Behold the ‘New Jerusalem’ in Benue
Given the economic reality especially the increasing foreign exchange rate, intending Christian pilgrims to Jerusalem or Rome may look the direction of Aokpe Pilgrimage Centre in Benue State for spiritual edification and enrichment. The 23 years old religious site is fast emerging as Nigeria’s ‘New Jerusalem’ where thousands of pilgrims converge every August to celebrate the ‘special day of grace’. Assistant Editor (Arts) OZOLUA UHAKHEME who was at the centre’s 21st anniversary celebration, reports.
The pain of travelling the 7 kilometre bad road from Ugbokolo in Okpokwu local government area of Benue State to Aokpe community did not deter the huge turnout of pilgrims to Aokpe Pilgrimage Centre. Thousands of Christians, especially Catholic faithful drawn from different dioceses in the country and outside Nigeria converged on the centre for 4 days (August 1-4) to celebrate the 21st anniversary of Our Lady of Aokpe Mediatrix of All Graces. Some pilgrims defied the scorching sun and intermittent shower of rain to sit and pray in the open field around the Altar of Perpetual Adoration, Crucifix of Jesus and Good Shepherd garden.
For the four days, the sleepy and serene Aokpe community was literarily overrun by pilgrims and tourists to the centre. Temporary souvenir and gifts shops dotted the community road to the centre as traders displayed foods and gift items such as rosary, candles, pendants, wall papers, religious cassettes and CDs among others.
But, to get the centre is like a journey through the Biblical narrow path to heaven. No two big vehicles found it easy to move on the opposite direction easily on the rough road. And all vehicles moved on gear one all through the short distance but ‘long’ and tedious journey. This created a brisk business for operators of commercial motor bikes (Okada) as most pilgrims took bike, which is popular and more convenient mode of transport to transit from Ugbokolo to Aokpe. The fifteen minutes ride on bike took a vehicle a minimum of 30 minutes to cover only on a dry day.
To the pilgrims the bad road is not only a challenge, but it is also part of the penance for the spiritual edification, enrichment and growth, which is the essence of their pilgrimage. From visitation to apparition room, praying the Rosary, making confessions and penance on penance concrete track leading to the crucifix of Christ, fetching of Holy water from the spring fountain, reciting the glorious mysteries, participating in the Hour of Mercy and the Stations of the Cross, there was no dull moment for the pilgrims. It was marathon prayers, praise and worship sessions accompanied by spiritual talks and the 3-hourly holy mass during which pilgrims made constant supplications and sacrifices to the eternal father for collective and individual needs.
On Monday, August 3 alone, 8 masses were conducted for the nation and state, reconciliation, students, refugees and other internally displaced persons, peace, sponsors of Aokpe project and Holy Spirit. At the grand finale on Tuesday, August 4 the Most Rev Dr. Michael Apochi, Catholic Bishop of Otukpo Diocese took charge of the mass of the Blessed Virgin Mary that lasted for three hours.
In his exhortation, Rector of the centre, Rev. Fr. Ejembi Vincent said the spiritual and social challenges of Nigerians are enormous as ‘we are living at a time when immorality is gaining ground, insurgency, Boko Haram, youth unemployment and other economic crisis bedevil us.’
The visionary Mrs. Christiana Agbo Ejeh who is now a lawyer said the Blessed Virgin Mary started appearing to her since 1992 when she was 12 and that Virgin Mary told her She would appear on August 4, 1994 to bestow grace on her children. “Virgin Mary told me that every August 4 should be set aside to celebrate a special day of grace,” she said.
The story of Aokpe Pilgrimage Centre, which is marking the 21st anniversary of its apparition (special day of grace) is like a prophet who is unknown in his homestead. The centre witnessed its first apparition of the Blessed Mary twenty-three years ago in October 1992, when the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to a 12-year old girl, Christiana Inebu Agbo. Although the Aokpe apparition is yet to be officially recognised, the Catholic Church has however given it some serious considerations through the appointments of Rectors for the Pilgrimage Centre and the involvement of her priests in the devotions taking place there. The first positive sign that the Church’s approval would come one day was the declaration by the Northern Bishops which was read at the centre by the Metropolitan Archbishop of Abuja, now Cardinal John Onaiyekan at the height of the apparitions in January 1996.
It would be recalled that in July 2013, there was the apparition of Blessed Mary on the wall of St. Benedict Catholic Church at Ubiaja in Edo State. Also, in the same month in 2012, the apparition of Blessed Mary was seen in a tree trunk in New Jersey, USA.
Up till date, Benue State government is yet to fix the 7-kilometre road that leads to the only religious site in the state, which attracts thousands of tourists and pilgrims each year. What seems visible in the community is the electricity supply that is epileptic as usual.
Benue State Director of Tourism Mrs. Dooter Ajoko disclosed that the state government has concluded plans to revive the Makurdi Airport and construct the 7-kilometer Ugbokolo-Aokpe road project that was abandoned by past administrations in the state.
