New chapter for Derry Carmelites with arrival of first Nigerian friar

Religious community at Termonbacca has recently welcomed a new member from Africa

Derry’s Discalced Carmelite Community at Termonbacca has recently welcomed a new member from Africa.

Fr Cajetan Apeh, from Nigeria, has travelled quite a distance to help his fellow friars with their growing ministry on the banks of the Foyle and, although only ordained over three years ago, he has quite a story to tell.

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Since his arrival in early April, Fr Cajetan is settling in well with the other members of the community, Fr Stephen Quinn, the prior, and Frs Michael McGoldrick and Michael Spain.

Fr Cajetan with his parents at his ordination.

From Enugu State, located in the south east of the country where his parents still live, Fr Cajetan is the sixth child and last son in a family of five girls and three boys.

Recalling his childhood, the 37-years-old says: “Growing up, I loved the Church and prayer at home and I remember the first time I said to somebody that I wanted to be a priest was as a six-year-old in nursery school. The teacher was asking us what we would like to be when we grew up. Everybody said different things and, when it came to my turn, I said I would like to be a priest. The teacher encouraged me and the others laughed, but the desire remained and kept increasing”.

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Initially, he had wanted to join the ‘Missionary Society of St Paul’, founded by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Nigeria with the intention of making a missionary branch of the Catholic Church in Nigeria.

“When I did the exam for the Missionary Society of St Paul, I was eighth on the list, but they only needed seven. It was at this point that my uncle told me about the Carmelites and gave me a book about St Therese to read. Through that, I got to know about the life of the Carmelites. I was struck by how the Carmelite life was portrayed as a community life of contemplation and a life of prayer. I was impressed by how the Carmelite life unites active life and the contemplative life. Carmelites work with people but, equally, have time set for prayer and meditation”.

Surprised to find that the Carmelites had a novitiate within his Diocese of Nsukka, he decided to pay them a visit instead of writing.

He recalled: “Providentially, when I arrived I met the Vocations Director, who was happy to see me and encouraged me. He asked me to apply formally in writing and, so, began my journey with the Carmelites.”

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After ordination in 2018, Fr Cajetan was sent to Abuja where he worked for three months until he got his transfer to a Carmelite parish in the Onitsha Archdiocese. Just a few months later, on Christmas Eve, he had a shocking experience that had him fearing for his life, when he was kidnapped by armed bandits.

“I was just four months in priesthood. My superior was sick and he couldn’t drive himself to hospital, so he asked me to drive him to the hospital in the city... On our way back, we ran into an ambush of bandits. We were at a point on the road where there was a pothole, so I had to slow down. As I slowed down, I saw people coming out of the bush with their guns pointing at me. What came out from my mouth was: ‘Father, Fulani bandits’, and he kept repeating, ‘Jesus, Jesus, Jesus’.

“When I stopped the car, with guns pointing at us, they ordered me to open my door. They searched me and asked if we had money in the car. They searched the car completely. At this point, I was thinking that it was simply a robbery but, after collecting all that we had, they, then, started shooting their guns in the air. That was the moment I became very frightened and we started reciting our last prayers. After the gunshots, they pointed guns at us and ordered us to follow them. We followed them far into the bush, until we got to their hideout. On reaching there, they gave me my phone and asked me to call my family, or boss, or anyone to inform them that I had been kidnapped.

“We tried to explain to them that we were priests of the Catholic Church, but they said that it was not their concern, that we were to phone our superior or families and tell them that we were kidnapped. So, we contacted our Carmelite superior in Nigeria and they spoke with him. They gave him an amount that he had to bring for our ransom. The superior and bishop then got the police involved”.

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Fr Cajetan says that, in Nigeria, when the armed forces get involved, the bandits often kill the victims.

“In our own case, we were lucky that they did not ask us to renounce our faith or convert to Muslim. They just wanted money. Others fall into the hands of bandits who force their conversion and kill them if they don’t. The negotiation for our ransom and release lasted for three days... We were in the forest with them until December 27, when the amount they finally agreed to was brought to them and we were released.”

Receiving medical attention when they were released, followed by a period of trauma counselling, Fr Cajetan said: “Afterwards, my superior gave me the option of leaving the parish, but my love for the people of God wouldn’t allow me. When I heard the amount of prayer they had said for us during those three days, I was encouraged and I had to go back to that same parish.”

He adds: “It had been a terrible time at home. My family were told that I had been killed and my mother had gone into mourning. Going back to my family on December 31, to celebrate New Year with them, was a very memorable day in my life.”

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It was during his time as assistant novice master in Nsukka that he was told that someone was needed at Termonbacca, in the Derry Diocese, to strengthen the Carmelite Community there.

“When I was asked, I had to say ‘yes’. I was happy to go, though it was difficult for me to leave my novices, but I know it was a call to service.

“I arrived in Derry on April 4, 2022. I was surprised by the warm and happy welcome of the Carmelite friars and the people of Derry. My only struggle is the accents.”

Commenting on his new role, he says: “Normally, since I am a Carmelite and sent to a Carmelite Monastery, my primary apostolate is the community life. Sharing life with the community is one of the things central to our identity. For us Carmelites, what matters most is who we are and not just what we do.”

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Fr Stephen, prior at Termonbacca, says Fr Cajetan’s arrival is the beginning of something new.

“Our presence in Nigeria is very strong, so Fr Cajetan might be the first of a new line of Fathers to come from Nigeria to help in mission here in Ireland. We are blessed to have him and look forward to seeing the effect he will have upon the House.”

○ To read more about Fr Cajetan’s remarkable story, check out the latest edition of ‘The NET’, the Derry’s Diocese’s monthly newsletter. It’s available from local parishes and online at https://www.derrydiocese.org/