Most Rev Dr Hilary Paul Odilinyechukwu Okeke was born on 21st January 1947 to the Catholic family of the later Mr Emmanuel Nwaenechukwu Okeke and Mrs Magadalene Nwameme Okeke, nee Okonkwo both of Nkete Utuh, presently in Nnewi South Local Government Area, Anambra State, Nigeria, West Africa. He enjoyed a very happy and fulfilled childhood surrounded by the love of his caring parents, brother and sisters and host of cousins. He particularly treasured the love of his cousins. He particularly treasured the love of his maternal grandmother, Lolo Ndiomalake Okonkwo, later baptized as Maria. She died a fervent Catholic, while her grandchild was a student at All Hallows Seminary, Onitsha. The young Hilary cultivated a cosmopolitan and ecumenical background from his early childhood. He grew up in the company of the children of local government civil servants who were working in the then Mbanesi District Offices located in Utuh and Ukpor. The then Mbanesi District Court was located close to his family home at Ugwunkenu in Umuehim village. Notable among the families that lived at the District Court premises at the time were those of Umejesi from Osumenyi, the Chief Court Messenger (Onyeisi of revered memory), Unigwe from Osumenyi, the Court Clerk Arinze from Ozubulu, the Dispenser, Azike from Lilu also a Dispenser, Eriobuna, from Ihembosi, the then Sanitary Inspector. The children of late Mr Robert Nkemneme, an Anglican were among the peers of the young Hilary. The very cordial relationship between these families, Catholic and Anglican, significantly broadened the outlook of young Odilinyechukwu.
Following his older sister, Regina, now Mrs Ezeaba, Odili began his life in the school quite early. He did not have the advantage of nursery school. He would sit with his older sister with those over seven years his age and followed the lessons and answered questions in class in the elementary school. His formal school education began in 1952 at St. Peter Claver’s Catholic School, Utuh but was disturbed by ill health so that Odili had to repeat Infant On in 1953. He continues to treasure the memory of the late Mr. Emmanuel O. Obi (Onyenkuzi Obi) the teacher Catechist, who would remain the mentor and inspiration of the young boy. He had as his teacher in Infant Two, the then young Clement Akaeze, and now Honourable C.N. Akaeze. Some of his other teachers in the primary school were Raogaek Okoli, Hyacinth Odika, Mr. Gregory Obidike, Mr. Daniel Onyejuluwa (Headmaster), Mr. Mbonu (Headmaster from Amichi and Mr. Matthias Onwukwalu, the teacher who introduced him to the habit of reading novels in the primary school, from where he developed a good reading habit.
God’s ways are not our ways. In 1959, young Hilary passed the entrance examination to Father Joseph’s Secondary School, Aguleri and Abbot Boys’ Scondary School, Ihiala while still in Standard Five. His father would not allow him to graduate from primary school without securing his First School Leaving Certificate after Standard Six. Little did anyone know that God was preparing a special vocation for Hilary. The following year, 1960 he passed the entrance examination and interviewed for the famous Christ the King College, Onitsha. On contact, however, with the then Fr. Godfrey Mary Paul Okoye, C.S.Sp, (of blessed memory), later Bishop Okoye of Port Harcourt Diocese, and finally Enugu Diocese, Odili decided to go to All Hallows Seminary, Onitsha to study for the priesthood and fulfil his childhood dreams of serving God and humanity. This was his destiny as evidenced by the prophetic name (Odilinyechukwu; if he survives, he will be given to God) given by his parents at his birth. Indeed, his name has shaped his vocation.
He entered All Hallows Seminary, Onitsha in 1961. He was a bright but troublesome student. It was by the grace of God when called him in his mother’s womb that the very active boy with boundless energy and creative mind survived the fierce and periodic “winter charges” (expulsions) that were characteristic of the seminary formation. He had a turbulent stay in All Hallows Seminary, Onistha under the rectorship of Fr. Okoye, with Fr. James Mc/Nulty C.S.S.p, Fr. Michael Eneja (later Bishop of Enugu, now Bishop Emeritus of Enugu) and Fr. Emmanuel Otteh (now Bishop of Issele Uku), among his other teachers.
