PARADISE HILL, Sask. — In August 2014, Renee Hammer knew very little about Nigeria and had no clue what “MSP” stood for. Her small parish in the Prince Albert diocese had not had a resident priest since 1985, and the rectory had been converted to a gathering place for catechism and fellowship. They had never had a parish secretary, but as secretary of the parish council, Hammer offered her services.
“MSP,” she learned, stands for the Missionary Society of St. Paul, a society of apostolic life founded in response to Pope Paul VI’s call for the African church to “become a missionary church,” as the Holy Father proposed in his pilgrim visit to Uganda in 1969. Seven years later, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Nigeria established the National Missionary Seminary of St. Paul.
“It is timely,” wrote the society’s founder, Cardinal Dominic Ekandem, in 1976. “The church in Nigeria, by reason of her bright future in vocations, has a responsibility toward the whole of Africa to bring the Good News to all places on the continent, and even further afield.”
“Further afield” turned out to be Paradise Hill, a village of some 500 souls in the Diocese of Prince Albert. One of its chief attractions is Our Lady of Sorrows Roman Catholic Church, which was decorated by the German artist Berthold Imhoff earlier in the 20th century. In 2014, Rev. Peter Nnanga, MSP, arrived as the new pastor.
Nnanga brought to the parish a new level of spirituality and participation. With his love of music and his community spirit, he easily blended in, and his desire to spend time with his parishioners was heartening — though they were startled by his decision to live in the old rectory, when he could have shared accommodations with another priest in a modern rectory in a neighbouring parish. With labour and prayer, however, the building was made ready for occupancy, and Nnanga soon made it into a home.
The rectory served as the priest’s residence and the parish office, and was used for meetings, Bible study, office work, and fellowship. Conversations there were marked by “laughter and encouragement,” Hammer recalled. The priest readily shared his love of his homeland and his love of the work of the society.
As parish secretary, Hammer worked alongside Nnanga, and it was natural that she would develop an interest in the Missionary Society of St. Paul. She was encouraged to get involved, and willingly assisted the priest as he and his fellow missionaries worked toward establishing a Canadian mission that would no longer be under the jurisdiction of the United States Mission.
To the disappointment of his parishioners, Nnanga was called to serve as pastor of Sacred Heart Parish in Spiritwood after only a year at Paradise Hill. As he had begun his mission work in the diocese, however, Hammer had embarked on a journey of her own — one that eventually led her to join the Associate Missionaries of St. Paul (AMSP) in the newly formed MSP Canada Mission.
“From all I had seen and experienced with the priests of the Missionary Society of St. Paul — their commitment to their parishioners, leading by example with faith and humility — I wanted to do what I could to assure that their mission continued,” she said.
The inaugural mass of the MSP Canada Mission was celebrated by Prince Albert Bishop Albert Thévenot, M. Afr., at St. Joseph Calasanctius Church in North Battleford on Jan. 25, 2017.