How do you return to a place that reminds you of the brutal killing of your loved ones and neighbours? How do you deal with the empty seats knowing why they are vacant? Nearly a year after a shooting took place at St Francis Xavier Catholic Church in Owo, Ondo State, we visited the church, where despite the trauma of surviving a massacre, church members have returned, and service has resumed.
Editor’s note: This essay is available in our print issue, A Nation Divided. Buy the issue here.
‘And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.’
— Revelation 21:4, King James Bible
In the early hours of Sunday 05 June 2022, Gladys Chinedu began her church-day routine. She was seven months pregnant, and, despite the usual strains of pregnancy, she carried on preparing for the early morning mass that she regularly attended at St Francis Xavier Catholic Church in Owo. The town was about 48 kilometres away from the Ondo State capital, Akure. At about 8 a.m., Gladys was ready and full of excitement, a feeling she had every time she went to church. Church was her refuge, where she communicated with God quietly, often praying for safe childbirth.
Named after a Spanish missionary, St Francis Xavier Catholic Church is in the heart of Owo. Owo itself is a serene town, known for being home to one of the largest palaces in Africa. The Palace of Owo as it is called has about 100 courtyards for different functions. The town is mostly populated by Yoruba people, and the town’s residents are typically employed in farming and trading.
Gladys and her husband, Samuel Chinedu, arrived at church that morning, joining other worshippers as they exchanged familiar greetings, hugging here and shaking hands there. Beyond being a place of worship, St Francis Xavier Catholic Church was a part of its members’ life stories: it was where many of them had gotten married and/or baptized their children.
As the organist played a slow hymn, Gladys who had planned to sit with her husband decided to join a friend in one of the pews closer to the altar. Sitting away from her husband, Gladys did not know that the day would take a tragic turn.
At about 11:30 a.m., when Pentecost Sunday was coming to an end, unidentified gunmen burst into the church. ‘We thought it was the street guys playing and making sounds outside the church, but when we started hearing the heavy gunshots inside the church, we scattered into different directions,’ Samuel said. The men shot sporadically at worshippers after throwing dynamites that blew up in different directions inside the church. It was a day that perfectly fit the ominous Yoruba saying, ‘ojó burúkú èṣù gbomi mu’, ‘a day so bad, the devil drank water.’
The thought of him leaving his pregnant wife behind stopped Samuel from bolting instinctively in the direction of the door of the church. ‘My mind asked me to run,’ he said, ‘But I didn’t.’ There was pandemonium inside the church spurred by the gunshots; smoke made visibility difficult; and people ran in different directions for safety. ‘When I heard the first gunshot, I was thinking it was child’s play, not until reality came. Then, it was like being in the middle of a war,’ Samuel recalled. He attempted to find his wife through the smoke and noise, but the next dynamite that exploded was so close to him and so loud that he went flat on his chest, before crawling under a pew in fright. On hearing the initial gunshots, Gladys didn’t run; she also just lay down on the floor.
Neither adults nor children were spared in the mass shooting that occurred that day at St Francis Xavier Catholic Church. According to official reports, over 40 worshippers were killed while more than 80 were injured. The carnage lasted about 20 minutes. By the time the last of the masked men walked out of the church, the shooters had left behind bodies punctured with bullets and victims who barely clung to life. Those who managed to survive did not feel any sense of luck or relief. The gory sight of the scene left scars in the minds of the people, tears in their eyes and anger in their hearts.
Until the gunshots became heavy, the associate priest of St Francis Xavier Catholic Church, Reverend Father Andrew Adeniyi Abayomi, had no idea why there was so much chaos in the church. ‘I could only see the people,’ he said, ‘I didn’t see the gunmen. It was after hearing the gunshots I realized we were under attack.’
Father Abayomi had given the last blessing on that Sunday when the shootings began. He recalled that he was about to notify the congregation of the closing of the service when he saw members running for safety from the back; a scenario he thought felt like a movie scene at first. ‘Immediately it was happening, I told myself it was not a movie, it was a reality,’ he explained. ‘It was just like the childhood story of what will you do if a lion is chasing you. It felt like I was dreaming, and I told myself you have to wake up and face the reality.’
A statement released by the Defence Headquarters in August 2022 highlighted that the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) had claimed responsibility for the shooting. Chief of Defence Staff, General Lucky Irabor, also later revealed that four suspects were arrested in connection to the shooting.
Since 2002, Nigeria has been combatting terrorist groups such as Boko Haram and ISWAP. According to the Global Center for the Responsibility to Protect, terrorist groups have killed more than 35,000 people in northern Nigeria since 2009, displacing many more. As of 2020, the Global Terrorism Index ranked Nigeria as the third most insecure country in the world; in 2022, the Global Peace Index ranked Nigeria 143 out of 163 countries and 37 out of 44 sub-Saharan African countries.
