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Abeokuta church older than Nigeria, up for ‘demolition’

The 172-year-old St John’s Church Igbein, for partial demolition
The 172-year-old St John’s Church Igbein, for partial demolition

St. John’s Church Igbein is 67 years older than Nigeria. Following social media debates over its proposed demolition, Daily Trust on Saturday investigates the matter.

Abeokuta, the Ogun State capital, parades a number of historical and architectural masterpieces built in the 1880s and 1900s, and such structures have stood the test of time.

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St John’s Church Igbein

A drive through Igbein Road in the heart of Abeokuta, one would catch a glimpse of the architectural masterpiece of St. John’s Church Igbein, built from stone and marble.

It was built in 1847.  The 172-year-old structure located about half-a-kilometre from Government House, was recently caught in a web of controversy over its remodelling plan.

Looking at the building from afar, it could be mistaken for a modern-day structure, because of its contemporary design and other features.

The linguist, Samuel Ajayi Crowther who is also Africa’s first bishop, was the first vicar of the church.  Crowther who translated the Bible into Yoruba language, was reportedly, also reunited with his mother in this church after 25 years of separation, thanks to the slave trade.

The church which once sat on a huge expanse of land, is now being cramped with other structures due to urbanity and development. The whole church building as well adjoining structures including the vicarage, could hardly boast of four plots having been caught up by development in the metropolis.

Reverend Israel Oludotun Ransome-Kuti, father of the late Afro Music maestro and legend, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, attended the church. He is among other notable Egba Christian leaders buried in the church premises.

Save St John’s Church

Recently, human rights activist, Prof Chidi Odinkalu came up with the #SaveStJohnsIgbein campaign on Twitter, kicking against the planned new church building at the expense of the old architectural masterpiece.

In a series of tweets Odinkalu who was chairman of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) castigated the plan alleged to “demolish” and “uproot” the church, describing it as “unimaginable and vandalism against the patrimony.”

Odinkalu argued that “In any sensible country, St John’s Igbein will be protected as or listed building be an acknowledgement of historical character of the building and will make it difficult to simply destroy the building at whim.

He added that, “No country survives without a history. Those who seek to deny #Nigeria, access to history, deserve to be fought and stopped. That’s why it is important to rally those still interested in our past to an effort #SaveStJohnsIgbein. It is just the right thing to do.”

His social media campaign generated many reactions from those who believed the church must not be “demolished.” A former commissioner of Health in the state, Olaokun Soyinka, commended Odinkalu for raising the awareness, but promised to investigate the matter.

He wrote on Twitter, saying, “Thanks for raising the awareness of this. I’m sad that anyone would even consider demolishing a church built in 1847. Do you have any more details? I’ll investigate, amplify the message and be on standby to get out on the streets if necessary. It must not happen. #SaveStJohnsIgbein.”

But the Vicar of the church, Venerable Bamidele Odutayo fired back at those behind the campaign, describing their positions as “being judgmental on fallacies.”

Odutayo wrote: “It’s very important to get facts on an issue than being judgmental on fallacies. May God forgive you all. Current facts will soon be revealed.”

When Daily Trust Saturday visited the church on Thursday, Venerable Odutayo was out or town. However, the Peoples’ Warden, Surveyor Adetunji Adegunle gave our reporter a tour of the building explained the situation, he called “expansion of the church building.”

He frowned at what he called propaganda against the peoples’ wish, saying there is no plan to demolish the church.

“These things have been on for almost six years now. And two years ago, the foundation stone of the new church was laid during the 40th anniversary of our diocese, it was one of the projects embarked upon by the Diocese,” Adegunle said.

Pointing at a peeling plaque which reads: “To the Glory of God, the foundation laying of St John’s New Church Building was laid by His Grace Most Reverend (Prof) Adebayo Dada Akinde, Ph.D supported by Bishop E O Adekunle on Saturday 6, August, 2016 to mark Ruby Anniversary of Egba Anglican Diocese.”

Describing the expansion plan, Adegunle told Daily Trust Saturday that, “What we wanted to do is to have a new church. This is because we have realized that anytime we have a special programme, the church barely takes half of the population. So, the need to get more space for the church’s activities has arisen.

“So, we decided to have a new church, leaving the old church as it. We tried to get land especially the houses beside the church. It took us almost two years to look for the owner and at the end of the day, the owner said they cannot sell their land.

“We now decided that we should use the space between the old church and the Vicar’s House (for the new church). But we discovered that the space is small and it cannot occupy what we want to do.”

‘We are not totally demolishing the church’

Six years ago, the church’s leadership conceived a ‘remodelling idea’ due to lack of space for the congregants if they were to hold special events. Also, during Sunday services, members often seat in the premises of the health centre outside the auditorium. Aided by an amplifier, positioned outside, they listened to the ongoing service.

However, the ‘remodelling plan’ was taken further in August 2016 with foundation laying of the new church building during the 40th anniversary of the Egba Anglican Diocese, which the church belongs to.

In what appears to be a dramatic turn of events the development is generating controversy three years after.

Adegunle said, “We engaged an architect who designed for us [the new church building]. What we intend to do now is to build a new church that will enter into the old one. The altar area will be removed and another building from behind into the old church in such a way that the altar will be at the centre. So, there will be congregation from the side of the old church and there will be congregation from the other end of the new church building.”

He also said, “We are not totally demolishing the church, what we want to do is to expand the church. But definitely, it is going to affect the west end of the church. That’s what we want to do. We have got the structural and the architectural design. Everything is now set. We are going to have the church as it is and another four-storey building.”

According to him, the leadership of the church had factored in the need to preserve the old church building including the tombs, describing them as heritage.

“The foundation of the church was laid in 1831. If in 1813 such huge church was built and I know the people of Christians then could not even occupy the auditorium, so if we are building another church in the 21st century, we should be thinking of a church that will accommodate people in next 20 to 25 years. This is the essence of what we are trying to do. We know we need to perverse our heritage because the church is our heritage. But in this case, there is nothing we can do than to marry the two together,” he said.

Asked whether the leadership considered relocation of the church, he responded, “It is difficult to relocate this kind of church. It’s a metropolitan church. It’s not easy. Most of the people that come to the church are from this area – Imo, Igbein and Kemta. If we decide to move to another location, are we going to move the people too? It’s not easy. That is why churches are planted around other areas to cater for those living there.”

On the social media campaign, Adegunle said, “These days when people are not in agreement with the decision taken by the majority, they try to throw up propaganda against the peoples’ wish. We know that propaganda started among our members who are not pleased [with the decision]. Majority of our members know that we are not demolishing the church.”

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