John Nwagwu Chukwu was born on December 1, 1902 in Amavo-Ukwu in the present Osisioma Local Government Area of Abia State. His kinship name was Nwagwu which means “a son dedicated to the gods.” Nwagwu was the only child of the village chief priest. He was the epitome of handsomeness and intelligence but his humility was equal to none. He was generally admired and loved.
Nwagwu was taken captive by the colonial masters during the war between Amavo-Ukwo and the colonialists. Amavo-Ukwu had resisted the penetration of the whites into the village and paid dearly for it.
Nwagwu and his compatriots were put in a reform home. There the man in charge, Reverend Father John Clark, took a special interest in little Nwagwu. Father Clark, an Irish priest, was also the moral counselor to the captives.
Nwagwu embraced Christianity while in the reform home. As he now despised his old beliefs, he took the name John after Father John. He also changed his previous kinship name of Nwagwu (son of the gods) to Chukwu (son of God Almighty). By this substitution, John Chukwu wished to demonstrate that he was no longer a son of the gods but a son of God Almighty.
Father John persuaded the colonial officers to release the captives. Then, young John Chukwu and his fellow captives returned to Amavo-Ukwu to the warm embrace of their kinsmen.
John Chukwu was desperately needed to fill the vacancy left by his father, the village chief priest, who had taken his own life because he could not stand white men desecrating the gods. He was angry with the gods because they did not protect the people of Amavo-Ukwu who fought gallantly during the war.
On account of his new faith, John Chukwu refused to listen to the elders’ pleas to become the next chief priest. He also told them Father John Clark would soon come to the village to establish a Catholic church there. They could not believe it when he told them about his adopted names. They left after cursing him. That night John Chukwu saw his father in a dream and challenged him but his father beat him. The next morning John Chukwu woke up a blind man.
John Chukwu’s sickness defied all remedies. Neither orthodox medicine nor native remedies did anything. As days passed, John Chukwu was left alone in pangs of agony but he never gave up his faith. He remained in that state until the arrival of Father John who prayed and sprinkled holy water on him, healing him at that very moment.
Yet it was not the end of John Chukwu’s tribulations. People said he had betrayed his father and the ancestors by embracing the colonialists who had invaded Amavo-Ukwu, killed, and maimed the villagers, and thus brought destruction into the land. The villagers therefore met and sentenced John Chukwu to excommunication. John Chukwu remained faithful in spite of all this. Reportedly he said that he was not better than the biblical Paul, Stephen or others who were severely persecuted for embracing the faith of the Lord Jesus Christ.
John Chukwu lived in isolation for seven years as the custom demanded. His only companion was Father John Clark who continually taught him catechism and the Bible.
John Chukwu donated a piece of land to Father Clark for a church building. The villagers together destroyed the hut even before it was built and issued a decree that no such house should be built. Even when the colonial officers provided guards, a mysterious fire razed the hut until Father John Clark fasted and prayed over it.
Another church building was erected. The colonial officers built their district headquarters on the land too. They gave John an important position as an officer in the district office.
When the excommunication decree expired after seven years, it was crystal clear to the villagers that John Chukwu, the church, and colonialists had come to stay. Further hostility and aggression against John Chukwu and the church would be taken as a breach of law and order and be liable to prosecution in an established court of law. In a short time John Chukwu began to see many converts and the population grew tremendously. John Chukwu brought in Father John Clark who destroyed many shrines and idols in Amavo-Ukwu.
After twenty years of service in Amavo-Ukwu, Reverend Father John Clark was recalled to Rome in June 1956. By then John Chukwu had already made an impression too. Since there was no other priest, John Chukwu never allowed the fire of the gospel to be extinguished. John Chukwu carried on the work of evangelization till ten years later when another priest was sent.
When Father John Clark went to Rome in 1956, he took John Chukwu’s son, Paul, with him. Paul had been named after the Apostle Paul in the Bible because he underwent the same kind of persecution as his father. Paul was ordained a priest and was also made a monsignor in the Catholic Church.
John Chukwu died on February 25, 1986.
As the saying goes, the rejected stone later became the pillar of the whole house. Even after his death John Chukwu continued to be the most famous man in Amavo-Ukwu. During his life he was able to convert even his worst foes to Christianity. Today Amavo-Ukwu parish, St. John’s Catholic Church, is named after him. John Chukwu’s legacy lives on.
Kemdirim O. Protus
Elder Pius Chikanne, 78 years old, one of John Chukwu’s kinsmen, interviewed by Chijioke Njoku, a research assistant at the University of Port Harcourt, Nigeria in 2004.
This article, received in 2005, was researched and written by Dr. Kemdirim O. Protus, a senior lecturer in the Department of Religious and Cultural Studies at the University of Port Harcourt, a DACB Participating Institution. Dr. Kemdirim Protus is also the DACB Regional Coordinator for Nigeria.