Spiritan Features

A Glance Back

Leo Layden C.S.Sp.

We priests seldom speak about the years that we spent 'doing theology'. There were those learned tracts on 'Grace' and 'The Trinity'. I remember saying to myself sometimes that 'I must get back to that when I have more time and when I am not preparing for an exam.' It did not happen like that.

Overseas mission work was, at least for me, a totally unrelated experience. There was no time for study. There was hardly any time even for reflection. But there was work and plenty of it. I had been appointed to a parish in Onitsha, a very large town on the banks of the Niger in Eastern Nigeria. Fr. Paddy Smyth P.P. – from Emyvale, not Carrigallen! – made me Manager of Schools.

My studies had not prepared me for this. The parish stretched inland for some 10 miles in one direction and for 7 or 8 in another. The schools out there I could reach on my motorbike. But not those on the Niger which could only be reached by boat. There were about a dozen of them.

The primary school system in the parish in the 1950s was not yet fully developed. I realized very quickly that I had come in on someone else's work. While the township was well-equipped with fully functioning 6th Form schools, outside the town was not.  Down river especially was a work in progress. In the other villages the schools were, as one teacher put it, 'struggling'. That 'struggle' was, for me, an eye-opener. For a start, many of the buildings were not yet permanent. But the village chiefs had wanted a school and had prevailed on Fr. Smyth to provide one. They would have to provide a site and a playground. They did, and funded a building.

It was in the middle of this process that I came in. I only had to keep it going! After my first trip down-river by boat, two questions loomed large: How do you get a permanent building rather than a temporary one? And how do you get one or even two qualified, reliable teachers? There was no government grant for buildings. Neither was there one for schools without a qualified teacher in what was still pre-Independence Nigeria.  The school-building problem was with Fr. Smyth and it was a great relief that staffing was in the capable hands of Fr. John Jordan, Education Advisor for the whole diocese, who liaised with the Education Dept., then still headed by an English woman.

A teacher-training college for the diocese on the outskirts of Onitsha, which the Franciscan Brothers staffed, produced the much-valued certificated teachers. Fr. Jordan had the delicate job of allocating those newly qualified teachers to impatient school managers around the diocese. As a newcomer, I had only to engage with an already functioning system.


Holy Ghost Juniorate

1953 photo from Nigeria of Holy Ghost Juniorate 

That was the experience of many of us arriving in Nigeria during the 1950s. It made one reflect on the work done by the not-so-many who preceded us.