C H R I S T M A S L E T T E R
Advent and Christmas greetings from West Africa. This year. For the first time in more than twenty years, I will probably be celebrating Christmas at home with my family in Nebraska after attending some meetings in the U.S.
As usual, this has been a very eventful year for Nigeria and myself personally After working for more than fourteen years in St. Dominic's Parish in Yaba, Lagos, I was elected the Provincial or superior of the Dominicans in Nigeria and Ghana last year Although my office and residence are still at St. Dominic's, I am on the road about half the time. We have nine communities: seven in Nigeria, one in Ghana, and one in South Africa, plus sixteen priests and brothers working or studying in the U.S., England, Rome, Switzerland (Fribourg), and the Philippines. Most of my traveling is within Nigeria, but I have had to travel outside the country to the U S. or Europe for meetings in the past year.
Since I last wrote you, two young Nigerian Dominicans were; ordained to the priesthood at our priory in Ibadan last December. Then seven more were ordained on August 8, the Feast of St. Dominic, here at St. Dominic's. That was the largest class ever ordained for our Province (see the enclosed photo). We now have 58 priests; 51 are West Africans. At present we have 9 novices and 58 students in Ibadan. Our province has more vocations than almost any other province of the Dominican Order with the exception of Poland.
On January 25 the Archbishop of Lagos blessed our new priory here at St. Dominic's. The parishioners worked hard to build it and so it was a day of rejoicing. On January 28, the Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas, I flew to Nairobi, Kenya, on my way to our parish in East London, South Africa. Although I've been in Nigeria for sixteen years, I had never been out of West Africa. Africa is really big. And Kenya and South Africa both were as different from Nigeria as night and day. For one thing, the oppressive humidity of West Africa doesn't exist in those parts. But I also noticed that the Church there isn't as much a part of peoples' lives as it is here in Nigeria. I think the way Nigerians have taken to Christianity, and Catholicism in particular, is unique in all of Africa. While I was away, Pope John Paul II visited Nigeria and beatified a local priest, Blessed Michael Cyprian Tansi who died about thirty-five years ago. This was the first beatification of a West African and millions of people attended the Mass near Onitsha. Our own Dominican sisters had the honor of preparing lunch for the Pope and personally serving him. Incidentally, we are planning on a new Dominican foundation in the Archdiocese of Onitsha in March 1999.
I don't know if it was El Nino or something else, but the month or March was terribly hot and humid here -- the likes of which I had never experienced before. Now I know how prickly heat hot the name. It saw so hot and humid that my eyeglasses would fog, up when I put them oil. The national electric company (NEPA, or National Electric Power Authority, nicknamed "Never Electrical Power Again" by the Nigerians) lived up to its horrid reputation by konking out for hours and even days at a time during the month. And we couldn't run our generator because there was no diesel in the country. So not even a fan would work. At one point four of us priests took our mattresses and slept on the roof of the priory to catch some rare breeze. But at about 2:00 every morning mosquitoes would decide to have us for an early breakfast. It was terrible.
I enjoy traveling around Nigeria and getting away from the desk, more so since I did little traveling when I was pastor of St. Dominic's. As the provincial I am required to formally visitate our communities. Driving up to the northern part of the country I pass camel caravans along the way. I was preaching in our church in Gusau in the north when about thirty camels, brightly festooned with ribbons and bells, raced by the front door of the church. And when driving to the eastern part of Nigeria I'm stopped at police check points hundreds of times. Sometimes I fly on local airlines to distant parts of the country. While I'm waiting to board the plane, men of the Hausa tribe go out in the airport offering to trim one's toenails -- a traditional trade. I've learned how to take my bath out of a bucket as pumps are sometimes not working (no electricity) in our communities. During visitation at Mafoluku a baboon ran through the compound, made off with a man's shoe and generally caused havoc.
In May I had visitation of our formation community in Ibadan, our largest community with eighty people (twelve priests, the rest students and novices). On average I visitated each person for an hour and a half over a two week period of time. It was exhilarating and eventually exhausting. I was especially impressed by our students and the depth of their faith. It is indeed a big sacrifice for a young African man to forego family life forever. When the first missionaries arrived in Nigeria a little more than one hundred year's ago, some of them thought the place had no prospects. Little did they know that within a few years the largest Catholic seminaries in the world would be on this soil.
