A New Life of Father Cyprian Michael Iwene Tansi ocso
(Beatified by Pope John Paul II in Nigeria, Sunday 22nd March 1998) by Father Gregory Wareing o.c.s.o.
1. Early Years
2. The Year 1953
3. In Community – 1956 -1964
4. The Foundation at Bamenda
5. The Death of Father Cyprian
6. Epilogue and Beatification
7. Publications on Fr Cyprian
1 Early Years
At Igboezunu, in what was the Anambra State of Western Nigeria, in September 1903 a son was born to pagan Ibo parents, John and Ezikwevi Tansi. He had three older brothers and would have one younger sister. His father was not at home when the boy was born, but he sent a message to his wife to call him Iwene – “sorrow will not kill you”.
His father died when the children were young, leaving his wife to bring them up. Only one, Iwene, was given a European style education.
A relative of his mother, Robert Orekyie, sponsored him. Robert was a stern, successful school master who implanted instant obedience into his small, eager servant, shouting his fierce commands with flashing eyes and terror-striking appearance. Young Iwene not only obeyed but also hero-worshipped his uncle!
Orekyie saw to it that Iwene went to St. Joseph’s school in Aguleri Christian village. At the tender age of six his mother took him from the pagan, and later Protestant, village of Igboezunu to his aunt and schoolmaster uncle every Monday morning and brought him back home each weekend.
At the age of nine Iwene passed the final Baptismal Examination and came home to tear up his own, personal juju with tiny, trembling hands. On his return he was baptised Michael on January 7th, 1912.
The policy of a strictly Christian village for their converts was only tried here, in some ways unsuccessfully. Iwene grew up partly ignorant of his own surrounding culture. The missionaries soon realised how intimately religion was intermingled with village customs and rites. They had feared pagan influence but had effectively isolated their converts from their own native culture and traditions. The system was later abandoned.
During boisterous play Iwene suffered a serious accident some time before he went to school. A small boy struck him full on the eyeball with a hard lump of clay, blinding him in his left eye for life. He kept this handicap a closely guarded secret, and was much ashamed of it. In 1917 Robert Orekyie went to Nnewi, but left Michael behind to carry on with his studies, to which he applied himself with attention and success, in spite of the extra duties he took on in the family setting. In 1919 he obtained the First School Leaving Certificate at St. Joseph’s, where he taught for a while as well as at Holy Trinity School, Onitsha later. He also passed the Third and Second Class Examinations for Teachers.
In 1922 Michael’s mother died in tragic circumstances. By village standards Ejikwevi was now an old woman. Following on the sudden deaths of several youngsters she was pointed out by the medicine man as the one who was charming her way out of death. Religious custom held her bound to drink poison and die. This she did. Her son, Vincent, delayed a week before informing Iwene Michael. His grief was as deep as his resolve was practical. “At once he set about the conversion to Christianity of his brothers Ivekwu, Vincent and Stephen. These converts lived and died exemplary Christians. Obiamma, his sister, was baptised when she was at the point of death.” (Mgr. Meze’s Memoirs of Fr. Tansi).
In 1924, at the age of 21, Michael became Headmaster of his old school St. Joseph’s, Aguleri Christian Village. In July 1924 Bishop Shanahan opened a Seminary at Igbariam on the banks of the river Niger, with three Senior Seminarians and six Juniors. It was known there that Michael Tansi had approached Fr. McNamara, his parish priest telling him of his desire to become a priest. But it was 1925 before he could enter at Igbariam since a replacement as Headmaster could not be found at once.
Orekyie, Michael’s master and guardian, was strongly opposed to his protégé’s abandoning his chances of worldly advancement and the financial enrichment of his extended family. His fellow villagers could not understand his action. They thought it shameful to deliberately renounce offspring and to become a kind of slave to any ‘god’.
Michael thought he was “entering the monastery” when he went to the Seminary at Igbariam, and gave up any thought of returning home. He was quite disappointed when they were sent home for the Christmas holidays. The regime at the Seminary was very strict, but this suited Michael well. He soon made friendships there which lasted till the end of his life. He had met William Obelagu when teaching at Onitsha. With Joseph Nwanegbo, who joined them in 1926, a trio was formed bonded together by common ideals and common sufferings. They spent three years as Minor Seminarians first at Igbariam, and then, in 1928, at Ogboli, Onitsha Town, to which the Teacher Training College was also transferred. Fr. Richard Daly wrote: “In August to December 1928 a special class for Primary Teachers …. was arranged at St. Mary’s Onitsha and Fr. Daly with Tansi and Obelagu were sent to help those teachers in a final crash course, in the newly erected buildings.”
At Igbariam and Ogboli Michael studied English, Latin, Algebra and Arithmetic. After his Minor Seminary course he studied Philosophy for three years and had to teach for part of the time. The Seminarians rose at 4.45 a.m. and kept silence through Mass and Meditation, Manual Labour and breakfast till the 7.45 a.m. bell summoned them to morning classes. In the evening they were able to visit the neighbouring villages before their last meal and final study period. Lights were put out at 9.00 p.m. The three friends persevered, but, one by one, the others dropped out – perhaps not always through their own fault.
In 1932 the three friends were separated to do their year’s probation. Michael Tansi was sent to help Fr. (later Archbishop) Brosnahan at Eke. He placed Michael at Umulumgbe, twelve miles up the road from his own house. “No child died without baptism while Tansi was there.” In many other ways he proved to be an unusual , and more than earned his thirty shillings a month salary. Pagan and Christian alike came to him to have their disputes settled by him. and quite amazingly, the local chief did not interfere; such was his respect for Michael. When this year was over all three came to live in a couple of rooms in Fr. Brosnahan’s house at Eke and founded the first Major Seminary of the Onitsha Diocese. Michael was soon named Bursar.
After mingling with the local people as he knew their needs well. Now, as a senior Seminarian he tried hard to promote God’s glory and the sanctification of souls. He often spoke about the Sacred Heart of Jesus and introduced the practice of setting aside the First Friday of each month to honour the Sacred Heart, and encouraged the reception of Holy Communion on these days. The devotion of the “First Friday” began to spread in his area.
Michael’s devotion to Our Lady was clear to anyone who knew him. It was natural that he should recommend the Rosary to those who looked to him for guidance. As soon as he met the Legion of Mary he saw its great value and the need Africa had of many such groups. Praesidia multiplied as he encouraged his followers to join the Legion and understand its apostolic spirit.
In the district there were many other devout groups. One association was called St. Anthony’s, another St. Jude’s. The Society of St. Vincent de Paul was there carrying on its unobtrusive, charitable work amongst those in need. The Children of Mary were called Mary League. The Christian Mothers had power as well as piety, a power built into the structures of contemporary society. Tansi knew and worked with all these groups. The people were really proud of him. He was one of themselves but so outstanding in his zeal. They marvelled at all the work he was doing for God amongst them. They loved him for it and allowed him to influence their lives in many ways. Spontaneously, they offered him gifts to show their gratitude. Yams, eggs, chickens, ground nuts, beans, oranges, bananas and cassava, were among the stream of presents showered on this humble, retiring seminarian.
Did all this make Michael Tansi rich and powerful? No it was the source from which his renowned hospitality drew freely till all was given away and many had been helped. This was how a poor seminarian could keep open house for all who came. Yet this man himself nearly died of starvation through his fasting in the Seminary.’ (Archbishop Heerey verbally at Mount Saint Bernard).
When he was seen approaching the market all the traders’ eyes lit up. Michael shared out his purchases as widely as possible. No-one could corner all his business for himself. He was equally generous and alert at home when distributing these supplies. Noticing Clement Ulogu’s large appetite he encouraged him to eat well to keep up his strength for his studies but to prepare to take the ordinary portion of food.
