Joachim Edozie Okoli went by “Edo.” Close to graduating in law early in 2016, he was a shining light to everyone in his family and in his community, the small, southeastern Nigerian village of Umuonyiuka within the town of Ufuma.
He was born in 1991. Two years later, one of his uncles – Eugene Okoli – was ordained as a Catholic priest. Young Edo soon became keenly interested in the Church, became an altar server at his uncle’s Masses at St. John Bosco and later mentored the parish’s other servers.
The Okoli family and all of Umuonyiuka were therefore devastated when Edo contracted hepatitis and, because the disease was discovered late, died in March 2016 at the age of 25. The night before his death, his grandmother sat by his side and heard him sing, “I have decided to follow Jesus Christ. There is no going back. No going back.”
“We grieve, but we are reassured at least that at the moment of his passing that he realized it’s Jesus who is the way and the truth and the light,” Father Okoli said. “We got some consolation from that.”
Father Okoli, now just months short of the 25th anniversary of his ordination, has been Parochial Vicar at Holy Spirit Catholic Church in Duncanville, Texas since July 2015. When the parish community learned of the tragedy experienced by the Okoli family back in Nigeria, it joined the grieving process.
That included Knights of Columbus Council 8157, of which Father Okoli is a member (and of Fourth Degree Assembly 2799) and has been a public advocate of KC membership. Grand Knight Jim Richardson personally expressed the council’s condolences, and the two discussed ways the council could honor Edo’s passing.
Such circumstances often call for purchasing a plant or making a donation to a specific organization. Council 8157’s efforts in this instance went far beyond that, thanks in part to a gentleman living in England.
Godrick Okoli, an older brother of Father Okoli living in England, suggested that a fitting tribute to Edo would be construction of a water well to serve the people of Umuonyiuka. The village lacked such a basic service as clean, running water. In fact, water that the 1,000 or so villagers used in their homes was drawn from a nearby stream that Father Okoli and his siblings played in as children.
Father Okoli passed along to Richardson plans for such a substantial undertaking, to be totally absorbed financially by the family, and the Grand Knight took the news to the council early in 2017. With that, Council 8157 voted to cover all of the costs of construction plus any potential overrun. As the council went through its standard procedure of two monthly votes to approve such an expenditure, a parishioner came forward to anonymously cover half of the cost.
Construction on the project had to wait until after the area’s rainy season, which runs from June into late September or early October. Work began in November. When Father Okoli traveled home for his annual post-Christmas visit, the project had already been completed.
“Water is running,” he said. “Very clean water. We are so happy.”
Three 1,500-gallon tanks were built on the property of the home of Edo’s father, Innocent Okoli. They provide a stream of water to a common area that’s accessible to the villagers. Because electricity in the local area is unreliable, the water pump is powered by solar panels.
“Everything is paid for,” Father Okoli said. “We don’t owe anything to anybody.”
There’s also signage that identifies the Edo Okoli Water Project. Mrs. Janet Okoli – Edo’s grandmother and Father Okoli’s mother – is among those who are bolstered when they see the sign. The message to her is: He’s still there; he’s giving water to the community.
Father Okoli updated the council on the completed project during 8157’s May general membership meeting at the invitation of Richardson.
“Knowing that a thousand people now have potable water, you’ve done a tremendous deed,” the Grand Knight told the evening’s gathering.
Father Okoli said in closing: “I don’t have the words enough to explain myself or to say thank you. Just know it’s only God who can reward you for all the goodness and endless devotion to people. My family and my community have benefitted immensely. They’re overjoyed.
“You are angels they haven’t seen before.”