The Making of an African Saint


On a misty morning, one week before Pope John Paul II touched down in Onitsha on the banks of River Niger, for a historic mission to Nigeria, a group of 12 men, made up of two Nigerian priests, three Vatican clergy, five gravediggers, a cameraman, and Africa Today’s Regional editor for West Africa, Anietie Usen, filed into a tranquil cemetery, where 37 catholic priests are buried inside the sprawling premises of the Holy Trinity Cathedral.The newest grave was barely 24 hours old. It belonged to the Rev. Fr. Vincent Nwosu, a parish priest and member of the Protocol Committee for the Papal visit. He died suddenly after serving Mass the previous Sunday. But his grave was not the destination of the 12 men. Instead, they made for that of Fr. Cyprian Michael Iwene Tansi, the Nigerian monk who died in Leicester, England, in 1964.

The gravediggers went to work immediately to exhume Tansi’s remains. The soil was hard and unyielding. “The remains are needed for the beatification Mass by the Pope next week,” explained Monsignor Hypolite Adigwe, Director of Catechetics, Onitsha Diocese Pontifical Mission Society. It took four-and-a-half hours to crack through six feet of soil, concrete slabs, and red bricks to reach Father Tansi’s grey, iron coffin. As it was lifted, the crowd of devotees outside the fence jumped for joy, rapidly chanting prayers, some in Latin.
From the cemetery, the unusual coffin was carried into the residence of Archbishop Albert Obiefuna of Onitsha, trailed by a curious crowd of church members. The Vatican priest, led by Father Paulino Quattrochi, the Postulator General for the Causes of Saints, took over. Assisted by two other Vatican specialist doctors, the iron coffin was slowly and carefully opened. Inside, there was another brown wooden coffin held together by four giant screw nails and red ribbon tapes. On top of it was a metal plate bearing Tansi’s name. The archbishop cut the tapes. The Vatican clerics opened the inner coffin.

Lo and behold, inside a glass case, Father Tansi’s skull and the major bones were intact. There were also a silver crucifix, missal and rosary with which he had been buried. More prayers were chanted as the selected audience of clerics crowded around to touch the coffin.

With Father Tansi literarily back from the grave, the tempo of activities to welcome the Pope increased. Even non-Catholics and non-Christians, as well as top government officials, were to some degree affected by the awe and mystique surrounding an otherwise obscure man whose life the Pope was coming to celebrate and proclaim as saintly.

In life, Tansi had stood resolutely for righteousness, sincerity, and the relief of the oppressed. Thirty-four years after his death, the Pope would deliberately emphasize those qualities because of their particular relevance to contemporary Nigeria.
Tansi, as the Pope would announce, is the first Nigerian in the
Catholic Church’s history to be officially proclaimed “blessed”; the first African in modern times to be beatified. Saint Augustine of hippo (present-day Algeria) was elevated to sainthood in about 354 AD for his philosophical treatise. Saint Monica, the mother of Saint Augustine, was proclaimed a saint for her prayer life and role as a model Christian mother, also in 354.

Between 1885 and 1887, Charles Lwanga, a Ugandan catechist, and 15 other Ugandans such as David Mulumba were either beheaded or burned at the stake because of their faith and sermons against the corrupt and perverse rule of King Mwanga of the Kabaka dynasty. These men were later proclaimed saints by the Vatican.

As Father Michael Golden, an Irish priest and Church historian, explained, Tansi was “the first in Africa to be raised to the rank of the blessed, not because he was martyred, but because he lived a life of unique holiness.”

Ironically, Tansi was born a pagan, in 1903 at Aguleri, an Igbo community on the banks of the Anambra River just a few kilometers from the River Niger. He rebelled against paganism yet became a hero for pagans and non-pagans alike. In life, he was hardly known beyond the rural confines of his community. In death, he is an acclaimed model of holiness. Throughout the Catholic world, prayers can now be made in his name. On March 22, 1998, the day he was formally proclaimed “blessed” by the Pope, the Pontiff also decreed that January 20, Tansi’s birthday, be marked henceforth as Father Tansi’s Day in the Catholic church worldwide. This is part of what could be called the Father Tansi paradox.