On Sundays he would often conduct a service at an Out-station. Knowing his people well; their good qualities and their faults, his instructions went home. When explaining the catechism his illustrations were clear and understood by all. His sayings were remembered.
The years at Eke passed quickly and fairly smoothly; till one day towards the end of 1936 a moment of crisis arose. Michael was due for the Subdiaconate but was strongly tempted by doubts about his suitability, especially on the academic level. Fr. Kennedy, the Rector, listened patiently and seemed to go along with the possibility of Michael’s leaving to become a good, lay Catholic teacher. But suddenly he assured him that if he made up his mind he would be ordained with the rest. At once the cloud lifted and the three friends were ordained together. How many souls benefited from that crucial interview?
Eventually, on December 19th 1937, the day came for these three home-trained seminarians to be ordained priests by Bishop Heerey. Much was made of this special occasion. All the priests and nuns of the Onitsha-Owerri Diocese were present. Sadly, none of the three had parents alive to receive their priestly blessing. Others however rushed for it as soon as the ordination Mass was concluded. The Aguleri people carried off Fr. Tansi for a festive Mass in his home town, at which he preached a memorable sermon. He waited in Vincent’s home until he received his first appointment as curate to Fr. John Anyogu, then parish priest at Nnewi.
After giving the new priest three weeks to settle in Fr. John announced: “Tomorrow, Father, we go on trek.” Early next day, taking on the bare necessities, the two priests set out for the nearest outstation. News of their coming had preceded them. They found eight hundred men, women, and children lined up waiting to go to confession. Settling down quickly to hear them they worked right through the day and far into the night with brief breaks for light refreshment. Fr. Tansi “never spared himself in the confessional. He had patience with all and never hurried anyone”. When the last of the long line of penitents had gone the two priests finished the day’s prayers from their breviaries and were able to snatch a few hours’ sleep.
During their Masses next morning the same long lines of people came to receive Holy Communion. The two missionaries packed after breakfast and set off for the next station. This was to be the pattern of Fr. Tansi’s work in the Onitsha diocese for the next thirteen years: unremitting toil for souls in a mission which was expanding at a phenomenal rate. It was so dangerous to travel at night that there was a rule in the diocese that no priest was bound to answer a sick call after dark. Fr. John tried to persuade his curate to follow this rule but Fr. Michael’s conscience would not allow him to wait till daylight. All night calls were answered immediately.
In 1940 the Bishop appointed Fr. Tansi as parish priest to a new mission station at Dunukofia. Part of Nnewi and part of Adazi were incorporated into this parish, which included sixteen towns in all. From 1940 till 1945 he threw all his practical intelligence, methodical labour and burning priestly zeal into the work of forming a thriving parish from this outstation. Some measure of the man is to be found in what God accomplished here through him.
Marriage and the family came first. What he had observed at Nnewi fell far short of the Church’s clear guidance on pre-marital relations. In order to bring young girls to marriage as virgins he set up pre-marriage training courses in which they were given spiritual instruction along with practical guidance on how to run a house and family. He built and staffed a boarding house for them, and brought the girls there, often at personal risk of violence from a possessive lover! He also built two separate boarding houses for the top classes in his school, one for girls and one for boys. On most days he managed to find time to go over to the boys’ house and give them a spiritual talk. In 1944 fourteen out of the 25 boys in standard Six took the entrance exam for the seminary. By 1978 twenty-four priests had been ordained from the old Dunukofia parish. Two of these men became Bishops, Mgr. Okoye C.S.Sp. and Archbishop, (later Cardinal), Arinze, who was baptised by Fr. Tansi and received his first Holy Communion at his hands.
Fr. Tansi always worked personally on his building projects, treading the clay for bricks, carrying the dried bricks on his head. His enthusiasm and example drew in willing helpers from all levels of the surrounding people. He also helped the men to thatch their houses; with the women he scrubbed floors.
His firmness and kindness saved a vocation to the priesthood when calamitous sickness swept away Godfrey Okoye’s father and three brothers. At home during the vacation Godfrey entered the church in distress late at night to find his director praying there alone, his white cassock picked out by the glow from the sanctuary lamp. His example more than his words strengthened Godfrey’s will to persevere. Tansi kept faithful ‘night watch’ over his flock. To prayer he added mortifications of many kinds.
When the Blessed Sacrament was exposed night and day for the devotion of the Forty Hours Father Tansi was in and out of the church throughout the night in case some hostile group should commit an act of sacrilege. The next morning would see him at his prie dieu, as usual, from five to six a.m. before celebrating Mass. This seems like total self-giving. But God would ask for more; open the door to a wider apostolate and enable him to bring still greater spiritual help to his beloved Ibo people. It was in Dunukofia that his monastic vocation began to take shape and grow. Sr. Magdalen, a Holy Rosary nun, lent him Dom Marmion’s “Christ the Ideal of the Monk”. This kindled a strong desire to bring the monastic life to West Africa. He would leave it to God to work out the ways in which this call would be answered.
In 1944 he asked Bishop Heerey if there were any possibility for him to live the contemplative life? The answer was: “No.” His Superior was not a man to give unwise and premature encouragement. But, he did not forget the request. Tansi carried on with his untiring apostolate. He also carried on reading and praying and living a very ascetic life. On July 1st 1945 he was given a new mission. Akpu was on one side of the river Odo, Ajalli on the other. To settle a deep rivalry the mission was called Ufesiodo, ‘across the river Odo’. Here his first building was again a pre-marriage training hostel. Sr. Mary Aloysius Adimonye was then only a girl of fourteen. Fr. Tansi used her gifts in training the girls. She wrote: “It was his zeal for souls which was perhaps the most manifest: he preserved the purity of young girls, brought families back to God by convalidating marriages and baptising the children. He travelled long distances to say Mass, trekking through swamps and bush to visit about fifty outstations. His mortification and self-sacrifice were beyond normal and obvious to all who knew him.”
At the end of the Clergy Retreat in 1947 Bishop Heerey announced that the way was now open for any of his priests who wished to follow a contemplative vocation. Fr. Tansi applied once more. Fr. Clement Ulogu also volunteered. He was told: “Not yet.” The Bishop told each of them to keep silent about their call. Early in March 1949 Fr. Michael was made parish priest of his home town, Aguleri, where Fr. Clement was curate. “God’s gift” was the name Fr. Clement called his new parish priest. No problem seemed to daunt him. The work he accomplished was phenomenal. His curate anxiously explained the financial difficulties of the parish. Fr. Michael chuckled and replied: “At least we have a roof over our heads.” Fr. Clement grew worried when Tansi stood out against the whole parish council on what he considered to be a matter of principle. He won them over. Titled men of wealth thought they were unassailable in their wrong doing. The whole church grew quiet when Fr. Tansi fearlessly condemned their public scandal from the pulpit …. “some went to the Bishop to have him changed for the reason ‘he was too much for God’s Law and wasn’t interested in what they wanted’! “
Early in 1950 the Bishop came to visit Aguleri. He found both men persevering in their resolve, ready to go abroad for training in the monastic life. He wrote to several Cistercian Abbeys. Abbot Malachy and his Community at Mount Saint Bernard in Leicestershire, England enthusiastically accepted the two priests for training. Fr. Clement could not be replaced for a year, but Fr. Michael came to England with his Bishop, arriving in early July after a Holy Year Pilgrimage to Rome, Lourdes and Lisieux. In a hot July Michael found England “quite cold”, and the days frighteningly long. He was used to 12 hours’ daylight and 12 hours’ darkness at night in all seasons.
