By Chinyeaka C. Ezeani MSHR
Whenever history speaks of the great Irish Missionary Movement of the 20th Century, the name of Bishop Joseph Shanahan stands out. He is renowned as one of the most prominent of the sons and daughters of Ireland who gave their lives to the mission of Jesus Christ across the globe. This year 2021 marks the 150th anniversary of his birth. A native of Glankeen, Borrisoleigh parish, County Tipperary, Joseph Shanahan was born on June 4, 1871, fourth of the eleven children of Margaret Walsh and Daniel Shanahan. When he was three years old, his family moved to Templederry where he spent much of his childhood.
Over the years, various people have written about him. Some have remarked on his outstanding zeal and contribution to the Church’s missionary endeavour. He is also remembered for his simplicity, nobility of character, spirituality, and sense of the pervading Presence of God in all things. His Christ-like love for everyone in whom he recognised God’s image was also remarkable.
On August 16, 1886, at the age of fifteen years, he moved to France for his secondary education. It was through the influence of his maternal uncle, Brother Adelm Walsh CSSp and the magnanimity of Fr. Amet Limbour CSSp, Rector of St Joseph’s College, Beauvais, France that young Joseph was admitted free of charge into the school. Thus began his long journey of training for the missionary religious life in the Spiritan congregation. Eleven years passed that he saw Ireland again. He was appointed to Rockwell College in his native County Tipperary as a Prefect, Dean of Discipline and Games Master. He also taught mathematics, Greek, Latin and French to the young students. Joseph Shanahan’s long desired dream was finally realised, when on April 22, 1900, he was ordained priest in the college chapel of Blackrock College, a memorable occasion in the history of the college. This was so because it was the first priestly ordination to take place there. In addition, it was performed by Bishop Emile Allgeyer CSSp, the first past pupil to become a bishop!
Young Shanahan remained resolute in his passion for mission to Africa. In his application to the Superior General of the Holy Ghost congregation for final vows prior to his ordination, he firmly stated: “I beg of you, My Lord, not to forget how great is my desire to go to Africa and die beside my brothers…” His zeal for mission and willingness to give his all, including his very life is obvious. In those days, West Africa was regarded as the “White Man’s Grave” because of the death of many young missionaries within a short time after their arrival. The CSSp mission in Southern Nigeria was officially established in 1885. Joseph Shanahan’s deepest desire to go on mission to Africa was not to be realised until 1902. When he arrived in Southern Nigeria, that whole region of Africa was a far cry from contemporary reality. There were no roads or other infrastructures. There were already present other missionaries of his own Spiritan congregation, as well as those of the Society of African Missions (SMA), Sisters of St Joseph of Cluny and Protestants of different denominations.
As to be expected, Joseph Shanahan experienced the many challenges of a new arrival! He had to negotiate a new country, culture, language and food, relationships with fellow missionaries, as well as an acute lack of personnel to help in the mission. There were the ever present mosquitoes which were carriers of the malaria parasite. As soon as he stepped off the River Niger and set foot on the soil of Onitsha, Southern Nigeria, the superior of the Mission, Fr Leon Lejeune CSSp, already had some practical work for him to do: making bricks for the building of more permanent houses for the missionaries. In addition, the people were not too eager to give up their age-old traditional religion and way of life. Joseph Shanahan broke through this particular challenge by showing them respect as well as a willingness to engage in dialogue and mutual enrichment.
In 1905, at the age of thirty-four, Joseph Shanahan was officially appointed Prefect Apostolic of Southern Nigeria, taking over from Fr Lejeune who had to return to France due to ill health and where he died a short time later. The mission strategy before his arrival, was the establishment of “Christian villages”. These villages were composed mainly of the ‘rejects’ of society, e.g., ex-slaves, lepers and destitute. This strategy did not seem to bear lasting fruit as it was prone to be ridiculed by the people. On assuming leadership, Shanahan decided to change this approach to evangelisation. He decided to move further into the hinterland beyond the banks of the River Niger and to focus on evangelising the little children through education. Two gifts served him well, his experience of religious education in the schools of his youth in Ireland and the experience of the co-founder of his Congregation, Venerable Francis Mary Paul Libermann. Libermann believed in the dual role of teachers as catechists. In Bishop Shanahan’s encounters with the local chiefs and the people, they had gradually begun to accept his explanations of the Christian faith. However, they would often tell him that they were too old to change their ways from the religion and traditions of their ancestors: “so, teach our children instead”. Bishop Shanahan was to completely phase out the method of “Christian villages”, and put the whole thrust of his missionary work into the establishment and running of schools. He defended education as a lasting bulwark against slavery. His knowledge of both English and French proved very useful to him in cordially and skilfully dealing with both Irish and French confreres. It was important to bring them on board in this new venture and approach, as it was not easy for them to let go of old methods with which they were more familiar. At that stage, he was deeply concerned that only boys had the opportunity of schooling, and worried about the ineffectiveness of establishing Christian families without equally educating and training young girls in the faith.
