and, starting in the back of the church, dance down the aisle to the altar. Many come bearing fruit and other produce that ranges from pineapples to bunches of bananas and bags of tomatoes but can include a wide variety of items.

 

According to Ukadike, this tradition dates back to pre-Christian Nigeria. At the end of farming season, farmers would bring offerings to the shrines of their gods to give thanks for the harvest, and these offerings would then be blessed and sacrificed by a priest of the native religion. When Nigeria became primarily Christian during the period of British colonization, this tradition continued in a new form, with donations being made to the local church instead of local shrines.

celebration community

“That became a way for each church to raise resources to take care of things by selling these items at a bazaar,” Ekeanyanwu said. “If you sell bicycles, you might bring one bicycle; if you sell refrigerators, you bring a refrigerator; if you sell televisions, you bring a television. If you grow bananas, you bring a basket of bananas, and the church will sell it to raise money, so we decided to continue that process here in America.”

 

After Mass, the Igbo community holds a bazaar to sell the goods they have brought, raising money not only for the parish, but to support the community itself and its longevity by educating children in the Igbo language and culture.

 

Any true cultural celebration would not be complete without food, and every Igbo Sunday is followed by a lively feast of traditional Nigerian cuisine. Dishes include jollof rice, fufu and bean-based foods like moi-moi and akara. While a shared faith is what brings the Igbo community together each month, the bonds participants form extend into everyday life.

 

“We have several responsibilities that we carry out in the community,” Ukadike said. “When there is death in the community, we meet. When there are births, we meet. Generally, we are there as a support for members of the Igbo Catholic community — not only Catholics, but also the Nigerian community as a whole. In the service that we provide for people, we don’t ask, ‘Are you an American?’ or ‘Are you an Igbo?’ As long as there is a need for us, we will always be there to assist.”.

 

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