Once Archbishop Heerey had left the Abbey on July 3rd Fr. Tansi suddenly felt quite alone his last link with home had snapped. So he was introduced quickly into the Community, entering the choir for Vespers. A quarter of an hour’s Mental Prayer preceded a frugal evening meal. Compline followed after a short interval. In the dormitory his cubicle held just a straw mattress laid on wooden slats. His pillow was filled with chaff. Then the monks slept fully clothed and rose at 2.00 a.m. At 2.15 Vigils and Lauds of the Office of Our Lady commenced. Half an hour’s Mental Prayer was followed by Canonical Vigils and Lauds. He then said Mass and later went to the Noviciate where he spent some time in Spiritual Reading.
At 5.30 the Little Office and Canonical Office of Prime were followed by Chapter which gained its name from the Chapter of Saint Benedict’s Rule read there daily. After he had made his bed he took his first meal at 6.00 a m Monastic Breakfast, called Mixt, consisted of 6ozs of bread and a bowl of coffee. After this he was free until 7.45 when the two Offices of Tierce preceded the sung Mass, which was followed by those of Sext. Manual work occupied Michael from 9.00-10.45 a.m. The Offices of None were sung at 11.00 followed by the mid-day meal.
Then, a long interval for prayer and reading was broken by the Noviciate classes just before afternoon work, which lasted from 1.30-3.30 p.m. Prayer and reading preceded Vespers, sung at 4.3O, followed by a quarter of an hour’s Mental Prayer. The last meal, called Collation, was at 5.15 p.m.: 8ozs of food with a hot drink. With the whole Community he went to the Chapter House to hear a spiritual book read from 6.15 to 6.3O, when all went to church for Compline, the last Office of the monk’s day. At 7.00 p.m. Michael would retire to the dormitory for a well earned rest.
The kind of monastery which Michael entered is important, for it would influence him deeply. In 1950 Mount Saint Bernard, an Abbey of the Cistercians of the Strict Observance, was 117 years old. Its Abbot had ruled for 17 years and was 67. Michael found 71 members in the Community, 30 of whom were priests. He found an entirely different form of apostolate there: hidden but world wide; exercised through intercession with God through prayer and self sacrifice. No special ministry was undertaken. Michael would not perform another baptism or burial. He would not anoint another dying person nor go out on another sick call. He had no faculties to hear confessions for the first few years. It was 1955 before he was given limited permission to hear the confessions of those Africans who called to see him. He never mentioned these cumulative restrictions flowing from the nature and function of his new vocation. Complaint was alien to him. Asked if he were alright or if the cold worried him his answer was always the same: “There is no trouble.”
Indeed his first request to his Novice Master was: “Father: if this thing is to be begun, it must be begun well. Do not spare me. Please tell me my faults.” He had come for the full Noviciate training and never looked for privilege. Every effort was made to care for him, but the impact of the life lived at Mount Saint Bernard must have been heavily penitential.
Agreement made with Archbishop Heerey of Nigeria, 2.7.50
MOUNT SAINT BERNARD ABBEY
Visitation B.M.V., 1950.
In accordance with the suggestions outlined by the Abbot General we have received Fr. Michael Tansi as the first aspirant to the monastic vocation in Nigeria. The intention is to instruct him in the monastic life, and for him to go through all the exercises of the Community with the Novices. He cannot, however, become a canonical novice in the full sense but will wear the habit of an Oblate. Neither will he take vows.
The same will apply to the other Nigerians who may follow Fr. Tansi. The intention is that they return to Africa to a house and place selected for them by the Archbishop, there to live the common life modelled on the life lived at Mount St. Bernard.
When, in the course of time, they are considered sufficiently established they are to be amalgamated into our Order, having obtained all the necessary dispensations and sanctions required by the Holy See and the General Chapter of the Order. After that the New Foundation is to look to Mount St. Bernard as its Mother House. The subjects are to be educated here at our expense except that the passages both ways are to be paid by the Congregation of the Holy Ghost.
On their return they are to be under the jurisdiction of the Archbishop of Onitsha. When their monastic Community is so formed, the understanding is that they will be free to apply for affiliation into the Cistercian Order, provided they have all the necessary sanctions and dispensations.
Br. Malachy OCR
Abbot Mt. St. Bernard
Feast of St. Stephen
July 16th 1950
A Nigerian would understand better than a European what the cold must have meant to him. When puddles turned into sheets of ice overnight the sight puzzled him until the Novice Master put a boot heel into one, shivering it into sprinters. “That’s ice, Father.” When he came to the Novice Master showing his numbed finger tips and said: “Something hurts there,” he was told that the frost did that, too. He saw his first snow after Vespers of the First Sunday in Advent. What a thrill to watch a delicate pattern dissolve onto his outstretched hand! Next morning he went out to work and found the whole countryside covered deeply in silent snow. He whistled: “Coo!” He spent three years in the Noviciate with a strict Novice Master. However “he always retained a deep respect and affection” for him.
There were weekly classes to attend on the Rule of St. Benedict, the Constitutions and Customs of the Order, the Vows, Monastic History and Sacred Scripture. Himself a trained teacher he made no complaints about attending classes given by amateurs. The basic principles of his new life he learned so well that his own writings show him in later years defending and explaining with humble persuasion the value of and need for the Contemplative Life to a group of Ibo men and women students from London on a day visit to the Abbey.
The heroic quality of Fr. Tansi’s life on the Onitsha Mission was obvious to any unbiased observer. The remaining thirteen years of his life, lived in a Cistercian Monastery, were very different in their outward form. He succeeded in passing unnoticed by many people who knew him as a monk. An old monastic saying approved of this result: “He lived well who succeeded in covering up his traces.”’ One has to look below the surface to discover that, far from retreating from the battlefield for souls, Tansi was now entering more deeply and personally into the conflict with evil which the Christian and apostolic life demands, and involves.
As an enclosed, contemplative monk, his apostolate was now expanded from the teeming mission in the Archdiocese of Onitsha to embrace the whole world. We shall see that Africa, and especially his beloved Iboland, will not be forgotten. Cyprian had, and still has, a special apostolate to his own people. (In 1993 his heroic life is being ever more widely known. The cause for his Beatification with its organising centre in Onitsha has passed the Archdiocesan stage and the process and documents from the local Tribunal have been taken to Rome and to Pope John Paul II. Cyprian is now officially a ‘Servant of God’).
But his contemplative vocation in curtailing his activity and immediate contact with people greatly enlarged the spiritual power of his life. Pope Pius XI wrote in 1924 . . . “Anyone can see that those who fulfil the steady service of prayer and self dental contribute MUCH MORE to the increase of the Church and to the salvation of the human race than those who work in the external, direct service of the Lord’s Vineyard. If the former did not draw down a flood of grace on the field which is being cultivated the crop which the active workers would harvest as the fruit of their labours would be much less abundant.” Pius XI was called the Pope of the Missions. In 1926 he issued his outstanding encouragement of and appeal to missionaries in his Encyclical Letter “Rerum Ecclesiae”. At the end of this he singled out for praise the flourishing Cistercian Monastery in the Vicariate of Peking. Many of the French and Chinese monks living there were later to suffer a terrible martyrdom, for which their Contemplative Life had prepared them.
Return to top
2. The Stressful Year of 1953
In June 1951 Fr. Clement Ulogu came to join Fr. Cyprian and was met by him at Birmingham airport. Curate and former parish priest exchanged excited greetings; “Nna!! Nna!! (Welcome!)” and continued to talk rapidly in Igbo all the way back to the Abbey. Fr. Cyprian now felt an old hand; but later that year, when Fr. Ulogu saw shattered ice for the first time he thought that it was broken glass. Fr. Cyprian began to shake with mirth and turned to the Novice Master chuckling: “Tell him to put some in his pocket and send it home.” He had the kind sense of humour characteristic of those near to God. His many, natural disappointments never made him disgruntled. “No trouble” was almost his motto.