On June 8, around 6:00 PM, the news of the sudden death of the head of state and dictator, General Sani Abacha, was announced. It seemed incredible and people took to the streets rejoicing. Many of them attributed his death to his not complying with the Pope's request when he was in, Nigeria a few weeks earlier to release sixty political prisoners. In any case, his death was universally regarded as an act of divine intervention as Nigeria had really suffered under his inept and cruel leadership. Under Abacha, Nigeria, an oil producing nation, sunk to the tenth poorest nation in the world. Its per capita income is less than that of Haiti. Frequent gasoline scarcities are common in which motorists have to line up at petrol stations for days. But Nigeria now has a new leader: General Abdulsalami Abubakar. He seems to be a complete contrast to his predecessor and for the first time it many years the suffering masses are hopeful that things may improve in the future.
On July 7 I left for the General Chapter or Provincials of the Dominican Order in Bologna, Italy. I had a week in Rome and so I attended a papal audience and was saddened to see how frail the Pope looks. Bologna is where the tomb of St. Dominic is. About sixty major superiors (37 of whom were provincials) attended the General Chapter
which occurs every three years. It was it fascinating experience, and bolstered my Dominican vocation At General Chapters one can glimpse the universal character of our Order. The Prime Minister of Italy attended the opening Mass in which the skull of St. Dominic was displayed and put into an ancient reliquary. But the Chapter was also a humbling experience for me. Typical American that I am speaking only my native tongue unlike the European provincials who typically speak three or four languages.
The end of September I assumed office as President of the Nigerian National Conference of Major Superiors of Men, a post which I feel very unqualified to fill. Also in September our ailing Archbishop of Lagos came for confirmation at St. Dominic's arid delegated me to assist him in confirming half the confirmands. So I confirmed about 500 boys, and he confirmed about the same number of girls! Last year he couldn't come at all and delegated me to confirm all (1,500).
Normally we get few visitors here in Nigeria given its geographical isolation and perhaps the difficulty one encounters in obtaining a visa. But two priests from my homestate of Nebraska visited me in February: Fr. Don Cleary (the pastor of my home parish in Wayne) and Fr. Frank Kubart of Leigh. We had an interesting time together at the Yankari Game Reserve in the north and saw about ten elephants. We even foolishly chased some by foot into the bush until the game warden casually told us that elephants can be more dangerous than lions. Another highpoint of the year was the arrival of Fr. Benedict Ashley OP, a well-known American Dominican scholar. He preached a retreat for the Dominican Family (priests, brothers, sisters, students, and laity) in Ibadan from September 21-26 on the Sermon of the Mount. It was wonderful.
About four years ago we Dominicans in Nigeria decided to start our own institute of philosophy and theology, which is very much in our Dominican tradition. Called Dominican Institute it now has about 100 students (all seminarians for the priesthood), mostly Dominicans but also Redemptorists, Capuchins, and Missionaries of Africa. The end of August we began construction of a much-needed classroom building which will cost about $400,000.00. At present the students are meeting in makeshift classrooms in the novitiate and even in a former chapel. I'm having some sleepless nights wondering how we will get the money to finish the building. So I'm appealing for widows' mites. Those interested in helping with this project are kindly requested to send donations to me at this address: Fr.
Thomas K. McDermott OP, 1004 Hillcrest Road, Wayne, Nebraska 68787 U.S.A. Donations are tax deductible.
I wish to thank all of you for your continued interest and support of my missionary work here all these years. Many poor people still come to me for assistance, and thanks largely to the generosity of friends overseas. I'm usually able to do something for them. So I am very grateful. I will remember all of you and your intentions at the Christmas midnight Mass.
Yours in Christ,
Fr. Thomas K. McDermott, O.P.
DOMINICAN FATHERS AND BROTHERS
PROVINCE OF ST. JOSEPH THE WORKER
P.O. Box 44, YABA, LAGOS STATE,, NIGERIA
TEL: (234) (1) 774-0611