‘IT IS AN INCIDENT I DON’T LIKE TO REMEMBER’
On the Sunday of the Owo Massacre, 61-year-old Christianah Oladele, attended the church service with her daughter, Juliet, who was visiting from Lagos. The two were long-time members of the church and were familiar to the congregation, some of whom were their neighbours.
When the attack happened, Christianah froze, too afraid and too frail to run. A bullet pierced her left hand. Juliet also suffered gunshot wounds and both women had to be treated at the Federal Medical Center in Owo.
‘This hand was affected,’ Christianah said, showing me her left hand, which she can no longer lift or use. She told me that a few years before the attack she lost her husband to sickness. ‘But I am still managing it. My daughter who came from Lagos was affected, too. She is back in Lagos with the injury.’
For Samuel whose wife, Gladys, was pregnant at the time of the attack, the shock of the incident has had a lasting impact on his mental health. For a long time, he has had trouble sleeping. Just over a month after the incident, Gladys gave birth. He explained that this has been the only ray of joy in what has otherwise been a difficult ten months.
‘The shock affected me,’ he said, ‘but my wife delivered the baby, a boy. The incident happened June 5, my wife delivered July 30. You see how close it was.’ Between the shooting and Gladys giving birth, he explained, ‘I couldn’t sleep because I used to have nightmares.’
Vivian Oscar, the financial secretary of the Catholic Women Organization had prepared for the inauguration of Harvest Committee that Sunday. The committee was created to prepare for the church’s yearly harvest celebration. However, neither the committee nor the harvest celebration saw the light of day in 2022. The women arrived at church that Sunday, dressed in matching blue and white outfits, but during the shootings, everyone ran for safety while some members lost their lives.
‘We were in the church, and it was almost the end of the mass, it was a celebration that day because it was a Pentecost Sunday,’ Vivian said. According to her, ‘We were wearing our usual uniform because it was also first the Sunday of the month. I was in the church with my family, and the ugly incident started. It is an incident I don’t like to remember but after the whole incident, we were displaced.’
For Vivian, whose three children also survived the attack, the Owo Massacre meant renewed trauma. In 2020, she was in her apartment when unknown gunmen invaded her home and forcefully abducted her daughter. Two years after the invasion, she and her children were attacked in the church. Since then, she explained, she has come to believe that nowhere is safe for her family in Nigeria.
‘My children have been traumatized,’ she explained, ‘and my first daughter cannot hear very well; the sound of the dynamite affected her. But I told them they should talk to themselves and encourage each other; life goes on; so far as we still have breath in us, we keep moving.’
Augustine Udeh, a businessman in his 40s, was one of those who lost a family member in the attack. ‘It was when I heard the sound of the gun that I dived on top of people who were already lying under the pew,’ he said. ‘Later on, I discovered that one of my family members was gone. The trauma was not easy.’ For several months afterwards, sleep evaded Augustine and pain ravaged his mind as the shootings continued to haunt him. It was his first time of experiencing such an incident since he settled in Owo community 34 years ago.
‘OUR FATH IS STRONG’
How do you return to a place that reminds you of the brutal killing of your loved ones and neighbours? How do you deal with the empty seats knowing why they were vacant? How do you deal with the knowledge that the only reason you are able to return there is because you were one of the lucky ones? How do you thank God for being alive when others were killed in the same church?
On 9 April 2023, the doors of St Francis Xavier Catholic Church opened for the first time since the attack. The turnout was low, the mood was sombre, and the air was full of trepidation. Returning was a difficult decision for many. For those who could summon the courage to walk into the church, the sight and smell of it brought back painful memories. The church’s shiny cleanliness and antiseptic smell were reminders of the unforgettable carnage that had happened there almost a year ago.
After the church was renovated and ahead of its reopening, the Bishop of Ondo Catholic Diocese, Most Revd. Jude Arogundade, had visited the church to rededicate it. However, on the day of the reopening it was as if the trauma never left. Still, that there were members present on that reopening Sunday was surprising to many who had thought that the church would not be able to gather again.
Some minutes before 8 a.m. on the morning of 16 April 2023, during the second Sunday service since the church reopened, Christianah Oladele was already on the church premises, but not without fearful thoughts. As she sat in one of the pews with her ten-year-old granddaughter, waiting for other church members to arrive, she found herself reacting aggressively to unexpected sounds. ‘I always come to church early for any church programme,’ Christianah said. ‘Early this morning, when the church opened, I entered with my small girl; but anytime something makes noise, I look back immediately. Even at night, I always get up and sit down to think about how it all happened on that sad Sunday.’
