The first Christian missionaries in Northern Nigeria belonged to the Anglican Church sent by the Church Missionary Society (CMS). They established a mission station at Lokoja in 1866 with Bishop Samuel Ajayi Crowther as the Superior. In 1956 he welcomed the first Catholic Missionaries to Lokoja. The group belonged to the Society of African Missions (SMA).
Later, Msgr. Lejane was granted a site for a mission and a refuge for freed slaves in Ibi. Already missionaries had opened up Shendam in 1903 and were working on more stations among the people of the lower plateau. With the development of the railway in 1911, a new Prefecture was established to cover the territory North of the Benue and East of Zaria. The construction of the railway line from Lagos to Kano and from Part Harcourt to Kafanchan opened up communication with the interior. New towns sprung up at strategic points along the rail line and became the focal points of growth.
The towns that were first established as camps for the railway workers and their families attracted artisans and traders from the Southern part of Nigeria who found new markets and a demand for their skills. Many of such people were Catholics. Small churches were established among them, many of them were Igbo – Catholic – oriented workers, who settled in the towns on the rail line and this led in turn to the establishment of mission stations.
The association of Christianity with western education and lifestyle originated with the government civil servants from Sierra Leone and Ghana who then, manned the administration of the Protectorate of Northern Nigeria in those early days. It received a great boost when the then Prefect Apostolic of the Lower Niger, Msgr. Joseph Shanahan who was in charge, exposed ‘education’ as the basis for the evangelization of the Igbo people. It proved to be so fruitful that missionary bodies adopted it. Msgr. Kingsley, Apostolic delegate to British East and West Africa when he visited Nigeria in 1928, enunciated the principle that the building of a school takes precedence over a church.
In 1929, Kaduna was opened as a missionary area. And as the administrative headquarters of the then Northern Region, it did not have a traditional of Muslim rule. As a result of this conducive environment, Kaduna became an ideal administrative centre for the Catholic Church in the North.
In April 1934, Kaduna became the headquarters of the new Prefecture of Kaduna. This Prefecture comprised Sokoto, Katsina, Kano, Minna and Zaria. The Catholic communities in the Kaduna Prefecture were formed among migrant workers from the South of the country. They tended to congregate in separate quarters – the Sabon Gari areas – since they could not be allowed to live with Muslims in the major towns and often this was the jurisdiction for the establishment of a mission station with a resident priest.
Missionary priests of the society of African missions (SMA) resident in Lokoja crossed the River Niger to River Benue and then traveled by rail to Minna and Kaduna to Zaria. After the initial contact, regular visits were then made from Lokoja until a house was built there for the missionary priest. Father Pat O’Connell was the first missionary to live in Zaria. He took residence in Zaria around 1925.
Father John McCarthy succeeded Father O’Connell. McCarthy, who later became the first Archbishop of Kaduna, embraced the development of the whole area of his territory. Father Malachy Gately succeeded him as the third priest to live in Zaria. It was he that opened mission stations in the eastern parts of Zaria among the pagan tribes towards the Jos axis. Meanwhile, the few Catholics that were in Zaria then were mainly people from the Sierra Leone, Ghana, Cameroon and Southern Nigeria as workers of the railway line.
Conversion among the indigenous Hausa people was impossible because of the hostility of the Muslim rulers in the area and the agreement between the British colonial powers and the Muslim emirs to the effect that missionaries must not evangelize in Muslim areas. This unfriendly and uncompromising attitude made missionaries change and direct their attention to the pagan areas of Southern parts of the present Kaduna State. Indeed, plenty of conversions were made among them that it can be seen from the number of priests the area has produced and the level of development Christianity brought to them.
Between 1939 and 1960 especially with the approach of independence for Nigeria, the government in the then Northern Nigeria saw the need to establish schools – primary and post primary all over the North. The missionaries were given permission to open schools in Zaria as elsewhere in Northern Nigeria. Three primary schools were established in Sabon Gari, and Samaru, Zaria.
