By Mercy Hill
… A Meet with a living Legend
As a living legend, there are stories told about you and certain experiences that could be proven to be a legendary myth until you or someone else can prove it to be false.
This week on inspirational Personality page, we bring to your read, the story of Catholic music composer cum singer, Rev Fr Simon Obelenwa Azuka. In this interview with Mercy Hill, Fr Azuka takes us into his life as a Catholic priest, a music composer and as we tag him, a legend!
Rev Fr Simon Obelenwa Azuka introduces himself:
When I was a child, I went to school. I stopped at standard four because my parents were poor. They then sent me out to learn a trade under somebody.
I am a native of Ichida but the people I served, E.O Trading Company (owned by Peter Ezeli & Gab Anyika), are from Awka-Etiti.
They were trading on building materials in Warri in the present Delta State, Nigeria. I served them for so many years. While I was serving them, even from the first day, they knew I was thinking of being a priest because there were a lot of things their other servants did that I did not do, like any day the church observed a holy day of obligation and forbade work, I did not go to work but others did.
I normally told them that the day forbade work according to my Catholic faith, but my masters never liked it.
They were two. Once they came back from the market, they used to flog me very well because I did not join others to the market. But their wives usually told them to leave me alone because, “we have seen he has something in mind. He wants to serve God. If he says he would not go to market on holy days, leave him alone.”
As time went on, because I stopped schooling at standard four, I went and prayed thus: “My God, please help me. My parents had no money, but I want to be a priest. Tell me what to do Lord.” I started praying and told God I would say the rosary for one year and that “I hope that by the time I am through, you will tell me whether I would trade or become a priest.” After praying for one year, at the end, God led me to know I must be a priest.
So, I told my masters that I wanted to be a priest. They were annoyed but told me to go if it was what I wanted. They sold all my things and gave the money to my brother. This happened about 1959.
Because I did not complete standard education, I was advised to go to a novitiate at Okigwe to be a Rev Brother. I obeyed, notwithstanding that I wanted to be a priest. When I got there, the person who was in-charge, noticed I was unhappy and feeling less fulfilled. He then referred me to Onitsha to meet Msgr. Obeleagu.
When I got to Onitsha, I met my brother (an Ichida indigenous priest), Rev. Fr. J. Orakwe (who later became Msgr J. Orakwe, of blessed memory) at St. Mary’s (Inland Town), Enu Onitsha. The parish priest there was Rev. Monsignor Obeleagu. My brother was his vicar. So, I told them I wanted to be a priest, but my mother had no money because my father was dead and that I stopped at standard 4.
They took me immediately as their house boy. I was enrolled in standard school. I was at St. Mary’ Onitsha with Monsignor Obeleagu and my town’s man and brother, Rev. Fr Orakwe, and they saw me through standard six and prepared me to go to the seminary. I was enrolled at All Hallows Seminary Onitsha. It was the Monsignor, a native of Onitsha, that trained me throughout.
Ichida people didn’t spend even half a penny on me. He trained me and even found a benefactor for me from Onitsha. That was in 1962. I entered Junior Seminary in 1962. Chief Justice Belonwu was my benefactor. He was a Knight of St. Mulumba but he is late now.
So from All Hallows, I went to Bigard Memorial Seminary, Enugu. I spent six years at All Hallows, Onitsha, from where I went to Bigard. That was how I finished all my philosophy, theology and so on.
When I became a priest
Well, after passing through my philosophical and theological studies, I was ordained priest in 1974. We were under Onitsha Archdiocese. From 1974, I worked for so many years, up to 44 years as a parish priest in different parishes, both in Onitsha Archdiocese, Nnewi Diocese and Awka Diocese. Now, I am retired. I retired in 2011 and I am here at St. Thomas Aquinas resting and the church is taking care of us.
Apart from music composition, in what other ways did you serve God and the Church?
First of all, you know I was a parish priest all the time. So, I was doing all the pastoral works of a parish priest. In Awka Diocese, I also served on pilgrimage Board, sending people to the holy land for their pilgrimages. I did that work for exactly seven years – taking pilgrims (Catholics, Anglicans and others) to Israel, Rome, London, Egypt, Fatima, France, among others. I did it for seven years. I composed music. These are the most outstanding part of the work I did.
How my music composition started?
