By Peter Bugden
THE village of Umudike is renowned in Nigeria for agricultural research, particularly in root crops, but now in Brisbane archdiocese it can be remembered as the home town of Fr Anthony Ekpo.
Fr Anthony, 33, is familiar around St Stephen’s Cathedral as an associate pastor of the cathedral parish and he’s often seen beside Archbishop Mark Coleridge at Masses and official functions.
He is like Archbishop Coleridge’s right-hand man having served in the newly created role of pastoral assistant to the archbishop in recent years.
“The Archbishop thought he needed a priest to be his pastoral assistant, different to the executive assistant who does the practical stuff like the diary, organising trips and general correspondence,” Fr Anthony said.
“I deal with work correspondence in general, including confidential ones, drafting letters, doing research … (and helping with) speaking engagements.”
Fr Anthony also helps plan liturgies at which Archbishop Coleridge is celebrant.
“I also MC for him at the cathedral …,” he said.
The offer of being the Archbishop’s assistant “came out of the blue”, just like the invitation to move to Australia on loan to Brisbane archdiocese.
The idea of the Brisbane move came after Archbishop John Bathersby and Bishop Lucius Ugorji of Umuahia had signed an agreement in July 2006 for the Nigerian diocese to send priests and seminarians to counter the shortage of priests in south-east Queensland.
At the time, Fr Anthony was still in the major seminary.
“The Australia thing came out of the blue after my philosophy (studies),” he said.
“My bishop saw the former archbishop in Rome, and that’s how the discussion started. And a few months later we were asked.”
Fr Anthony, the sixth of eight children in a family living in a village south-east of Umuahia, was being asked to go to a place he knew little about.
He actually thought he was being offered a move to Austria.
“I thought, ‘Oh my gosh. How are we going to study German and all of that – to learn German?’
“I could’ve said No (to coming to Australia) but, well, I said Yes.
“Did I understand the whole of it at that time? No, I didn’t, but I said Yes.
“It was kind of a bitter-sweet experience – bitter in the sense that I’m leaving the familiar and going to the unfamiliar.
“I don’t know what the future is going to be but I certainly was convinced that there will be a future – there will be a tomorrow, and that God will be in that tomorrow and that tomorrow will be fine.”
And today, almost nine years on, everything is fine.
“In retrospect I’m glad I came,” Fr Anthony said, laughing heartily.
“I’m glad I came … because my life has been kind of transformed … challenged … and enriched by the Australian culture so I’m glad I came to Australia, and to Brisbane in particular.
“I’m glad I came because my life has been enriched by the Australian experience.
“And that’s one thing with the priesthood – to always see and hear the voice of God, through whatever means – and this time through my bishop.
“It was a surprise – God surprises us. The Archbishop would say, ‘The god that leaves you where you are is not the real God’.”
Fr Anthony finished his theological studies in Brisbane and was ordained a priest almost four years ago and has been ministering in the diocese since.
Along the way he’s becoming a little more Aussie.
“In a sense, when you are a minister or when you spend the prime time of your life ministering in a place, you never leave the place, you kind of fall in love with the place,” he said.
“And I think that’s what has happened to me.
“I know a nun who was in Nigeria for 15 years has returned back to Australia but her heart is still in Nigeria. And I think in my own case that’s what happening – I’m falling in love with Australia.
“But does that mean if my bishop calls me back to Nigeria or sets me another mission, I would say No? No – because once you say Yes in the priesthood, you can’t say No.
“Will I struggle to adapt? Of course I will. I’m a human being – I will (struggle). But Australia will always be an intrinsic part of my life.”
That’s in spite of grappling with Australians’ love of things like Vegemite and cricket.
“I’m not a Vegemite person anyway,” Fr Anthony said.
“I’ve tried it quite a few times. Vegemite and marmalade go well, I think – a bit of sugar and salt (keeping) the water content of your body a bit stable.
“But I’m not a Vegemite person.”
Cricket, on the other hand, may be growing on him.
“Well, having a couple of cricket tragics in the house (the Archbishop’s residence, Wynberg) – I don’t want to mention their names – but I think I’ve been absolutely indoctrinated,” he said.
“But I said the other day to my mates, the time I will figure out everything about cricket will be the time I’m about to die.
“That will be on my death bed when I say, ‘Aha, it’s all clear to me’.”
Some of the priests who have come to Brisbane from Umuahia are here permanently but Fr Anthony is not one of them.
“No, I’m not permanent. I’m one of the ‘library books’ so I will be returned. I’m on loan,” he said with a laugh.
“I will be returned back to Nigeria.
“I wasn’t ordained for the Archdiocese of Brisbane. Many people think that I am but I’m not.
“I have the freedom in conscience to choose to become a priest of the Archdiocese of Brisbane.
“And I can do that in discussion with my bishop and the Archbishop but I haven’t seen anything that would make me take that step.
“So I don’t think it’s an option (to stay in Brisbane), as in a sense I would like to go back and contribute to the development and the growth of my diocese based on my Australian experience.”
In the meantime, Fr Anthony goes on serving God with true joy.
“I’m still trying to discover who God is and what God wants me to do,” he said. “It’s a daily commitment.
“The priestly life is something where we wake up every day and say, ‘I am going to be committed to you, God, today for 17 active hours – nothing more, nothing less, because for the rest of the hours I will be sleeping,” he said with his characteristic hearty laugh.
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