Fr. Eruo’s parents dedicated him to God when he was born
By Janet Walz
What’s in a name? Father Basil Eruo’s full Igbo-language surname is Eruonwokeulo amara ka osiri biris — which in English means, “When you get to a man’s house you will get to know him better.” Using the shortened form “Eruo,” St. Peter’s associate pastor is getting to know the parishioners while serving in God’s house. And while most people in Jefferson City won’t ever get to visit his homeland, Fr. Eruo, by making himself at home among them, serves as an ambassador not only for eastern Nigeria but also for the whole Universal Church. “There are two things I enjoy most about being a priest,” he said. “I love reading the Bible and searching for the meaning of the words and finding the deep meaning beyond what is there in the sentences. Pastoral work, too, is a love within the Priesthood.”
Born Oct. 26, 1970, in Amaebu village in Ebenato in the eastern part of Nigeria, Fr. Eruo was the sixth within the Priesthood.” Born Oct. 26, 1970, in Amaebu village in Ebenato in the eastern part of Nigeria, Fr. Eruo was the sixth child of seven born to Josephat and Virginia Eruonwokeulo amara ka osiri biris.
When their fourth son was born just 10 years after Nigeria gained its independence from the United Kingdom, the devout parents decided to dedicate him to God. His mother Virginia gave him the name Okwudilichukwu, meaning “God has the final say” or “let every word be left for God.” His father added the second name, Nwachukwu, which means “child of God” (“Chukwu” meaning “God” in Igbo).
He was given the name Basil at his baptism. Although English is the official language in Nigeria, regional languages that have been in use for hundreds of years, such as Igbo, Hausa and Yoruba, are also commonly used. Basil learned English when he went to elementary school.
After independence, Nigeria experienced great political instability. After several military coups and a time of infighting between the military and various ethnic, religious and political groups, the Nigerian Civil War began in July 1967. The 30-month war ended with more than a million dead, mostly Biafrans from eastern Nigeria, the ethnic group from which Fr. Eruo’s family came from. Unfortunately, the war did little toward establishing a stable government.
Oil began flowing from wells in the Niger Delta and Nigeria joined OPEC, but the billions of dollars generated by oil only served to fuel a flurry of political activity, continuing the cycle of power and defeat by one regime after another. Money generated by oil was spirited away by certain corrupt leaders, and Nigeria faced crushing international debt. But, like a swinging pendulum, which slowly finds a center point, the country has been working its way toward its center and has begun to find its way among the world’s nations.
Despite Nigeria’s growing pains, young Basil experienced a traditional family atmosphere. He said the strife and disturbances, except for the three-year civil war, were mostly in the northern part of the country. The current strife and upheaval now are mostly in the oil-rich Niger Delta regions in the south.
For the members of his extended family, the day-to-day activities are very similar to rural and small-town life here in the Midwest. Fr. Basil’s family has lived for generations in a farming area about eight miles from the city of Orlu and about 50 miles from the Niger River. Extended families tend to cluster together in their area to help each other and to continue family traditions, religion, and discipline.
Today, Nigeria is the most populous country of Africa and the eighth most populous country in the world, with one of the fastest growing economies. Forty-eight percent of the people are Christian, 48 percent are Muslim, and 4 percent are various indigenous religions. Until the discovery of oil, Nigeria’s commerce was mostly agricultural. The Niger River winds through several African countries before it courses through Nigeria and empties into the Gulf of Guinea on the Atlantic Ocean.
When Fr. Eruo and his brothers and sisters were small, Mrs. Eruo cared for them at home, working outside the home only in their family’s vegetable garden and helping in others’ gardens, and swapping work with neighbors and family. His “mum” was softhearted, often emotional, a gentle person who devoted herself to her children. Fr. Eruo’s father was first a teacher and then became a builder-engineer. His father was a gentle man but was a strict disciplinarian.
There are Catholic schools and public schools in Nigeria, as well as seminary schools for boys who are preparing for the Priesthood, and “juniorates” are for girls who desire to be religious sisters. Basil started in the junior seminary not far from his home at age 12 and spent the next five years there. Then he transferred to the major seminary about 250 miles from his home. Altogether, he was in formation for 17 years (1982-99).
His parents, who had believed from his birth that Basil had been destined to be a priest, were very supportive and helped him in whatever ways they could. They also believed that all he was supposed to be doing was “reading the Bible and praying.” With the understanding that a priest should “earn his living by only preaching the word of God, and ministering to the people,” he was not permitted to do any other work on the farm. He did, however, take care of some of the livestock, “goats and chickens, by bringing them food.”
At one point, he became unsure of the direction he was meant to go and considered leaving the seminary. His spiritual director encouraged him, saying, “God is calling you; if you don’t respond, who will?” He added that there “is a need for priests in the world, and somebody has to do it.” Basil did well as a student and passed exams with good grades. In college, he graduated magna cum laude with degrees in philosophy and theology. There is no military draft in Nigeria, but after graduation from college, each graduate serves for a time in the National Youth Service Corps. Seminary graduates are expected to take part in “pastoral experience,” working with the people of the parish.
Fr. Eruo was ordained to the Holy Priesthood on Aug. 21, 1999, and in September was assigned as associate pastor at St. Mary parish in Umuaka, in the Orlu diocese. In December 2001, he was assigned as pastor at St. Patrick parish in Amucha.
Missioned to Missouri
He came to the United States in June 2007, first serving at St. Patrick parish in Rolla, then moving in June 2009 to St. Peter parish in Jefferson City. He hopes someday to return to Nigeria. The discipline and accomplishments in Fr. Eruo’s family could set an example for many. His brother Fredrick is a medical practitioner and lives in North Canton, Ohio, and is married with four children. Brother Vitalis is an attorney and is married with five children; they live in Abuja, the capital city of Nigeria. Fr. Eruo’s brother Charles is a councilman in the family’s home county, is married with three children, and lives in the state capital of Owerri. His sister Roseline, a widow, lives with her four children in Owerri and works with the local council. Fr. Eruo’s sister Appolonia is a nurse in Austin, Texas, is married and has four children. The youngest, Kenneth, is a businessman in Lagos, which is Nigeria’s most populous city, and is still single.
Their father passed away in 1987, but their mother “is still very much alive,” said Fr. Eruo. “My mum is here now, in Texas, with my elder sister,” he said. “I brought her while I was coming back from my trip to Nigeria in February 2009, but before now she has always lived in the village where I was born, for that is where she has spent 98 percent of her lifetime. She only agreed to travel with me because of her love for her priest son and also to be closer to her grandchildren. She would rather stay in her home village of Amaebu, for that is where she feels most at home.”
Ms. Walz is a member of St. Peter parish in Jefferson City. This article was originally published in Keys to the Kingdom, the parish’s quarterly publication.