By Philip Chike Balepo
It is on a happy note that I want to relive the good old days of my companionship with Archbishop Valerian Okeke who we fondly referred to as Val during our seminary days even though he was my senior and now my beloved father in the Lord.
I remember vividly with nostalgia that blessed rainy Saturday at Umudioka, when His Eminence, Francis Cardinal Arinze, then the Archbishop of Onitsha, laid his hands on our cherished Maduka, as a priest of God. It was a day I might likely not forget because I was really involved.
The relationship started in 1974, at Umunuko, Ukpor, when His Grace, was our auxiliary teacher at St. Paul’s Seminary.
We were just entering the junior seminary and our number one teacher was nobody but Valerie Okeke. The charismatic Maths teacher, who would always throw the chalk up, catch it with a spin before writing on the board, with the question: ‘What do we have?’ Of course, we would echo back: ‘Maths’. He made mathematics so interesting that those of us who dreaded the subject, enjoyed every moment of his time in the class.
Fate brought us close again, when he came for his brief Apostolic work from Bigard Memorial Seminary, Enugu, at Ossomala in 1979/80, while the late Fr. Dennis Nwafor, was our Parish Priest. His charisma was irresistible and he was the kids’ favourite.
Then, came July 11th, 1981, the day I said, no to beer. Ask me why? I was given an assignment by Maduka that keeping awake and remaining alert were the only options for me.
Fada Val called me and handed me the key to his room, with a stern instruction to take total control of everything in the room, with another friend, Charles Umelo.
We hardly partook in the ordination proper, but for that moment when Archbishop Arinze laid his hands on the young priest and the whole church exploded in ecstasy.
His mum nearly danced herself lame the dance during the reception; the elder brother was highly elated, but my joy was that my teacher was now a priest. And I strongly believed that I will one day be like him. But it was not the will of God.
Sullivan Akachukwu Nwankpo, was among the Mass Servers of the day.
The memories linger that 40 years after, it seemed like yesterday. Today, 18 out of that 40, he has held sway as the number one Catholic in the Metropolitan See of Onitsha Ecclesiastical Province.
What more can I say that I am part of a success journey that started 40 years ago. The journey that took him to his present abode, as a fresh, young priest; into the four walls of Umuoji town, as a Parish Priest, before his sojourn to overseas and back. He came back and was saddled with the onerous task of guiding and shaping the younger ones to their full potentials as priests in Enugu. It was at Bigard Memorial Seminary, that the baton was handed over to him, on November 28th, 2001, as the Coadjutor Archbishop of Onitsha.
As they say: “keep on walking, don’t look back.” And Fr. Val Maduka has never looked back, especially after he was consecrated the Coadjutor Archbishop of Onitsha, on February 9th, 2002, before he fully ascended the Cathedral on September 1st, 2003.
Congratulations! Fada Val Maduka Okeke, as we pray for your Golden Jubilee as a priest and the Silver Jubilee of your bishopric.