I spent one week in Aguleri, Tansi’s village and diocese just before the Pope arrived in Nigeria and pieced together the life and times of this self-effacing man, directly from men and women who knew and interacted with him at close quarters. “He was remarkably short and some people used to call him Father Little,” said Chief Gabriel Chiatula, the 70-year-old Onolueze, (deputy king) of Aguleri. “Now, he is standing so tall you could call him “Father Large.”

Paul Manafa, a retired civil servant recalled how Tansi had a stammer and how, in 1937 – 38, he taught him the Catechism. “He also taught me, when he was the headmaster of this school. He hated laziness and lateness in arriving at school or Mass. He would hide behind one of the mango trees to catch latecomers. Some people thought then that he was too rigid, too uncompromising, with his church and Bible doctrines.”

Patrick Chinwuboba, a retired agronomist, remembered Tansi for his life of fasting and prayer. “He was always starving and praying. One day some church women cooked him a very delicious chicken meal. He just looked at it, then addressing himself said: ‘This flesh can cry till tomorrow, I am not giving you any food for one week’ and he gave the food away to others.”
Chinwuboba remembers that even then, in the ‘30s and ‘40s, villagers had nicknamed him “the holy man” and “if a young man behaved very well we would nickname him ‘Holy Tansi.’”

Hillary Anisiobi, now a 60-year-old Catholic priest, was 12 when he met Father Tansi who baptized him in 1940. It was from his baptism certificate signed by Tansi that he got to know his age. It was also his admiration for Tansi’s “pious and simple lifestyle” that later inspired him to join the priesthood. Today, by virtue of his posting to St. Joseph parish in Aguleri, Father Anisiobi sleeps in the same bedroom where Father Tansi used to sleep. “I want to be holy like Father Tansi and I want to do much for this community as he did,” he said.

Cardinal Francis Arinze, head of the Vatican’s inter-religious department was among hundreds of young men inspired to join the priesthood by Father Tansi. He explained: “He was near God, not just a priest. After I saw him, I said ‘I want to be like this man’. Nobody preached to us that we should become priests. Just seeing him was enough.”

These days Aguleri and the Catholic world in Nigeria seem to think and talk about nothing else except Father Tansi. Some remember him for the schools he built and his zeal to ensure that more children received a Western education. Yet he himself was not a particularly bright student at the schools and seminaries he attended. When he was in his late forties in Nigeria, his bishop wrote of his “mediocre intelligence.” Later, at the monastery in England, St. Bernard Mount Abbey, his theology was so bad that a fellow monk compared it to that of a “poor catechist.”

Yet, Father Tansi has become a subject of more than a dozen books published in many European languages by eminent scholars. Said Elizabeth Isichei, professor of history and author of Entirely for God. The life of Michael Tansi. “What made him remarkable was the iron strength and tenacity of his will which was from boyhood directed entirely towards God. He never compromised with things which paralyzed most men’s potential for holiness.”
Father Tansi at his ordination took a vow of poverty and self-denial. In his life, both in the Onitsha diocese and at the monastery in England, nothing would distract him from what he considered the path of holiness, neither food nor tradition nor earthly belongings. This was when Catholic priests, at least in Nigeria, were the No. 1 citizens in rural communities, riding in cars, living in the best houses, eating roasted chicken, drinking beer and whisky, and observing celibacy only in the breach. Gregory Wareing, monk and colleague of Tansi at Leicester, wrote in his biography of him that he “nearly died of fasting.” His only surviving brother, Pa Nneke Tansi remembers how “somehow he found joy and strength in a lifestyle that appeared like punishment to us. Everything that appealed to every other young man did not attract or appeal to him.”
While a priest in Nigeria, instead of the Ford van provided by one of his parishes, Tansi preferred to trek through swamps and bushes to the 50 out-stations assigned him. I was told a story of how a new priest was sent to replace Tansi at Dunukofia, near Onitsha. On his first Sunday at the parish, the new priest mounted the pulpit, spread his hands wide, and said to his congregation: “I am not Father Tansi I must have a cook.” It was “Father Tansi’s mortification and self-denial” that was “beyond the normal,” according to Aloysius Adimonye.