Esther Pius, a 61-year-old trader, who had spent over two decades in the town and survived the shooting last year, told us that what made her return to the church after the shooting was her deep familiarity with the church. ‘There is no church I can go to start again and begin as a new member. My family’s root is Catholic,’ she said.
During his sermon on the second Sunday mass post reopening the church, Father Abayomi told the congregation to stay strong. ‘Some may ask “Why are they still going to that church?” You should answer that we have become the Christian model of our time,’ he told them. His sermon continued: ‘They may ask, “Why are they still having a happy mood? You should answer that death is just a passing phase and those that died are already in Heaven and we say, “O death where is thy sting?” If we die, we die for Christ; if we live, we live for Christ.’
Like other worshippers, despite the sermon, Samuel noted that it had not been easy coming back to the church. ‘Generally, it has not been easy,’ he explained, ‘we are just encouraging ourselves. According to Samuel, ‘Our faith is strong, maybe because of our faith in the Catholic Church. Personally, anytime I come into the church, I think about what has happened. I usually play what happened on June 5, 2022, in my head over and over again.’
‘We haven’t recovered, we are only trying,’ a lector at the church, Oluwatosin (she didn’t provide a last name) told us. ‘There is a place for faith and a place for counselling. People just come with fine clothes but still battling with a lot,’ she said.
‘THE TRAUMA CAN MANIFEST IN SEVERAL WAYS’
On the Sunday of the attack in 2022, Oluwatosin was sitting in the third pew from the altar, when she heard sounds. At first, she thought the sounds were coming from children playing around at the back of the church. When she realized the sounds were gunshots, she first tried to run but her sister quickly told her to lie down instead. ‘I was even thinking that when the shooters finish killing those running, they will kill those that are under the pew,’ she said. ‘The people that ran were the ones heavily shot. I keep wondering if the shooters thought those of us lying under the pew were already dead.’
Benedicta Azogwa and her husband, Benjamin, were among those the shooters shot. Benjamin was shot in the leg while Benedicta had to spend four weeks in the hospital due to head and ear injuries.
Before the church reopened officially, Benedicta was already visiting the church to pray for her family. When we met her in the church, mass had ended but she was the only one still praying. ‘Although I did not lose any members of my family and that gave me much strength during the healing process, I believed I will never be healed not until God showed me mercy,’ she said. ‘Though everything looks as if it was yesterday, but I have been helping myself by coming to church to pray.’
Despite the collective strength I witnessed among the survivors I met, I spoke with Aisha Bubah, lead psychologist at Sunshine Series-Mind Wellness, who emphasized that it is best for these surivors to seek professional help. ‘The trauma can manifest in several ways,’ Aisha said. According to her, such trauma typically shows up as ‘anger, anxiety or fear and it is best to acknowledge that it is okay to be traumatized and focus on positive things that make you happy. Stay close to family and work on your grief by seeking professional help.’
On Sunday 16 April 2023, St Francis Xavier Catholic Church launched a therapy session for its members to provide relief from the shooting. During the session, several members revealed how they were using anti-depressants to help them move on from the incident. ‘The recovery process differs across different members,’ Father Abayomi said. ‘For some people, it may be immediate; some may take more time, but the church will assist in providing therapy sessions to help members recover.’
‘WE WILL CONTINUE OUR NORMAL LIFE’
We reached out to the Ondo State Police Command to find out what measures have been rolled out to prevent another shooting. The police public relations officer, Funmi Odunlami, explained that, ‘the police have made adequate arrangements to ensure Ondo State does not encounter such attack anywhere within the state.’
The Amotekun Security Network is a local security outfit founded in January 2020 with operations across the southwestern states of Nigeria. The network is responsible for curbing insecurity in the region. We spoke to Amotekun commander, Chief Adetunji Adeleye, who also doubles as the security adviser to the Ondo State Governor, Rotimi Akeredolu. According to Adeleye, his team has continued to maintain regular patrol and special unit forces within the community.
‘CCTV is in place in addition to other security equipment to further compress our response time to distress calls. The synergy among other security agencies is also intact,’ Adeleye said.
Nearly a year has passed since the deadly attack on St Francis Xavier Catholic Church, but the pain, tears and fears left behind by the killings that took place that day, are still very present in the hearts of the worshippers. The second mass service after the reopening of the church confirmed the massacre’s lingering shadow and, equally, the congregation’s resolve to not abandon the church.
‘We will continue our normal life,’ businessman Augustine told me. ‘There is nothing we can do than to wave off the memories. It is not easy, but we will not because of that say we will run away from the church. We will continue.’
That afternoon, it was a similar disposition to Augustine’s that I observed in the other survivors, whose faith is that the trauma from the massacre will eventually vanish as they find healing in community and solace in God⎈
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