I never composed any hymn, rather, God did through me. Composition is just what you call God’s inspiration. It happened that one night during my seminary days, I slept. When I got up, I remembered some music I heard in my sleep and I said why did this happen? How did I hear this type of music in my sleep?
Then I decided that what I will do is whenever I want to go to bed, I must have a biro and paper by my side. So, from the very day I started leaving those things by my side, and each night in my deep sleep, between 12 am to 2 am, music just came. God infused one music or the other. Anything you must have heard me sing is what I heard when I was sleeping.
And immediately I hear the voice, I got up and put it down. God put those types of music into my head for his people, ‘Give my people those things so that they will praise me.” So, that was how I composed all my music.
I don’t just sit down or stay somewhere to think or compose but all were coming from God. God gave me hymns and then I put them down. Only that I arrange the verses and what we call harmony or something like that but the whole music is normally given by God. That was how I composed all my hymns. So, whenever I am unhappy, I will sing away and forget the whole world. So, it is the most important thing that pleases me in my life.
In fact, when I was in Bigard Enugu, I discovered that I intuitively put whatever I heard into musical tones. For instance, when others tell me, ‘Simon, let’s go for a walk or outing..”, I will immediately begin to turn the expression into musical tones: “Simon, bia ka anyi jee walk… (Simon, come, let’s go for a walk”).
My kind of Music
God gave me a special gift of music, Igbo liturgical music. I am a composer. In the Catholic Diocese of Awka, after the late Monsignor Cyril Ezenduka, I am the next. When you talk of music in Awka Diocese, it is the two of us. If you open any Catholic Hymn Book, you see my songs (starts singing) ‘Chineke Nna, Anyi A Bia Tata …’; ‘Bia Onye Nwa Uwa Kristi Di Mma…’; ‘Ihe M Nwere Ka M Ga-enye Dinwenu…’; Jesu Krsti Bia, Bata N’obi Anyi….’; Jesu Nno, Nno, Noo…’; Gee Nti Ndi Muo Ozi Na-ekwe…’; Enuigwe Obodo Anyi…’; There are so many Christian hymns.
Among all his works in the Church, what gave him the greatest joy?
The one that gives me the greatest joy is music. There are situations I find myself, I just forget everything and sing away. This art of composition, God gave me that inspiration in 1972. Meanwhile all the time, I have been in different choirs both in All Hallows and Bigard. I love singing but in 1972, God gave me this gift of composition.
Why I was called Ogbuefi
Another thing that gave me greatest joy as a priest is that I used to thank God every day of my life. I used to ask God, why was it that you decided to choose me to be your priest and you gave me all these things? You see, I used to ask him all these questions. I remember when I had a terrible accident, for over four hours, I was unconscious and yet, He woke me up and I continued this work.
I had worked so hard in the parish I was sent to, so on my way to celebrate Mass in other outstations I encountered a terrible accident of which I collided with a very big cow. Nothing happened to me, even though I was unconscious for some time, I bounced back again! That was what attracted the name, Ogbuefi. There were many other challenges, but God kept me alive. I used to discuss with God and say, “God because you have made me your priest, I will make sure I do not disgrace you but to do what exactly you told me to do. So, this is the greatest joy.
What can you say were your greatest challenges?
The major challenge in the ministry is that when you are doing the work in the parish, you meet challenges. Actually, there are some people who wouldn’t agree with anything you say. They question everything the Church says. But I remember all the time what Christ told us in the Scriptures: Paul, specifically said, “Speak to them in season and out of season”. What I used to do was to look for the best way to present the gospel to those who didn’t agree with me.
I did my best to preach to them in one way or the other. At times, I try to find those who are in good terms with them to help me to reach them. That was what I used to do and most of the time, I succeeded. Because everybody has people they respect and if you get such people, they help you in life. That’s what I did then. Whoever is very strong headed, I look for their friends. Through the other person, I get them to submit.
What is your message to Seminarians and other younger priests?
The message I pass to them all the time is just like St Paul. You cannot eat your cake and have it. If you want to be a servant of God, you must serve God. Do not leave God no matter what the case in your life may be. Maybe you have any issue, do not give up. Never give up for Gods own ways are not ours. Do not leave God because you have difficulties in life. If you leave God, you have lost everything. God tells us, “what will it benefit a man, if he gains the whole world and lose his soul.”
To be continued