He had only one good soutane (cassock); the other three were a network of self-sewn patches. He slept on a plank with just a mat over it. During Lent, he slept on the bare floor and walked on bare feet.

He had already worked in three parishes when in 1949 he was posted to his home parish of Aguleri. Every priest, especially the Europeans, dreaded Aguleri which was “paganism in all its ugliness and horror.” Bishop Joseph Shanahan, one of the best-known Catholic priests in Eastern Nigeria, once said: “It would take six generations to form a genuine Igbo Christian.” New-born twins were instantly thrown into “evil forests” as food for soldier ants and wild animals. Frail old women were regarded as witches and killed if a younger person in their family died, no matter what the cause of death. Father Tansi’s mother was killed for just such a reason while he was away at school in Onitsha.
He was so uncompromising and hostile to traditional animist religion that the community petitioned for his transfer. Masquerades he regarded as symbols of Satan; he told women that they (masquerades) were not spirits but their husbands, sons, and brothers in disguise and even announced the names of men in the village who were mask carriers. One day one of his women leaders seized a masquerader by the mask, an offense punishable by death but Father Tansi ensured nothing happened to her. Instead, the case went to the White man’s court where the four men behind the masks were forced to pay the woman four pounds each.

In addition, Tansi stood up against the practice of consulting diviners and made his friends swear never to take traditional titles because he considered them to be an initiation into the satanic priesthood. But now, said one Aguleri Catholic, “masqueraders roam about freely and all the men of means in our churches have taken traditional titles.”

Physically, the Aguleri of Father Tansi’s days does not appear to have changed much. It is a beautiful village amid red earth, sparkling clean brooks, valleys, and hills. But it is very much the home of paganism: groves, shrines, and idol worshippers. Most families own their own personal gods, personal shrines, and personal diviners. Outside Father Tansi’s family house, which his only surviving brother and nephews now occupy, there were no fewer than five shrines including one filled with the heads of various animals recently sacrificed. Another shrine was built over an anthill.

A book called Christ, the Ideal of the Monks lent to him by a missionary kindled Tansi’s strong desire and prayers for monastic life. He came to the conclusion that “the steady services of prayer and self-denial will contribute much more to the increase of the church and to the salvation of human race than those who work in the external direct services of the Lord’s Vineyard.”

Father Tansi entered the monastery at Mount St. Bernard Abbey, Leicester, in July 1950 and for the next 13 years he was an enclosed, contemplative monk, living, as he put it “entirely for God.”

One month after the Silver Jubilee of his ordination on December 19, 1963 (actually on January 20, 1964) Tansi died of an ulcer-related illness.

As Father Emmanuel Nwosu, the Postulator for the Cause of St. Tansi, put it: “The fame of his sanctity among the priests, the religious and the laity led to the application to the Vatican in 1979 by Cardinal Arinze, who was Archbishop of Onitsha, for his beatification. Cardinal Arinze’s application was supported by the Bishop of Nottingham, where Father Tansi spent his last years, and by all the Catholic Bishops of Nigeria.”

The investigation of the life of Tansi by the Vatican and the process of canonization began in earnest in 1986. A tribunal of inquiry called the Diocesan Information Process was set up, at the end of which the Vatican set up another tribunal known as the Vatican Sacred Congregation for the Cause of Saints Tribunal, to examine the documents on the proposed saint and vote for or against his beatification. The vote of the Vatican Tribunal was positive and the Pope was advised to beatify Tansi.

But before this, a miracle credited to the candidate for canonization was required. In the case of Father Tansi, an apparently incurable fibroid patient, Philomena Emeka, claimed she was miraculously healed after she touched Father Tansi’s coffin in 1986. No less than 15 other phenomena credited as miracles have been reported since, including two that took place during the Papal visit.

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