The Christian evangelization of Igboland, east of Nigeria was chiefly an Irish project. Irish missionaries traveled the length and breadth of Igboland to plant the seeds of Christianity. While accounts of these missionary successes have been written down, the stories of such local figures as Edward Burke Okoro are still unrecorded. Okoro’s zeal in mission work was foundational in the establishment and growth of the Roman Catholic Church in Egbu-Owerri.
Okoro was born in 1912. He was the third child and only son of his mother in a polygamous family. His parents, Mazi Okoro and Egeolu were non-Christians. Okoro lost his parents early in his life: his father died while he was only three years old and his mother followed soon afterward when he was nine. As he came from a polygamous family, it was a struggle for the young Okoro to go to school.
In the mid 1920s he obtained his standard six certificate. At this time he converted to Catholicism, a move that barred him from becoming a teacher in the local schools primarily governed by the Anglican Church. Teaching was a prized profession then and the dream of any seriously minded pupil. The church absolved him and he was subsequently prepared for Holy Communion, which he received through Reverend Father Fox at Emekuku, a nearby Catholic mission and the center of Catholicism at the time. Emekuku served the larger area that is today known as Imo State.
In 1938, at the outbreak of the second World War, Okoro joined the army to fight in Burma, (now Myanmar). On his return in 1944, he began working with Shell British Petroleum, an oil prospecting company. He was the first indigenous man from Owerri, now the capital of Imo State, to be enlisted in the company.
While Okoro worked at Shell as a supervisor, he singlehandedly rebuilt the Catholic Church at Egbu and the teachers’ house that were mud houses at the time. This was the first cement house of its kind in the whole area. All the material used for the building of the church and the headmaster’s house came from Shell. Okoro’s goodwill offering to the Catholic Church in Egbu brought positive changes both to the town and the people. The school offered classes up to standard four and the native people had the opportunity to attain high standards in education. Indeed, they were relieved of the agony of trekking the long distance to Emekuku to acquire education at that level. Okoro’s insight and generosity were quite remarkable and significant.
Shortly before the Civil War in Nigeria (1967-70), Okoro worked with the Public Works Department at Owerri. At the outbreak of the war, he again joined the army and fought on the side of his people, the Biafra. His experience during the war led to his second conversion–namely to serve his God and his people, the Egbu Catholic community as a catechist. Thus, in 1970 when the war ended, Okoro retired from civil service to devote his life entirely to God, a service he carried on until his death.
Okoro’s personal philosophy was “To serve God and Humanity.” He demonstrated his selfless service to the community by encouraging one of his sons to become a Catholic priest. The ordination of his son, Reverend Father Ebenezer Okoro, in 1989 marked the second ordination of a Catholic priest in the Egbu community. 
Okoro’s personal life lessons taught him well and allowed him to be an exemplar to others. Coming from a polygamous family, Okoro learned to accept challenges and the value of hard work. From living in Egbu, a predominantly Anglican area, he learned the importance of harmony and tolerance among different Christian communities. He attempted to live these life lessons daily.
Okoro was truly an evangelizer. In the words of Mazi Oparaekwu, “For more than twenty years, Okoro’s pastoral commitment marked a rebirth of Catholicism and a birth to vocations.” His life was marked by house visitations and catechetical instructions, both of which have inspired priestly vocations in Egbu. This blossoming of faith elevated Egbu to the status of “parish” in 2002. Since this time, it is said that Egbu was “the rejected stone that has become the cornerstone.”
Okoro died on January 24, 1994. In the homily during his funeral mass, Bishop Victor Chikwe of Ahiara-Mbaise Diocese, where Okoro once served as a catechist, said, “The St. Paul of our own time was Pa Edward Burke Okoro. He is gone, but his testimony lives with us.” In recognition of Okoro’s evangelization work as a catechist, his remains were buried right before the church, which he built for the community.
- The first indigenous priest to be ordained from the Egbu Catholic community was Father Justin Mbonu in 1978.
E. Okoro, son of Mr. Edward Burke Okoro. Interview in 2005.
Oparaekwu I. “The History of Sacred Heart Catholic Church, Egbu.” N.pl., n.p., 2004.
This article, received in 2004, was written and researched by Fr. Martin Ohajunwa, a priest of the Archdiocese of Owerri and a Masters Student at the Dept. of Religious & Cutural Studies, University of Port Harcourt, Nigeria, under the supervision of Dr. Protus O. Kemdirim, DACB liaison coordinator at the University of Port Harcourt and DACB regional coordinator for Nigeria.