“God Is at Work”: How Mission Tradition Is Bringing the Light of Christ to Nigeria
Even as a friend of FSSP Mission Tradition, you may not know much about the priests who serve in our missions in Mexico, Colombia, and Nigeria. Our next few updates will introduce you to these hard-working servants of God.
Fr. Angelo Van der Putten, FSSP, was ordained in 1996 and joined the FSSP in 2004. After serving at several parishes around the U.S., he was transferred to our mission in Nigeria in 2013.
Mission Tradition staff recently spoke with Fr. Van der Putten to get an update on his work in Nigeria. Here are highlights of that conversation. We hope his story will inspire you to support Mission Tradition.
Mission Tradition: You’re fond of sharing pictures of the crops you’re growing and animals you’re raising in Nigeria. Is the Nigerian mission primarily an agricultural endeavor?
Father Van der Putten: No, not really. I think our South American mission would be more agricultural. I do the agriculture here as a hobby. It’s more just to give the idea to the people that agriculture is good. The difficulty in Nigeria is that the people all want to go to America and live off the fat of the land. And so by me being an American and coming here and planting a garden, it shows them in a very physical, visible manner that their way of life is right—and they shouldn’t want all the materialism of America.
MT: So what do you do with all those crops and animals?
Father VdP: Our mission only pulls in about 80,000 naira per month, which is about $100. But we spend about $1,500 on food alone. So the idea is to help feed the parish. But again, the primary goal is to show the people that raising your own food and living off the land is the way to go. It’s kind of an experiential thing—a hands-on education in right living.
MT: Meanwhile, there’s anarchy and chaos all around your mission. Can you tell me what that stems from and how it’s affecting you?
Father VdP: The whole country of Nigeria is anarchical. In our area we have the Boko Haram, who are Muslim militant terrorists from Syria and other Middle Eastern states. They moved down to Africa, northeast and northwest of Nigeria, and a lot of these people just murder everybody. Whether you’re Christian or Muslim, if you don’t agree with them, they’ll kill you. So there are a lot of murders happening every day.
And then in the south here, there’s a movement called Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB). There are five states out of the 36 in Nigeria who belong to the Igbo tribe. And they had a huge civil war here from 1967 to 1970 where the Igbos wanted independence and the government, with the help of the English, squelched it. One million people were massacred in that war. The Igbos haven’t forgotten that and are still striving to have their own country. The problem is that they’re kind of amalgamated in Nigeria with two other huge tribes, and all three of these tribes are opposed to each other.
So turmoil and anarchy are caused by the Igbos. They fear to be forcibly converted to Islam, which is a very real concern because that’s a clearly stated position of the federal government and the Muslims in the north. But now the Igbos have begun killing each other.
I live almost in the middle of it all—10 miles away from me is where the heart of the revolution is. There are Igbos who are protesting their governor and the lackadaisical attitude of the other Igbos with regard to the federal government and the threat of forced conversion to Islam. So, for example, for the last year we’ve had a lockdown on Mondays, which means no one is allowed to go to the market or open their market or anything. If anybody does go to the market or open their shop, the Igbos will burn the shop and destroy the moped that they rode to the shop on. Just a couple of weeks ago, they burned down an entire village market.
Some Igbos want to have their own country called Biafra. The federal government and state government are opposed to it and are sending in military and police. And so there are gun wars and shootings and planes and helicopters. The locals tend to go into juju and invoke the devil on their side to become bulletproof. But the federal government, of course, has sophisticated weaponry and machine guns, so it’s kind of a bloodbath.
The Catholic bishops are very distraught about all of this. There doesn’t seem to be any end in sight. It doesn’t seem that there’ll be peace because they’re not fighting a foreigner—they’re fighting themselves. It’s problematic, but it’s part of the local paradigm. You go about your duties and obligations and just pray to God that you die by Boko Haram rather than an Igbo so you can be a saint!
MT: But what is the point of the lockdown? What do the Igbos hope to gain from this?
Father VdP: There’s a guy called Nnamdi Kanu who’s a British citizen. He’s Igbo. And he has a radio program called Radio Biafra that he runs from England. And he’s all about overthrowing the federal government and using violence and having Biafra as their own country. He was tricked into going to Kenya and then arrested there by the Nigerian government and brought back to Nigeria. He has been in prison since last year. And that’s the reason for the lockdowns on Monday. The IPOB is protesting what they see as the wrongful imprisonment of Kanu.
So the Igbos are put in lockdown in their own five states, but not anywhere else in the country. But the Igbos are the ones who make the country work because they’re typically the most entrepreneurial and business oriented. If it wasn’t for the Igbos, there would be no Nigeria as we know it. So they’re really hurting themselves rather than anyone else!
MT: How does all of this affect your mission and your day-to-day operations?
Father VdP: It doesn’t, really, because you go about your duties and obligations knowing that at any time you could be shot dead. Whether it’s accidental or intentional. There’s not any rhyme or reason to it. You just do it because that’s where God put you. You do what you gotta do!
MT: What are your biggest projects in the mission right now?
Father VdP: Well, today we unloaded marble pieces. We want to put a marble altar in the sanctuary of our chapel. It’s a nine-foot by four-foot marble altar. We also need to put 18 windows in the nave. We want to paint the sanctuary and put in a shrine to Our Lady of Sorrows as well as one for Blessed Cyprian Tansi, who was the first Nigerian to be beatified.
MT: What funds will it take to get these projects done?
Father VdP: We actually got a donation for the marble altar. That was 1 million naira, which is about $1,500. For the windows we’ll need about $1,000. To put up catechism pictures will take another $1,000. And then the painting of the sanctuary is about $2,000. So, for what we’re working on at the moment, $5,000 would go a long way towards getting it done.