The tonal lilt of Igbo affected their simple but practical English sermons and made them unintelligible to a Leicestershire congregation when they preached in the Abbey Church. The Community struggled patiently but in vain to follow their reading in the refectory. Cyprian could not memorise the many psalms which the choir said in the dark. He had to be dispensed from repeating them in private. When he took his turn to lead the prayers during the Office his blind eye troubled him. Constantly he had to shift his hand breviary from side to side to catch the light. It was then that he told the Novice Master of his blindness. The secret was kept until he died.
The outdoor work of the Novices was that of a local farm labourer: the indoor work, that of a domestic servant. Cyprian was well contented with his monastic life, and fully accepted by a warm and sympathetic Community. This was how he expressed his reactions to the peace and harmony he found there: “I have been here for six months and I have never seen anyone shake his fist at another monk, nor even pull faces at him!” At times, however, he wondered if the Community only accepted him out of charity, for he had a low esteem of his own worth. It is sad that his previous experience in Nigeria had not prepared him to expect to be treated consistently as a respected equal, as he was in the monastery. He was amazed that a fellow monk would take a cup or bowl from which Cyprian had been drinking, and fill and drink from it himself. He did not expect to be allowed, still less encouraged to join the common work of preparing the vegetables for the Community meal. Neither did he expect to see the priest in charge of a group of Novices gathering vegetables from a far field pick up and shoulder one of the heavy sacks to carry it half a mile back home to the scullery. Cyprian shook his head at the sight and said: “Father: that is not the way of the world.” When Fr. Ronayne, a visiting Holy Ghost father, came to see him at the Abbey he said with grateful pride: “I have seen the Gospels lived here.”
The steady rhythm of the monastic life flowed on for Cyprian and Clement. The pattern which it wove in silence might be called ‘the Cistercian Face of Christ’. There were three main strands: Opus Dei; the work of God par excellence, the seven hours of the daily choir office; Manual Work of all kinds needed to maintain the monastery, care for guests and feed the poor; and Lectio Divina, spiritual reading to enlighten the mind and to motivate the will. The Novices had permission to speak to the Novice Master and his Assistant, and to the Superior. They learned traditional signs for necessary communication with others. The atmosphere of silence was designed to encourage and protect a life of prayer.
So many changes of plans for their future took place during 1953 that the faith and humble patience of Cyprian and Clement must have been sorely tried. Neither ever complained. On Christmas Eve, 1952, Archbishop Heerey wrote to ask Abbot Malachy whether he had “made any plans about sending someone to Nigeria to explore possibilities”. On January 4th, 1953 Abbot Malachy regretted that: “The great obstacle . . . which impedes all development is lack of finance . . . We cannot do more than train your African subjects.” The Archbishop then met his consultors who felt that some decision should be made to end the indefinite suspense of Fr. Cyprian and Fr. Clement, who were seeing other aspirants enter, complete their training as Novices and proceed to Simple Vows while they remained just Oblates. The consultors proposed that the two should be allowed to transfer to an African, French-speaking Cistercian house, either in the Cameroon or in Senegal; or be allowed to make their Profession at Mount Saint Bernard, joining that Community permanently. Archbishop Heerey wrote that he would welcome them back to Nigeria, and would “allow them to live together in conditions as similar as possible to the life at Mount Saint Bernard”. When Archbishop Heerey met his suffragan Bishops, one of them, Bishop Whelan, offered land and buildings at Uturu, then occupied by a Congregation of Brothers, some of whom desired ‘the stricter life’ of a Contemplative Order.
On February 4th, 1953 Abbot Malachy, after much prayer, decided that “we should at least try and accept the generous offer of the Bishops, and in God’s name begin in a small way according to our means and resources”. Uturu would now become a Cistercian foundation, an Annexe from Mount Saint Bernard Abbey. On the strength of the Consultors’ proposal Abbot Malachy gave the Novice’s Habit to Frs. Cyprian and Clement on February 8th. Archbishop Heerey obtained a conditional dispensation from his Missionary Oath for Fr. Ulogu to enter the Cistercian Noviciate. Neither the Archbishop nor Fr. Cyprian himself was aware that he had taken the Oath to serve the Onitsha Archdiocese in perpetuity. So: a dispensation was not asked for him. However, Archbishop Heerey later found a copy of Cyprian’s Oath with his signature, and had to write to Rome for a dispensation. The Abbot asked the Novice Master to inform Cyprian that his reception of the Habit was invalid. The news shook him very deeply indeed. “Supposing that my ordination to the priesthood was also invalid?” The Novice Master knelt down and asked for Fr. Tansi’s priestly blessing, to reassure him. The initial shock was great.
The Uturu offer fell through when it was found that the site contained only twelve acres, and no more could be bought from the local farmers. The Archbishop fell back on his favourite site at Igbariam. This was fertile land and freehold, but mosquitoes and sand flies swarmed in the humid climate. Both Cyprian and Clement wished to try the Igbariam site and to protect as best they could the European monks who would be coming. Dom Malachy asked the General for permission to make a foundation in due time. He was advised to proceed slowly and first of all, to go and inspect conditions on the spot. Dom Malachy then agreed to the counsels of caution and on March 9th told the Procurator General that the Archbishop could not find suitable land. He stressed the readiness of Fr. Cyprian and Fr. Clement to make their Profession as Cistercians and to remain at Mount Saint Bernard, “should the African foundation not materialise”.
Next month, in April, Archbishop Heerey visited Mount Saint Bernard and the whole project took a new direction. The Abbot and the Archbishop agreed privately, without consulting anyone except Fr. Clement, that the two Nigerians should return home in the autumn to start a Diocesan Congregation alone, with Fr. Clement as Superior. The latter was not allowed to inform Fr. Cyprian. Both came separately to their Fr. Master, who could do nothing in the circumstances. It was now stated that Mount Saint Bernard had abandoned any intention of making a foundation in the near future because of the lack of sufficient suitable land and the unsatisfactory Colonial situation. In June the Abbot General was informed of this decision taken by Abbot Malachy.
On August 6th the Archbishop reported his disappointments in Rome. The Curial Body in Charge of Missions turned down his plan for founding a Diocesan Congregation, and suggested a ‘Pious Union’. In Canon Law this was the lowest form of devout association. With humble loyalty the Archbishop accepted the decision and booked passages in October for the two priests; but left them free to stay at Mount Saint Bernard, and to make Profession there, if the Community accepted them. He, himself, would be happy to see them return home.
Mount Saint Bernard Abbey, Coalville, Leicester:
the cemetery, where Father Cyprian’s body was buried prior to its transfer to Nigeria, can be seen on the far left of the picture This momentous choice was left to Fr. Cyprian and to Fr. Clement to make alone in prayer before God. Both men felt that they had a divine vocation to the Cistercian Life. Both felt that, once back in Nigeria, this would not be sufficiently protected by the statue of a Pious Union. They would need the backing of the General Chapter of the Cistercian Order. Both wrote their decisions to their Archbishop. Fr. Cyprian added that he would return if the Archbishop requested him. Archbishop Heerey wrote to Dom Malachy: “I do not ask him to come back. They are both yours.” A complete release from their Missionary Oath was obtained for both of them. The Community at Mount Saint Bernard also voted to request a further dispensation from the usual two years of Noviciate and to make their first Vows without further delay. Together they made their Simple Profession on December 8th of this eventful 1953. Clement now became Mark, since there was already a Fr. Clement in the Community.