By 1965, a Teacher Training College and St. Joseph’s Minor Seminary were opened in Zaria. These educational institutions established by the missionaries, as well as, the Ahmadu Bello University, and post primary institutions established by the government in Northern Nigeria, brought many Catholics from the different parts of Nigeria to Zaria. As a result of this increase of Catholics a second parish was opened in Samaru, Zaria.
This history of the Catholic Church in Zaria will not be complete if the activities of the laity are left out. Although members of the legion of Mary in conjunction with the supporters of some few Catechists carried out visitations to various communities and families, a more serious effort, could be traced back to the visit of Pope John Paul II to Nigeria in 1982. During that occasion, the Holy Father reminded the Catholic Laity in Nigeria to respond to the challenges posed by the Second Vatican Council (1963-1965), in which the laity was invited to play active role in the programmes of evangelization.
In the spirit of that Papal reminder during his visit, a group of lay people began to meet in 1984 comprising chiefly of Christopher Didam, George Kwanashie, Mr. Rwuaan, Joseph Ogunbi, Mrs. Theresa Bowyer and many others to reorganize the laity and pastoral councils. This effort was paying off handsomely until it was punctuated in 1987 by the religious/ political riots that engulfed the state by 9th March. During the mayhem, militants razed down all Catholic Churches except St. John’s Muchia. This unfortunate event reawakened the zeal and commitment of the laity to their Christian calling.
In the next ten years after the Papal call, the Church in Zaria followed a programme of revitalization. In 1991 for instance, the St. Endas’ Parish Basawa hosted the National Laity Council Conference on behalf of the Kaduna Archdiocesan Laity Council. The laity also hosted the Zumunta Mata Archdiocesan Conference, Catholic Youth Organization Convention, and most importantly hosted the then papal pro-Nuncio to Nigeria, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, with many other important church dignitaries. It was during the visit of the Pro-Nuncio to Zaria, Nigeria in June 1998 that the people made a formal request to the visitor for a diocese. This request was a unanimous decision of the laity of the then deanery of Zaria, with the support of the metropolitan Archbishop Peter Y. Jatau.
Before the 1997 Kaduna Archdiocesan Synod, there was the general mobilization of the laity through announcements and posters. In addition, the laity had found a way of expressing themselves in the Church through their organization. Thus the Synod became a very important way of expressing their opinions and making their suggestions on the progress of the Church. In deed the Synod was a success.
Slowly and gradually evangelization has moved to the indigenous Hausa people who prefer to be identified as the Masihiyawa people – those who believe in Jesus Christ – as a way of gaining a distinct identity from the other Hausas who are non-Christians. In fact, the first indigenous Masihiyawa priest was ordained in November 1998. The number of parishes has risen from three in 1975 to thirteen by the year 2000.
The height of the development of the Church in Zaria reached a climax with the creation of the territory of Zaria as a diocese by His Holiness Pope John Paul II on 5th December 2000. This was promulgated on 29th December 2000 with Msgr. George J. Dodo declared as the first Bishop of the territory. The request made by the laity at the last visit of the Nuncio two years earlier became a reality. This new challenge of a new diocese has thrown a big task at the feet of both the clergy and the laity to work for the growth of the gospel. The vision of success is in no doubt because of the vast experience of the first Bishop of the diocese of Zaria who served in different capacities including chaplain to the laity in the Archdiocese of Kaduna and chaplain to different lay apostolate organizations. Until his appointment as bishop, he served as parish priest of Our Lady of Apostles in Kaduna for nearly one decade.
It is now over nineteen years since the diocese was erected – 3rd March 2001. The success of this juridical territory depends on two factors. One is the will power of the laity to work in collaboration with the bishop and the clergy, and the other is the vision of both which should be set right for posterity. By the time the needed collaboration is harnessed, the diocese will be heading for greater heights in its territory. The journey so far has shown that what has been achieved is largely setting standards for positive development. When these two factors are given attention, then the history of the diocese of Zaria will be turning a new leaf in the nearest future.