MT: You’ve previously mentioned a larger project: buying land for a group of religious Sisters. How is that going?
Father VdP: We’ve got some Sisters who had left the Franciscans of the Immaculate. Three of them left the order and came to our parish. We’ve rented a little house for them, and they’re living here, and we want them to help us start a school. And they’re very keen on doing this. So we found 25 plots of land, which is about six acres, and the seller wants $35,000 for six acres. It’s a huge amount of money. We can build them a convent for about $80,000. And then we can build a girls’ hostel for about $45,000.
We also have some land just across from the parish here that we’re trying to get from the federal government. It has a Catholic school, but it was confiscated by the federal government in 1970. After the Biafran war, all the Catholic schools were confiscated and secularized, and the Catholic missionaries were kicked out. In 2000, the military government became “civilian” and several of the Catholic schools were returned to the Catholic Church. This particular one was not returned. So we’re working with the state government to get them to return this school to the missionaries, which would be the FSSP in this case.
If we can get that land and the land for the Sisters and build them the convent, that would make a massive impact on the parish and the whole country of Nigeria. It would also give our mission some stability. The FSSP has been here in Nigeria for about 20 years but so far have only a parish to show for it. If we can start a school run by Sisters, then we’ll truly be building a culture. We’re hoping to get everything arranged to start in fall of 2023.
MT: Mission Tradition seeks to not only provide for the physical needs of the world’s poor, but also share the Gospel with them. What do those encounters look like in Nigeria?
Father VdP: When beggars first show up, there’s no question of religion. We’ve got a case now where a mother has five children, their father is blind, and we literally support them. Our mission takes care of everything. But the couple is not actually married. So they’ve been living in sin for years. We’re really pushing them to get married. That means we have to give the dowry and everything, so that’s about $1,000 of buying rice and potatoes and yams and satisfying the village. We’re hoping that with that, they can start living the life of grace.
We’re also trying to get them to move into the parish because they have absolutely no means of income, and where they live, they’re not close to a church. So we’re trying to find a little place we can rent for them so that they can put their children in our school and come to Mass every Sunday and live the Catholic life. Here in Nigeria, it doesn’t take much. To support a couple with five children, it takes a couple thousand dollars per year. And with that, their kids can be in school and they’ll all have food. Of course, they won’t eat any meat! But at least they’ll have rice and potatoes.
MT: In your time at the Nigerian mission, have you seen many conversions or reversions to the Catholic faith?
Father VdP: You don’t see much of that here. It’s a completely different paradigm from the West because of the high percentage of Catholics. There are 1.3 million people in our diocese and 1 million of them are at least nominally Catholic. Sometimes it seems that everybody’s Catholic!
But there was no traditional Mass in this country from 1970, when the new Mass was imposed, until Fr. Evaristus Eshiowu, FSSP, returned in 2000. And so for 30 years, there was no Latin Mass. And the people, because they had been converted only recently before Vatican II, had no sense of tradition. So they converted after the Biafran war, the federal takeover of the schools, the expulsion of the white missionaries, and the imposition of the new Mass. They saw the new Mass as simply an expression of the Catholic faith.
They were “baby Catholics” who converted to the Catholic religion, but without any idea or sense of tradition or Catholic culture. And so you didn’t have Nigerians leaving the church in the ‘70s and ‘80s and ‘90s, like we did throughout the rest of the world, because they converted to what they thought the Church was always like. In the West, people left the Church because they thought it was no longer the Church. Here, there was no such thing. And so there was no apostasy.
There’s a federal university about 20 miles away from us. They have a Catholic chaplain, and there are 20,000 Catholic youth in the university. They did the 33-day Consecration to Mary using the de Montfort method—and that has produced a traditional Renaissance. They had no idea of the traditional Catholic faith. Suddenly, they’re introduced to Devotion to Mary. They now come to Mass here at our parish, and they’re just floored. They’ve become enthused with the traditional Catholic faith, and they’re reading and understanding the crisis in the Church.
So that, I think, is where our hope lies. These young people are actually being Catholic, as opposed to just doing something on Sunday like everybody else. They’re consciously becoming traditional Catholics.
MT: What would you like to say to donors of Mission Tradition?
Father VdP: First of all, thank you! You should know that when your money comes here, I spend it as a Catholic priest in places where I think is most useful. Other non-government organizations or charitable organizations are going to squander hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars in services or overhead or clientele. Whereas here, it goes directly to those in need. There are no cuts and no salaries.
The amount of corruption in these charitable and NGO organizations in Africa is absolutely staggering. Some of these “Catholic” organizations are supporting contraception, abortion, and the homosexual lifestyle! If you really want to give and make a difference, the money you send here goes directly to the people. These people are really poor, and your donation can have a huge impact. In Nigeria, several people can take just $1,000 and set up a company and survive. It’s a life, a career for them! You can’t do that in very many places in the world. The people we help often have the entrepreneurial skills and the wherewithal, but they don’t have the finances to do it. So if I raise $10,000, I can help 10 families to be secure for the rest of their lives. The potential is huge.
MT: Any closing comments?
Father VdP: I believe the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter here in Nigeria is performing the work that Christ meant the Church to do from the very beginning. We are making these people truly Catholic. That’s hugely powerful. I see the fruits of that every day. The fruit is sanctity. You see people transforming their lives and becoming truly Catholic. And I think that’s why the Church exists. When people become Catholic and become holy, it’s totally and utterly opposed to the culture in which they live. So it takes a valiant effort on their part to do it. But when you see them do it, it’s incredibly beautiful. One realizes that it’s grace. God is at work.