She assured that government is determined to develop tourism as income from oil has continued to dwindle. She said tourism is one of the priority areas the new administration is given attention to generate income alongside agriculture, entrepreneurship development and creating enabling environment for industry to strive.
She stated that Aokpe is of particular interest to the state because it has spent much money on pilgrims to abroad. “With Aokpe, government intends to promote it to encourage domestic tourism instead of spending foreign exchange on pilgrimage abroad. Unfortunately, not many people in Benue are aware of the centre at Aokpe. So, government wants to promote and develop the centre,” she said.
According to report, ‘apart from spiritual benefits the presence of Martian site is of immense benefit not only to the locality but the entire nation. It is estimated that once the Catholic Church gives its formal approval and recognition of Aokpe as a Marian site, Nigeria could earn billions of naira from pilgrims who would throng the site from all over the world. In fact, the Blessed Virgin Mary Herself had during several of her appearances declared that Aokpe would become great and that She would do great things in Aokpe.’
Benue State Queen of Culture and Tourism 2014/15, Miss Mimi Pine expressed shock at the size and quality of pilgrims and activities at the centre, lamenting that she is getting to know the centre at the close of her tenure as Miss Tourism in the state. But to add some cultural elements and colours to the events, performing troupes from Benue State Ministry of Culture and Tourism were on ground to thrill pilgrims to some scintillating dances.
.Making of Aokpe Pilgrimage Centre
According to reports by the centre, the first acknowledged apparition of the Blessed Mary on African soil took place twenty three years ago at Aokpe, a small village about seven kilometers from Ugbokolo in Okpokwu local government area of Benue State. In October 1992, the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to a 12 year old village girl, Christiana Inebu Agbo. The Blessed Mary made consistent appearances which last till September 2004, which the visionary Christiana Agbo described as the last appearance and the last message. Altogether, the Blessed Mary made over a hundred appearances at Aokpe within the twelve year span that the apparitions took place, most of which were privately done between the Blessed Mary and the visionary. Quite a few were public in the sense that dates were fixed ahead of the apparitions and great multitude of people assembled when the apparitions took place and messages relayed to the audience simultaneously.
The main public apparitions were between August 1994 and May 1996. The most prominent was on August 4 1994, declared as special day of grace by the Blessed Mary herself and celebrated since then by devotees of Aokpe.
On that occasion, the then Catholic Bishop of Makurdi Most Rev. Athanasius Usuh who then had Episcopal jurisdiction over the area was requested by the Blessed Mary to either come to Aokpe or send emissaries to witness the apparition scheduled for that date. This, the Bishop did and the emissary Rev. Fr. Emmanuel Ojaje Idoko photographed and video-taped and documented the apparition as well as the miracles that occurred on that occasion which included the receipt of Holy Communion by the visionary from an Angel and the miracle of the sun.
Despite the various challenges to the actualisation of the dream of becoming a Marina site recognized by the Catholic Church, the centre is witnessing some progress in the area of physical and spiritual development. Already there are the upliftment of the holy spring water discharge point, erection of the Good Shepherd Garden for retreats and altar of Perpetual Adoration built and consecrated on August 4 2010. These were achieved through contributions from devotees as well as the willingness of the local community to receive guests and donate their land for development. Also, the Mediatrix complex which comprises of some guests chalets, a conference hall, and water fountain and garden are among facilities completed and in use.
Currently, it is gathered that a business consortium has also submitted proposals for the building of hostels and tourists sites around the centre on a build operate and transfer (BOT) basis.
Christiana’s encounters with Blessed Virgin Mary
“I was in my room praying when suddenly Our Lady appeared to me. When she appeared to me she said: “I come from Heaven. I am the Refuge of Sinners. I come from Heaven to win souls for Christ and to hide my children in my Immaculate Heart. What I want you to do is pray for the souls in Purgatory, to pray for the world and to pray to console Jesus. Will you accept?” And I answered her, “Yes.”
“In the same month I was in my room and suddenly I saw two Angels singing. I do not know what they were singing. I became afraid and ran out. My brother went and called my mother who said that she could not see anything. The two Angels remained for some minutes, then one of them said, “I am the Angel of Peace.” Then they disappeared.
“The 1st of December, 1992, I went to the Church to pray. After saying prayers and the Rosary with the people, I left the Church and Our Lady suddenly appeared to me and said: “After saying the Rosary sit down and meditate for some time.” She then disappeared.
On the 1st of October, 1993, Christiana saw a round object like a ball on the floor with flowers around it. Our Lady came and stood on it. Prompted by her mother, she was going to ask Our Lady’s name. Our Lady cut in quickly and said, “Behold, I am a Holy Mother and I will introduce myself another time.”
When Christiana stated, “I do not know your name,” Our Lady replied: “The time of giving my name has not yet come. The name I will bring will be a powerful one. I will do many things in St. Patrick’s Church” The title which Our Lady eventually gave Christiana is one which evokes much doctrinal and devotional history: Mediatrix of All Graces.