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Erameh, Joseph Aigbodion
1898 to 1986
Roman Catholic
Nigeria

Joseph Aigbodion Erameh was born in 1898 in Anegbette, Etsako Central Local Government Area, Edo State, Nigeria. His father was His Royal Highness Okpodu, the Erameh of Anegbette, the traditional head of South Uneme. His mother was a princess from the Oare ruling family of Idegwu, also in Etsako Local Government Area.

Erameh was a Muslim and an Islamic scholar. As he was a skilled fisherman, his father gave him the responsibility of supervising and coordinating his fishing business and rice trade between Anegbette, Ozigono, Asaba and Onitsha at a tender age. However, in 1911, Erameh came in contact with the man who would be his Christian mentor, Mr. Badja of Agenebode, and the Abuahs in Onitsha, and converted to Christianity. A prince and heir apparent to one of the most powerful rulers of the Uneme people, Erameh abandoned his family business and renounced his royal position when he converted, in spite of opposition from his parents.

Around this time Erameh started his primary school education in the Roman Catholic mission primary school in Asaba. In 1914 he moved to Onitsha where he was baptized at the Holy Trinity Catholic Church and later continued his education. After completing his schooling at the Holy Trinity Primary School, Erameh started teaching. He taught from 1918 to 1924, before finally deciding to serve the Lord in the priesthood.

Erameh started his seminary training as the first seminarian at St. Martin's Seminary, Ivianokpodi, near Aviele, Auchi, in what is now Edo State. Here Erameh studied philosophy and theology entirely in Latin. Some his contemporaries who came to the seminary later were Msgr. Stephen Umurie; Rev. Fr. Anselm Ojefua, the abbot and founder Mount Calvary Monastery, Awhum and Illah; Archbishop John A. Aggey of Lagos; and Bishop Anthony Sanusi of Ijebu-Ode Diocese.

In 1927 the seminary moved from Ivianokpodi to a better structured seminary at Asaba to join new candidates. After a delay due to a protracted eye problem, Erameh was finally ordained on December 20, 1936 at Asaba. This was the first ordination of a seminary-trained Nigerian priest and Erameh became the second indigenous Catholic priest in Nigeria, second to Rev. Fr. Emecheta from Illah town, Delta State.

In 1937 Erameh became curate of St. Michael's in Okpanam, where he worked under Rev. Fr. Strubb. He was later transferred to Agenebode, and in 1942 he was transferred to Sapele for a short period. In 1943 he was appointed the first indigenous parish priest of St. Joseph's Catholic Church, Aragba after the death of Fr. George Kraut. Erameh eventually served in many other parishes as well.

Erameh had a passion for education. "Teaching to provide education for all," was his motto, and he transformed naïve young boys into great teachers. Erameh built schools in Kwale, Ashaka, Aragba, Abraka, as well as some convents.

In 1964 Erameh was promoted to monsignor, and when the Catholic Diocese of Warri was created that same year, he worked in the Sacred Heart Cathedral. He was later transferred to Burutu town, and in 1968 he was appointed chaplain to the Nigerian Armed Forces at Benin City.

As a seminarian Erameh brought many of his kinsmen, including his siblings and their children, to christianity. Once, when he organized a crusade to evangelize his people, a group of diviners decided to try and foil his plans. An unusual thing happened, though, when the group of diviners remained riveted to the ground in odd positions till dawn, and darkness blinded them until broad daylight. They regained their sight when Erameh prayed for them, and after they regained control of themselves, they fled in shame. Most of them were later converted.

In the course of his ministry, Erameh was given land to build a church in a place that was traditionally believed to be an evil forest. Before building, Erameh ordered the people to cut down a particular tree. When the tree was found to be "bleeding," Erameh exorcised the tree, then it was cut down and it did not grow back again.

In addition to bringing education to people, Erameh had a passion for charity. He dedicated his attention to training young seminarians, assisted the poor and the needy, and converted and baptized many people. When he helped restore broken marriages and relationships, he often said, "It is by grace of God." Erameh devoted many hours daily to the sacrament of reconciliation. He heard confessions anywhere, anytime, even at times risking his health to do so. He was known to say, "It might be the person's last chance; why postpone it or deny him?" New converts sometimes came to Erameh suffering from horrible experiences. After he prayed for them, many testified that the experiences never came back. Erameh served as a mentor and benefactor to many prominent members of the church and society, especially in southern Nigeria.

Erameh was instrumental to the conversion of many in his hometown of Anegbette, a traditionally Muslim village. Under his influence, there was a drastic reduction in the practice of polygamy. He also started the education of girls, beginning with his nieces, Miss Bridget Onwuegbuzie (née Erameh), Mrs. Theresa Ude, Mrs. Obinyan, and other young female parishioners as far back as the 1940s, using Sacred Heart Teacher Training College Ubiaja as a starting point.

Until he was around eighty-six years old he said three masses at different stations and outstations consecutively. Once, on a Christmas Day, he collapsed at the 4 School of Transport and Supply of the Nigerian Army, Benin City, towards the end of mass after Holy Communion.

Erameh retired to Sacred Heart Cathedral Parish, Warri, in 1984, under the loving care of the Most Rev. Dr. Edmund Fitzgibbon. Erameh suffered from high blood pressure and a chronic toothache that caused him to need a blood transfusion, until eventually the tooth was extracted. Finally, he developed a liver problem and died at the Avenue Specialist Clinic, Enerhen, Warri, on July 31, 1986, under the care of Rev. Fr. Richard Burke, Archbishop of the Metropolitan See of Benin; Rev. Fr. Anthony Anamali; Mrs. Celilia Ogaga, the mother of Rev. Fr. Christopher Ogaga; and this present author, to whom he gave a personal account of some of his experiences. [1]

Mary-Angela Momoh


Notes

1. The author, Mary-Angela Momoh, lived with and assisted Erameh for more than a decade during the last years of his life as a result of his age and illness. Mrs. Momoh would like to gratefully acknowledge Dr. Louis C. Odogwu for his material contribution; Chief John S. Erameh and the entire Erameh family for their continuous yearly support to the local church in memory of Msgr. Joseph Erameh; and Rev. Fr. Oseni Ogunu, OMV, for his encouragement and prompting to write this article.
Sources:

Joseph A. Erameh, interview by author, in the presence of Rt. Rev. Dr. John Olorunfemi Onaiyekan, Archbishop of the Catholic Archdiocese of Abuja, Nigeria.
Rev. Fr. Abraham B. Eyitene, The Journey So Far (Kwale, Delta State, Nigeria, 2006).
Hakeem B. Harunah, A Cultural History of the Uneme From the Earliest Times to 1962. (Lagos, Nigeria: Book Co., 2003).
Rev. Msgr. Nyewhoma, interview by author, Warri Diocese.

This article, received in 2008, was researched and written by Mrs. Mary-Angela Momoh, Asst. Chief Education Officer, Delta Steel Company, Ovwian/Aladja, Delta State, Nigeria. The biography has been reviewed and approved by His Grace, Rt. Rev. Dr. Richard Burke, SPS, administrator of the Diocese of Warri and archbishop of the Catholic Diocese of Benin City (email date February 20, 2009).