Return to top
3. In Community – December 1956 – January 1964
After simple vows Frs. Cyprian and Clement (now Mark) left the noviciate and entered the scholasticate for the three years of simple profession. Fr. Anthony Hothersall was in charge of the scholasticate at the time. Fr. Anthony understood Fr. Cyprian well. Fr. Cyprian obtained permission to speak to him and receive advice from him after he left the scholasticate, when Fr. Anthony was no longer in charge of him.
For the next seven years Cyprian lived the quiet, regular monastic routine of Mass and Divine Office, manual work and spiritual reading. Apart from his visits to hospital and to the dentist his only journey outside the enclosure was to Stapehill in Dorset for the consecration of the new high alter in the Cistercian Convent of Holy Cross. Abbot Malachy took Frs. Cyprian and Mark with him for this consecration. The spiritual impact they made, through the parlour grille, on the Community, was deep. They pleaded for a Cistercian foundation of nuns in Nigeria.
By his vow of Stability Cyprian had made a deliberate choice to live and die in the monastery of his profession. He kept this vow literally and completely. He never saw his beloved Africa again. Though his will was fixed in England his heart and mind were never closed to Africa and to his own people. All his sacrifices were made to bring the great blessing of the Cistercian, Contemplative Life back to the Ibo people. He left to God how and when this would be brought about. To Fr. Stephen Ezeanya, (later Archbishop of Onitsha, initiator of his former parish priest’s cause for Beatification. He requested the Abbot and Community of Mount Saint Bernard to allow the transfer of Cyprian’s remains from the cemetery at the Abbey to their present honoured resting place at Onitsha Cathedral), at Mount Saint Bernard he once said: . . . “I went into God’s Office where I saw the record where it was written: Foundation in Nigeria. But what was missing was when the foundation would take place and by whom the foundation would be started.”
Neatness, efficiency and thoroughness stamped all his work. He may have ranked as a beginner in the monastic life, but he had already attained maturity of character as a man, and a Christian. As refectorian he had two priests as assistants, but, at times he would have preferred to get on with the work to be clone himself.
When, years later in 1966, Fr. Mark was at the monastery of Bamenda in the Cameroon, he wrote to their old Novice Master: “I told you of a name which summed up (Cyprian’s) character for me. The name is ‘God’s Gift’ ‘Chinyere’ or ‘Chukwunela’ (God gave- It is God who gave this child to be as God’s gift).” But even this striking name did not adequately express the impression which the Parish Priest, Fr. Tansi, made on his curate at Aguleri in 1949. “He succeeds where others fail. He is a man for difficult situations (like the financial state of the parish on his arrival). He was a man of sound, practical common sense, a realist, and had a strong willpower by which he was enabled to accomplish whatever he had undertaken in the cause of justice and charity . . . that trait in him which is a mixture of boldness and fearlessness and profound humility.”
Fr. Mark then cited Fr. Cyprian’s letter asking Archbishop Heerey to allow him to stay at Mount Saint Bernard. “It was ‘manly’, realistic, sincere, humble and full of reverence. I said ‘manly’ instead of fiery which might have been too strong a word …. he was by nature an ascetic …. that recalls his spirit of poverty, his love of work, preferring to serve rather than to be served. Then his humility, readily giving precedence even to his juniors. (He did it constantly to me at Mount Saint Bernard.) In Aguleri he told his school teachers of his humble origin and poverty. His charity was all embracing. I, most of all, especially at Mount Saint Bernard, benefited a great deal by it. At Aguleri he treated me as an only son.” Many years before, in 1930, as Clement Ulogu, when he entered the Seminary at Igbariam he felt that the atmosphere of fraternal charity which he found there was mostly generated by Tansi, Obelagu and Nwanegbo. “Their words . . . their bearing and their deeds breathed charity.”
“When I came to the monastery I found myself again in the Seminary, so to speak, because the whole atmosphere in Mount Saint Bernard was one of charity and peace. To sum up: As a priest among his Ibos he was a Good Shepherd.”
To return to Fr. Cyprian as a Solemnly Professed Cistercian monk. The time intervening between attendance in Choir and manual work was free for spiritual reading or private prayer. He cherished this ‘free time’ and used it well. He was steadily faithful to his spiritual reading, but more of his time was spent in the cold corner of the Lady Chapel. Here he would settle down to private prayer; his head buried in the long, wide sleeves of his white cowl.
He was never a ‘last minute man’. All his work was ready well before it was due to be presented. If he had a sermon to give to the community in Chapter, or a conference paper to write on Scripture or Moral Theology it was always laboriously written out in rough copy; corrected, generally by Fr. Anthony, and the fair copy rewritten weeks ahead of time. Replies to letters were written out on the backs of old envelopes, submitted for correction in English, and only then was a fair copy re-written and sent off. Along with this neatness, exactness, and some anxiety about his own competence, there went a happy, even puckish, sense of humour which peeped out at unexpected moments. The general impression made by Cyprian in his monastic community was one of quiet, conscientious regularity, self-effacing and thinking often of others. His good qualifies brought their own trials. At Eke, Tansi had been a caring and generous bursar. Now he had to give out meticulously rationed , tiny portions of cheese in this post-war period in England. As a junior he had to ask a senior monk: “Please, could we have a little more cheese ordered for the Community?” His request was readily accepted but the older man could not bring himself to order the extra quantity to which the monks, as vegetarians, were entitled and ‘forgot’. Tansi suffered silently. Cyprian still has work to do for Nigeria and for the whole of Africa. Throughout his thirteen years at Mount Saint Bernard letters came from Nigeria, letters full of news and problems, full of trust in a revered leader.
European missionaries and government officials on leave in Europe came steadily from Nigeria to see Fr. Cyprian Tansi at Mount Saint Bernard Abbey. African students in Ireland or England came, eager to listen to his counsel. From the way in which he held his listeners spellbound it seemed clear that he could have been a powerful political leader of his own people, had he chosen that path in life. Among the priests of his former Archdiocese who visited him three Nigerians may be mentioned: Frs. Okoye, Anyogu and Ezeanza, (all three became bishops). Cyprian gave retreats to Nigerian nuns of the Immaculate Heart Congregation. Eventually Fr. Godfrey Okoye returned for a retreat in July of 1961: this time as Bishop Godfrey. Through prayer and self sacrifice his apostolate as a Cistercian, contemplative monk was world wide. His life enhanced his intercessory power with God.
As an Ibo priest, he could never be free from the pressure which urged him on to lead his fellow Africans to Christ and to a more close union with Him. There are three helpful sources from which to draw his teaching. He wrote a long series of letters to Virginia Adimonye, who became Sr. Aloysius, and the notes which Cyprian made for a retreat which he gave to Bishop Godfrey Okoye when he was Bishop of the newly erected diocese of Port Harcourt – and a retreat to four Nigerian nuns. The letters find a place here; the retreat could be summarised later on in Cyprian’s story, (Fr. Emmanuel Nwozu published the retreat to Bishop Godfrey: The Royal Way of the Cross and the retreat to the Ibo nuns: Irrational Love, Onitsha, Nigeria, July 1989, Postulation for the Cause of Fr. Tansi, Archdiocesan Secretariate).
On December 19th 1946 Fr. Tansi was parish priest at Ufesiodo (Akpu-Ajalli). Virginia was a school girl at Dunukofia. Tansi wrote to her: “It pays to be good. But it requires an effort and often costs pain. Sometimes one has to be singular, at other times one has to be ridiculed . . .” From the same parish, two years later, he warns her: “You’ll never be happy nor have any peace of mind until you learn to put away your likes and dislikes. Do what you are told; take what you are given; go where you are sent. Nothing else will procure you the desired satisfaction . . . the sooner you learn to take up the will of another the sooner your happiness will begin.”