Hilary did carpentry as his function, indeed following the trade of his father. He later switched over to printing. He was the production manager of “Tomorrow magazine. Hilary was an actor both as a junior and senior seminarian. He played a prominent part in the famous production by All Hallows Seminary, Onitsha for the Shakespearean play “Twelfth Night”. He was a reader of wide-ranging interest from English novels of law books. He successfully sat for the G.C.E London (Ordinary Level in January 1965) and G.CE. (Advanced Level) in 1967. After various periods of apostolic work experience in St. Eugenia’s Amichi (1965), Sacred Heart Seminary, Umukrosi, Port Harcourt (1967) and Holly Ghost Juniorate, Ihiala (1967), Hilary entered the Senior Seminary during the traumatic period of the Biafra Nigeria war. The Bigard Memorial Seminary, (Philosophy Campus) sojourned temporarily at Afaha Obong while the Theology Campus was located at Awomama in 1968. Later, the senior seminarians were to flee Afaha Obong as the federal forces advanced to capture Ikot Ekpene. Later, the seminary reopened at St. Columbanus College, Amaimo, Ikeduru and thence moved to Amakohia, Ikeduru and thence moved to Amakohia, Ikeduru where it remained up until the end of the war. The war conditions were terrible but God provided safety and well-bring for Hilary. His elder brother’s position as a Brigade Commander during the war proved an asset as it helped Hilary to escape conscription into the army and harassment by soldier’s characteristic of those years of war in Biafra.
Odilinyechukwu rejoined his colleagues in Bigard Memorial Seminary, which at the end of the war returned to its home at Enugu. He completed his philosophy studies in 1970 and began Theology soon after. He was a versatile seminarian. He distinguished himself in many of the offices and assignments entrusted to him in Bigard as a student. He was particularly successful as the production Manager and later, Editor of “The Torch”, the official magazine of Bigard Memorial Seminary, Enugu.
As part of the senior seminary formation, Odilinyechukwu did apostolic work in the following Onistha, St. Raphael’s Parish, Awkuzu, Okwudor then in Orlu Diocese, and finally St. Mary’s Parish, Inland Town, Onitsha under the saintly Msgr. Willian Obelagu of happy memory. On 16th September 1973, a month following the death of his father, Hilary was ordained a deacon. Six months after, precisely on 20th April 1974, he was ordained a priest at the Holy Trinity Cathedral, Onitsha by the Archbishop of Onitsha, Most Rev. Francis Arinze, now Cardinal Arinze. On 21st April 1974, he celebrated his first Holy Mass at St. Peter Claver’s Church, Utuh, as the third Catholic Priest of the town coming after Fr. Emmanuel Nwosu and Fr. Michael Esotu.
Rev. Fr. Hilary Okeke was charged with the tough and challenging apostolate of opening Ogbaru Parish. With youthful enthusiasm, pastoral zeal and charity he committed himself for four years to an intensive apostolate that was remarkable for its rich variety of pastoral methods and strategies for primary and ongoing evangelization. Ogbaru Parish was baptized “Chukwubueze Parish” as a means of preaching the kingship of God among a people who have a highly esteemed culture and love for the kingship institution. He opened a new station and carried the gospel to the interior and our-of-the-way places in the Parishes in the parish and beyond. His ministry and stay in Ogbaru were outstandingly successful. He began and complete the rectory at Ossomala. His charisma and pastoral dynamism earned him these special title name of “Nna Ora”, a name that signified his father-role among the people, both young and old, Christians and members of the traditional religion.