After much effort and attempts to get female religious missionaries to help him in the education of girls and not succeeding, he founded the congregation of the Missionary Sisters of the Holy Rosary in 1924 for this purpose and for strengthening the growth of Christian families. Schools for boys as well as for girls began to flourish. Schools multiplied as the people’s interest in the education of their children grew, with teacher-catechists attached to each school – teaching and catechising going on simultaneously. In the children, he saw the spark of “tiny apostles” whose childlike simplicity and firm conviction would be influential in establishing strong Christian roots in Nigeria. This method finally proved a successful approach to evangelisation. The mission parishes also grew exponentially, with out-stations created in many areas.
The need for more missionary priests in the ever growing Vicariate continued. With his appeals for volunteer priests from Irish dioceses not resulting a permanent solution, he considered the possibility of founding a society of secular missionary priests. This dream eventually became a reality in 1932 with the birth of the St Patrick’s Missionary Society, Kiltegan, Father Patrick J. Whitney being the Founder. The society made outstanding contribution to the evangelisation of Southern Nigeria.
On April 22, 1920, Joseph Shanahan was appointed Vicar Apostolic of Southern Nigeria (Onitsha being its seat), and on June 6, 1920, consecrated a bishop at the Chapel of Maynooth College. Thus, he became the first bishop in Southern Nigeria. This mission continued to thrive under his leadership and with the collaboration of his fellow missionaries. Due to failing health, a Co-adjutor bishop in the person of Bishop Charles Heerey CSSp was appointed to assist him. Retiring from Nigeria in 1932, Bishop Shanahan later left for Nairobi, Kenya in 1938 where he spent the last years of his life until his death there on Christmas day, 1943.
Many people who knew or had encountered him at some point in life either in Nigeria, during his visits to Ireland or on his many travels throughout his active ministry, attested to his extraordinary qualities and the grace of God which was so apparent in his life. For this reason, in November 1997 the Cause for his Beatification and Canonisation was opened in Onitsha, Nigeria.
On June 2, 2019, the Holy Rosary Sisters in Ireland and the people of Bishop Shanahan’s home parish of Borrisoleigh celebrated his life, together with the bishop of the diocese of Cashel and Emly, Bishop Kieran O’Reilly SMA, and the Papal Nuncio to Ireland, Archbishop Jude Thaddeus Okolo. In Onitsha, there is an annual event celebrating his life popularly known in Nigeria as “Shanahan Day”. The initiation of the Cause of Canonisation of Bishop Shanahan has given a renewed vigour to the promotion of the virtues he embodied and lived. His zeal for spreading the Good News of Christ to everyone everywhere was significant. It was always his desire that the divinized life be implanted in the heart of all God’s children. His practical example of goodness, deep humanity and humane treatment of everyone he encountered as well as a committed deep prayer life remain great spiritual legacies for our world.
As we mark the 150th anniversary of his birth, it is our hope that this Irish man who devoted his entire life to sharing the Good News of Christ and seeking to uphold the dignity of peoples thousands of kilometres from his native Ireland will continue to inspire us today. He left a powerful legacy of a missionary spirit and an untiring commitment to evangelisation, as well as the empowerment of women in the Church and the promotion of Christian families. A kind and genuinely humane man of prayer, he showed the power of forgiveness in the way he forgave all the hurts he experienced in his life. His great contribution to mission in the 19th and 20th centuries has borne great fruit and continues to inspire many young seminarians and priests in Nigeria, in Africa as a whole and beyond. During his first year as Prefect Apostolic in 1906, there were two thousand, six hundred and twenty-eight baptised Catholics and Catechumens in his mission of Southern Nigeria. However, by 1930 just before his retirement, the total came to two hundred and ten thousand, eight hundred and twenty-two. When in 1935, he was invited back to Onitsha for the Golden Jubilee of the Mission, he experienced unbounded joy seeing once again the growth that had taken place in a few decades. Bishop Heerey, the lay faithful, religious and clergy in the diocese of Onitsha organised a wonderful reception and made his return a memorable experience. All strata of society came to welcome him. What seemed to have warmed his heart in a particular way was the number of his “little apostles” – hundreds of school boys and girls, the latter dressed up in white dresses and blue headgears. His heart was particularly gladdened by the great increase in the numbers of these little apostles whom he had dreamed would bring the Good News of Christ to their own kith and kin. Looking at them, they were like a field of bluebells that would spread throughout the length and breadth of not only Nigeria, but of the whole Continent of Africa, transforming its very heart until it became one with Christ’s. If it pleases God, Bishop Joseph Shanahan will one day be raised to the altar as a model worthy of emulation and a veritable intercessor for the people of God. In 1956, his remains were brought back to Nigeria from Kenya and re-interred inside the Basilica of the Holy Trinity, Onitsha. For us in Nigeria, he is our Saint Patrick.