In April of 1951 Tansi had been a Cistercian oblate for one year and wrote from Mount Saint Bernard Abbey. Virginia was now Sr. Aloysius and had entered the Congregation of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Cyprian wrote: “I am not suspicious of the genuineness of your vocation” and then proceeded to test it. “Has anyone advised you to it? Fr. Tansi? Mother Vicar? It will be good to examine your motives at the very beginning of your entrance to the convent . . . to avoid every possible mistake on the master.’ Since she was a young and attractive girl she could easily get married. Cyprian knew of one suitor and presumed that there were others. “What is your reason for not accepting one of these in marriage? Is it to please Fr. Tansi? Where is Fr. Tansi today? …. miles and miles away from you . . . There is absolutely no sense, no gain, in trying to please men …. Have you rejected Joseph, son of Ejim to accept Christ the Son of God? ….”
After testing her vocation Cyprian encourages the young nun: “. . . you can take it from me, daughter, you have done the noblest thing in your life: you can make no wiser choice . . . You have nothing to fear. If only you are gone to the convent to seek God and not any other person, nor any other thing, ease or comfort, you can live in hope; you are sure to triumph over everything.” Since his own brothers at Aguleri repeatedly asked when he would be returning home to Nigeria Cyprian could sympathise with family misunderstandings. “Your parents refused! Leave that to God . . . He’ll change their hearts in His own good time.” He then gave her what might seem rather extreme advice: “Should your father decide to leave the Church unless you give up your ideas, do not give a thought to it …. Allow nothing to worry you in the convent . . . You will save your father’s soul by following God, not by departing from Him.”
Cyprian’s deep sincerity in living his own religious life is clear from a letter written a year later. “You need to be very sincere with God, very sincere with yourself, and above all very sincere with your confessor in the tribunal of penance …. It is better in confession to call a spade a spade, and to avoid euphemistic expressions.” “. . . Do you realise His special favour in choosing you among thousands . . .? Total and faithful love is the only fitting response . . . ask Him after every Communion . . . to grant you the grace of Faithfulness . . . in following His inspirations and in withdrawing your heart from creatures.” He then shows a sound grasp of how to listen to God. “This you do by listening to your Superiors, by obeying them no master what it costs you. This you do by spiritual reading . . . You must have some time for spiritual reading. Be faithful to that exercise. It will be well to read Holy Scripture every day . . .”
As usual he practised what he preached. In 1966 Fr. Mark wrote some memories of Cyprian at Mount Saint Bernard in a letter from Bamenda. “What struck me about his spiritual reading was that the first thing he did after the Night Office of Vigils and Lauds was the reading of Holy Scripture, and that even on Saturdays when he had heavy work to do in the refectory before the High Mass.”
Cyprian knew by experience that the Christian life, and the religious life can only be well lived by courageous souls. His last advice to Sr. Mary Aloysius was: “You must be prepared for difficulties, for temptations of every kind. Men will try you. Your flesh will try you, for you are yet a man and not an angel. The devil will not fold his arms and watch you give yourself to God without doing something. There will be trouble from Superiors . . . you are not to be disheartened. God . . . will help you through all difficulties. “God alone suffices. He who has God, finds he lacks nothing.”
In 1985, at the age of 73, Fr. Tansi’s curate was then Dom Mark Ulogu, second Abbot at Our Lady’s Abbey of Mbengwi in Bamenda, W. Cameroon. Fr. Cyprian Tansi died suddenly at the age of 61 in 1964. How did Tansi’s very robust and energetic constitution gradually break up?
A photo taken in London in June 1950 on his arrival from Lagos by sea shows what three weeks’ sea voyage could do to produce a plump and rested Fr. Tansi. When his relatives at home saw this photo they thought he had never looked in better health.
As a boy, Iwene Michael, though small, had been a tough and wiry athlete. Mgr. Meze writes that he could jump his own height. St. M. Aloysius saw him, when parish priest at Dunukofia, tuck up his cassock and jump the skipping rope with the children at play.
However, Archbishop Heerey stated privately at Mount Saint Bernard that Michael Tansi nearly died from fasting as a seminarian at Igbariam. Midway during his heroic missionary labours Fr. Tansi had to be sent north to Kano for a month’s rest lest his health break down completely.
Once he had settled down to live at Mount Saint Bernard Abbey the cold northern climate, accentuated by the high ground of Charnwood Forest Leicestershire, must have been steadily debilitating to an Ibo reared in heat and sunshine. His contemporary Ibo students in London used to wear heavy clothing even indoors in an English winter. At home in the evenings they sat very close to the fire. At times they had food – like fu-fu – sent to them from Nigeria. In his Cistercian monastery Cyprian’s food was mostly non-protein. He left off using his familiar tooth stick and took to the more usual tooth brush. Mark kept and used his tooth stick. All these factors affected the perfect set of 34 teeth which Fr. Tansi had kept intact till the age of 50.
At some time during his three years in the Noviciate he felt the first, unfamiliar twinges of toothache. The local dentist was surprised and delighted when he opened Cyprian’s mouth and counted a full African set of 34 teeth (Europeans only have 32). Before disturbing them the dentist immediately made a plaster cast of this special set of teeth. Then he used a probe and found one tooth so decayed that he had to extract it. This first visit was followed by many more to the Coalville dentist, and, later on, to the next community dentist in Loughborough. Eventually, Cyprian noted in his out of date diary in 1959: “Plate of false teeth – 6 in set very uncomfortable to eat or talk.”! Let us hope that he went back to the dentist in Loughborough to have them adjusted!
Fr. Robert Hodge, one of his fellow workers in the refectory, had to point out to Cyprian the most likely cause of his constant colds during the winter. In the bread room Cyprian was working in a constant draught since he kept both door and window wide open. This was simply inviting a cold in the head on the hills of Charnwood. Of course, in Nigeria, windows were opened wide as soon as one entered a sweltering, stuffy rest house in an outstation. When Fr. Mark Ulogu came to Mount Saint Bernard he was surprised at the number of windows in the church and cloisters which could not be opened!
It seems that stomach trouble was the most persistent and evident ailment in his monastic life. This became critical in September 1959. The doctor, after examining Cyprian, sent him to bed in a room in the monastic infirmary, and kept him there on a strict diet for three weeks. Suspecting an old stomach ulcer, the doctor next made arrangements for Cyprian to be admitted to Leicester City General Hospital, which he entered on October 5th, 1959. X-Rays confirmed the presence of a long standing ulcer scar. It is probable that he had suffered this ulcer many years before, while still in Nigeria.
He was a very ascetic seminarian. As a priest on the mission he never spared himself and led a remarkably penitential life. After Father Tansi had left Dunukofia for Akpu-Ajalli his successor as parish priest stood up in the Dunukofia pulpit on his first Sunday morning, spread out his hands wide and said to his congregation: “I am not Fr. Tansi. When I go on trek, I must have a cook.” (Tans) had gone on trek without one.) As Fr. Ulogu said later: “he was not fanatical about fasting. It was just that food was not important for himself, though he saw to it that others fared well as his guests.” (Archbishop Brosnahan C.S.Sp., priest in the Onitsha Diocese during Fr. Tansi’s ministry confirmed this trait when discussing Fr. Tansi as a secular priest: “If you called on him he’d make sure you had a cup of coffee – though he might not have one himself”). He must have disregarded any pains and aches he felt and never consulted a doctor about his stomach trouble. While he was in hospital Br. Jonathan’s mother, Mrs. Gell, came to the Abbey to visit her son. On the night of October 12th she suffered a severe stroke while sleeping in the Ladies’ Lodge. She was taken to the same hospital and placed in the ward below Fr. Cyprian’s. By that time he was able to move about and came down regularly to visit her. He gave her conditional absolution just one hour before she died on October 15th. Cyprian returned to Mount Saint Bernard on October 26th, but ‘he was not fully recovered’.