After four years pastoral work in Chukwubueze Parish, he was sent to Rome by the then Archbishop of Onitsha, now His Eminence, Francis Cardinal Arinze. He was assigned to study Canon Law at the Pontifical Urban University Rome. During his study in Rome, he had the opportunity to interact with eminent Professors and Jurists such as Prof. Anthonio Abate OP, Vincent Che, Xaverio Ochoa, Jose Fuertres and Pio Vito Pinto. These men influenced his study of Canon Law. He also interacted with canonists in America, Canada, Great Britain and Ireland. Besides the studies in Rome, he took out time to do six-week practical work on Ecclesiastical tribunals in Dublin Regional Tribunal, Dublin. There an eminent canonist, Msgr. Gerard Sheehy, schooled him in practical tribunal work and in matrimonial jurisprudence. He also visited the United States of America, Germany and France. He did his doctoral work on ecumenical law with a thesis on: The juridical Status the Baptized Non-Catholics and their Communities in Canon Law:
An Analytical study of its Evolution in Recent Ecclesiastical Legislation in the ecumenical context:
On completion of his higher education in 1982, he returned to Nigeria and was appointed the Judicial Vicar of Onitsha Archdiocese. He also taught in Boys’ High School, Onitsha until 1985 when he became Supervisor (Special Duties), State Education Commission, Onitsha Zone. As Supervisor (Special Duties) he was responsible for the Moral/Religious instruction of Catholics in the Secondary Schools in the Zone. He did this work until 1989 when he took a leave of absence in order to concentrate more on the ecclesiastical tribunal work. In 1991, he was invited to the Catholic Institute of West Africa, Port Harcourt to mount the course on Canon Law Unit until 1995. He rose to the rank of Senior Lecturer before he was recalled to the Archdiocese of Onitsha to be the Episcopal Vicar for the Clergy. In 1997, he was appointed the Vicar General of Onitsha Archdiocese. Msgr. Okeke also served the Archdiocese in various Councils and committees. He was a member of the College of Consultors, Episcopal Council, Presbyteral Council, Pastoral Council, Finance Committee, and Priests Continuing Education Committee etc. In 2000, the Great Jubilee Year, he was elected the President of the Onitsha Archdiocesan Priests’ Association (ONAPA). In the year, he had the opportunity of doing the pilgrimage to the Holy Land and to the Eternal City.
Msgr. Okeke is very interested in Canon Law. He reorganized the Onitsha Archdiocesan Ecclesiastical Tribunal. He saw to the training of many canonists to work in the tribunal. He is a member of the Canon Law Society of Great Britain and Ireland. He is a founding member of the Canon Law Society of Nigeria. He was the Secretary and later the president of the Society. In these two capacities, he was able to expand the society and to popularize it. He also linked the Society with Canon Law Society of other countries such as Canada, United States, Great Britain and Ireland, Australia and New Zealand and India. He is a member of the Canon Law Committee. Under the auspices of the Body, he has travelled extensively in Nigeria to give lectures on Canon Law. He was one of the appointed experts (periti) to the Nigerian Delegation of Bishops who attended the African Synod in 1994, and the promulgation of Ecclesia in Africa by Pope John Paul II at Yaounde in 1995. He was confirmed one of the experts (periti) to the Catholic Bishops Conference of Nigeria.
Msgr. Okeke has travelled extensively in Nigeria, Africa, Europe and America. His travels have further expanded his horizon and cosmopolitan mind and attitude. On 29 Novemeber 2001, it was announced that His Holiness, Pope John Paul II had created the Diocese of Nnewi and appointed Rt. Msgr. Hilary Odili Okeke as its fist Bishop. At the time of this appointment, he was the Vicar-General of Onitsha Archdiocese. With his Episcopal ordination, in Onitsha Archdiocese. With his Episcopal ordination, he is determined to follow the footsteps of his patrons, St. Hilary of Poitiers and the great St. Paul of Tarsus.
It is to the grace of God that he attributes all the opportunities and experiences he has in life. That is why his motto has been: “By His grace, I am what I am”. Indeed, by the grace of God, Msgr. Hilary Paul whom he admires and endeavours to imitate: “but what I am now, I am through the grace of God, and the grace which was given to me has not been wasted” (1Cor. 15:10).