The Order of St Augustine is traced to the life and writings of St Augustine, the renowned Bishop of Hippo (354-430), who graced the Church in North Africa in a time of strife and division. Son of Patricius and Monica, he was born in the village of Tagaste on the border of present-day Algeria and Tunisia and, sapart from some years in Italy – where he became a disciple of St. Ambrose and surrendered to the grace of the Gospel – he spent all his life in that region. It was there too that he wrote a simple Rule of Life for his followers, men and women, and this has constituted their ID card throughout the course of Christian history.
The Order, as we know it today, took shape through an amalgamation of many autonomous groups who based their lives on that Rule. They were brought together, as an apostolic fraternity, through the Great Unions of 1244 and 1256 and since then they have served the needs of the Church in small communities according to the demands of the time and the directives of the Gospel and their Rule of Life. Missionary work is one such directive and it is not surprising to learn that Augustinian missionaries were involved in the early evangelization of both east and west Africa.
They were sent to Elmina, in present-day Ghana, as early as 1572 and to Mombasa (Kenya) in 1597. In both cases, some of their number – four in Mombasa, five in Elmina – gave the ultimate witness to the Gospel and were, it would seem, martyred for their faith. Augustinians at this time also established the first Catholic community in Nigeria, in Old Warri — which for a time was known as the City of St Augustine.
Augustinian missionaries were again to the fore in the revived missionary impetus of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries which reached out to Africa. They were, in fact, the first of the old religious orders in the Church to come to Nigeria, in the year 1938. The Irish Province of the Order had been entrusted with the evangelisation of Adamawa Province, which then formed part of the Prefecture of Jos. The first three priests came to Jos, however, not in order to establish a branch of the Augustinian Order. They came, in answer to the call of successive popes, to establish the Church in an area where it did not exist, in the present Adamawa, Borno and Taraba states. Their work led to the erection of the Prefectures of Yola (1950) and Maiduguri (1953), and to the dioceses of Yola in 1962 and Maiduguri in 1966.
This area remained the focus of Augustinian endeavours until 1967, when the Irish Province was asked to establish and staff a major seminary in Jos. It was a time of crisis in the country and, in particular, for the young indigenous Church in the north. The establishment of St. Augustine’s Major Seminary is probably the single most important factor in the extraordinary growth of the Church there over the past 30 years.
It was the seed-bed of the local Church, a nursery for future priests and bishops and the spiritual and intellectual matrix of a new Christendom.