For the next couple of years Cyprian carried on quietly with his monastic life, attending choir regularly and punctually, making his spiritual reading conscientiously, and spending much of his ‘free’ time in silent prayer in the cold Lady Chapel.
In the morning he worked in the refectory; in the afternoon in the bookbindery. However, his meals were now taken, for the rest of his life, in the infirmary refectory. There he was given a fully balanced, protein-full diet, including meat, fish and eggs. At the time, none of these formed part of the Community diet served in the Common Refectory.
Early in January, 1962, Cyprian’s neck glands began to swell. Tuberculosis of the neck was diagnosed, and a leading surgeon sent Cyprian to Leicester Royal Infirmary, and there successfully excised a TB gland. Cyprian’s mere presence changed the whole atmosphere of a Ward, which had been made very unpleasant for the nursing staff by a group of coarse-minded patients. Bawdy talk just died out on the arrival of Fr. Tansi.
A catholic nursing Sister at Leicester Royal Infirmary later told this story about him. When he had recovered sufficiently from his operation he was allowed to say Mass daily in the nurse’s chapel. One morning a non-Catholic sister passing the Chapel saw a young nurse waiting patiently outside. “Are you waiting for that man to finish his prayers? Take him back to the Ward, or you’ll be here all morning!”
On his return home to Mount Saint Bernard a change of work was necessary – a complete reversal of previous policy. During the years after his Noviciate, from 1953 till 1962, Cyprian had been carefully sheltered from the cold in winter by being assigned work indoors. Fresh air was now prescribed. He was sent to help Fr. Anselm in the garden. Years later, Fr. Anselm wrote in high praise of his assistant. Humble and plucky, happy and diligent in spite of the winter’s cold, Cyprian applied mind and body to his new work until a few weeks before his death in January 1964.
“He showed no desire to pick and choose his jobs; though some of them, like digging, were too heavy for him. He left it to the one in charge to find out these things, and did plenty of the drudgery work of weeding and clearing up. He showed preference, rather, for these humble tasks. The cold never kept him from turning up cheerful and ready to help; though he must have suffered more than his companions from the frost and the winds.”
Once Fr. Anselm had penetrated behind the quiet, retiring and seemingly ordinary exterior he realised the presence of a deep interior spiritual life. We may be tempted to feel that here is a burning, successful apostle being wasted as an assistant monastic gardener. Perhaps we might quote from an article (by the Rev. Andrew Louth) on, ‘St. Bernard and Our Lady’, in the Downside Review for July 1983; “the contemplative vocation is the most fruitful in the Church.’
Return to top
4 The Foundation in Bamenda and the last days of Fr. Cyprian
In February 1962 Fr. Luke Harris went to Nigeria to look for sites. Though many sites were on offer by the Hierarchy he did not spend much time in the Eastern Region where the Igbo-speaking people rive, but on the advice of several Europeans he went to the Moslem North, to the Jos Plateau. Finding a suitable site there he asked the Abbot to join him and inspect it. A Certificate of Occupancy was applied for. It had a chequered history.
Through a misunderstanding of the nature of our Contemplative life, a Moslem official turned down the request, feeling that “it would serve no useful purpose”. He thought that we were just another group of missionaries from Europe coming to proselytise for Christianity. In August 1962 the Holy Ghost Father representing us in Nigeria wrote that the Application was running into difficulties. When Father Luke was giving us a slide show of buildings and sites in Nigeria not one of the buildings erected by Fr. Tansi came out. They were all sadly spoilt or blanks. Difficulties about the Certificate remained in February 1963 in spite of efforts to have the veto rescinded.
Then the Bishop of Buea, a Dutch Mill Hill father, wrote to the Abbot, requesting a foundation in his diocese, and later visited Mount Saint Bernard on September 7th to press his request and offer Fr. Luke was sent out again, but this time to the Cameroon to look for a site. He found three possible sites and photographed them. He returned home and after prolonged community discussions, Mount Saint Bernard voted unanimously to commence making a foundation at Mbengwi, Bamenda.
God gave Cyprian two consolations at the end of his life amongst us: December 19th 1963 was the Silver Jubilee of his ordination to the priesthood at Onitsha in 1937. The Community arranged a celebration for him, and cards, poems, tributes in English and elegant Latin and a neat cartoon came from his brethren. Cards and letters poured in from all over the world. A blessing from the Pope pleased him most. His two fellow Jubilarians, now Monsignori William and Joseph, invited him to attend their celebrations in Nigeria’ Cyprian had chuckled at the news of their title of Monsignori – “I will get my red socks in heaven!” More true than he could have realised.
On January 6th 1964 we had our own ‘Magi’ on the altar at Mount Saint Bernard. Fr. Cyprian sang the High Mass. Fr. Mark Ulogu was his deacon; Abba Samuel (an Ethiopian Cistercian of the Casamari Congregation and a student in London) was his Subdeacon. Two Nigerians were his acolytes and the thurifer was also an Ibo. It was a pan-African Mass to everyone’s delight.
Return to top
5 Last week and death of Father Cyprian
In Chapter on May 30th 1963 the Abbot had read out the names of those chosen to go to the Cameroon. When Fr. Cyprian’s name was read out as Novice Master we were surprised by a loud laugh. He won that laugh: though at the time he could not have known the future or that the pioneers would have to leave him behind in our Cemetery.
Cyprian felt that the Abbot was making a mere courtesy gesture towards him. He had to be assured that such an important appointment was a serious choice of the man whom the Abbot considered most suitable for the post – as indeed he was.
Though he had by no means forgotten his dear Iboland he set about preparing for the task ahead. In July a bus load of Nigerian students came for the day to visit Frs. Cyprian and Mark. Fr. Cyprian gave them a notable talk on the active and the contemplative vocations. In it he showed the depth of his grasp of our Cistercian Life. After mentioning the many pleas for a foundation made to the Abbot in the last few years – including one from an Indian Cardinal, he said: ”What Nigeria has lost the chance of gaining this year is not a trifle.” Cyprian gave everything. God is never outdone in generosity, as we shall learn from later history.
On Sunday October 27th 1963 the first four founders left for Bamenda. Hardship commenced even on the journey and for a few weeks after arrival. This is common in the story of all our new foundations.
In January 1964 Fr. Cyprian was thought to be suffering a bout of lumbago and was confined to bed in his dormitory cubicle. A light was arranged when he declined an offer of transfer to a more comfortable infirmary bed. He read little, ate less and spent the week in quiet prayer and thought. He indicated to the wardrobe keeper offering him more blankets that he would not be returning to Nigeria and would die at Mount Saint Bernard. When a swollen leg was discovered and a doctor called, a deep vein thrombosis was diagnosed, but a lump found in the stomach gave the examining doctor much more concern. Cyprian was immediately moved to an infirmary room.
A consultant with a case load of 400 kindly came out from Leicester on Sunday. He confirmed the growth in the stomach but was anxious to find the source of the thrombosis in the thigh and arranged for a bed in the Leicester Royal Infirmary for the next day. During the early hours of the morning Cyprian was discovered in fierce pain. He had been anointed to his surprise on the previous afternoon.
Now he received Viaticum with deep fervour and total acceptance while the ambulance men were waiting in the Guest House. “My God. My God. Thy will be done. Into thy hands, oh my God.”
The ambulance took him to Leicester Royal Infirmary. All he would admit to in ‘casualty’ was that he had a “little pain” though the examining doctor was sure that he was in intense pain. Fr. Germain, who was to lead the second group of pioneers to Bamenda had spoken to him in the ambulance, saying: “Let’s have you back soon; your ticket’s booked.” In a rough strong voice we had never heard here before Cyprian replied from his stretcher: “WE WILL GO!!”
In the ward the nurses were preparing him for an operation on the stomach when an aortic aneurism burst and he died suddenly at 2pm on January 20th 1964. The funeral was held on the next day after the office of None. Fr. Arinze was studying in London and gathered a few other Ibos to come for the requiem and burial.
One Ibo student was returning to Aguleri. I told him: “Nothing has gone wrong. He has fulfilled his Vow to live and die here.” “I understand.” replied the student. “This is what he came for. His work is done.” He took this message home to Fr. Cyprian’s family who had been eagerly awaiting the day when he would return to Nigeria.
Return to top
6. An Epilogue:
Including a short history of the Abbey of Our Lady of Mbengwi, and its annexe in Nigeria at Nnsugbe: The Inauguration of the Cause of Fr. Cyprian, who thus became officially: “Servant of God”: The exhumation of his remains and their re-interment in the Priests’ Cemetery at Onitsha Cathedral 1964-1993
God is never outdone in generosity. Fr. Cyprian had given to God everything asked of him.
He died in exile, content and alone. “Unless the grain of wheat falling into the ground dies, itself remains alone, but, if it should die it bears much fruit.” In extending the story further from January 20th 1964 till the spring of 1993 we may see this gospel truth illustrated afresh.
On May 2nd 1964 the second or main founding group of seven left Mount
Saint Bernard Abbey for our Lady of Mbengwi – as our foundation near Bamenda was to be officially called.
The original four builders working ten hours a day, had completed a wing sufficient for the community to commence living the regular Cistercian life of prayer, work and sacred reading. Mass and the Liturgical Office in choir from now onwards would be celebrated daily. In due time permission was obtained from the Holy See to receive postulants. Abbot Ambrose, the founding Abbot, went out to receive the first six into the Order on August 20th 1964. A few months later they received the Novice’s habit. Simple and Solemn Vows succeeded in due course, in 1967 and 1970.
Fr. Peter Logue, who had taught Theology for some years at Mount Saint Bernard, was asked to go out to prepare the five remaining students for ordination. He spent nine fruitful and laborious years in the Cameroon helping many souls inside and outside the monastery.
Br. Vincent McCusker came from Mount Melleray to help our foundation. After making his vow of stability at Mount Saint Bernard in 1969 he left for Bamenda in March 1970 to take over the running of the farm from Br. Peter Odlum who returned to Mount Saint Bernard and later ran the farm for the nuns at Stapehill. Br. Vincent built up the dairy herd until it reached 500 head of cattle. He returned to Mount Saint Bernard after years of valuable assistance to the farm economy.
Fr. Clement Moss who had been an outstanding printer at our Mount Saint Bernard Press agreed to go to assist Bamenda. He has served that community well and threw in his lot and life with them by transferring his Vow of Stability from Mount Saint Bernard to Our Lady of Mbengwi in June 1976. When Fr. Germain Scannell became too ill for the work Fr. Clement took over the service of the clinic or dispensary for the local Cameroonians.
A Mill Hill Missionary assured him that the work of the clinic had clone a great deal of good over the years not only for the monastery but also for the whole of the Catholic Church in Cameroon.
In October 1986 Fr. Matthew Dunne was loaned to Bamenda for two years to assist in teaching the younger monks. He was later made Novice Master and his period of loan was extended.
Financially, the initial outlay from the Mother House and subsequent assistance over the next twenty years has been considerable, but the Community at Bamenda has tried many avenues of self-support by its own labour and skills. Eucalyptus trees were planted which grow quickly and could soon be cut for firewood. Tomatoes were grown, and pineapples grew well. Incubators hatched thousands of one-day chicks for sale. Great ingenuity was exercised to maintain the supplies, especially the grit for the egg shell formation.
Pigs have been reared but they do not transport well over distances. Breeze blocks were made and provided a good source of income until financial recession hit the country. Fish ponds have lately been dug and fish farming flourishes. Poultry houses over the ponds provide food for the fish! With the social instability which has recently rendered property vulnerable to organised robbery, a new industry has grown up – the welding of security gates and fences. Wood burning stoves are also made and sold Candle making on a commercial scale has been successfully installed. A monastery generally continues to build throughout its life-span.
Since 1964 many other needed buildings have sprung up. The first church has been superseded by a more convenient one better suited to today’s liturgical needs. Br. William designed and built it. Since Our Lady of Mbengwi was originally an annexe of Mount Saint Bernard the first Simple Vows taken there included a Vow of Stability to the Mother House. Mount Saint Bernard Conventual Chapter had to vote for their admission to Simple Profession in 1967.
In July 1976 Bamenda was raised to the rank of a Cistercian Abbey, and the Abbot of Mount Saint Bernard held an election at which Fr. Adrian Farmer, the Bursar, was elected the first Abbot for a period of six years, i.e. till 1982.
Archbishop Arinze, who had succeeded Archbishop Heerey in the see of Onitsha, pressed Dom Adrian to make a Cistercian foundation in Nigeria and bought a tract of good agricultural land for it at Nnsugbe. Dom Adrian did not feel that he had sufficient personnel to undertake such a venture at the time. He had loaned Fr. Mark and Brother Pius to help Our Lady of Awhum in its early days when Awhum possessed only one priest, Fr. Abraham. On February 3rd 1982 Fr. Mark, who had been in hospital, returned home to Bamenda from Awhum, or Our Lady of Mount Calvary Monastery. On February 11th Dom Cyril held an election at Bamenda and sent a telegram to Mount Saint Bernard: “Fr. Mark elected.”
He became Bamenda’s second Abbot, and was also elected for six years. After discussions in Chapter a foundation or simple Annexe was voted for in Nigeria. After a building had been erected at Nnsugbe by a Nigerian Catholic benefactor Dom Mark and his community sent three monks to commence the annexe. Fr. Pius, a Nigerian, was the first Superior.
Archbishop Stephen Ezeanya, the successor at Onitsha to the newly appointed Cardinal Arinze, preached a notable sermon on April 2nd, 1987 at the opening ceremony on the Cistercian Life and its value for the whole country and the wider world.
Several aspirants received at Nnsugbe have been through their Noviciate training at Bamenda. Their first Professions had to be made taking the Vow of Stability to the Community at Bamenda, since, at present Nnsugbe is merely an Annexe of its mother house. Fr. Raphael is in charge at the time of writing. There is a dearth of educators and formators for this house. Fr. Anthony Hothersall was due to spend time giving the students the fruits of his studies and long teaching experience, but he had to return to Mount Saint Bernard for an operation for cancer of the pancreas , which was not successful . He died and is buried at the monastery of his first Profession.
Old parishioners of the Late Father Tansi in Nigeria begin to press for the Church to honour his heroic life of service to God and to his fellow men.
This surprised a missionary nun who wrote that from these same parishes about forty years previously complaints had reached Bishop Heerey that their new Parish Priest was: “too much for the things of God and did not do what THEY wanted him to do!! Would the Bishop, please, remove him?”
In July 10th 1981 the Archbishop of Onitsha informed the Abbot of Mount Saint Bernard of the official opening of his Tribunal for the Cause of Beatification of his former priest and our former monk Fr. Cyprian Michael Iwene Tansi, who thus became “SERVANT OF GOD”. The Tribunal inter viewed 90 witnesses under oath Sunday by Sunday at Onitsha Cathedral, going through his life in minute detail.
They came to Mount Saint Bernard in September I996 to take sworn testimony from about 16 of his monastic brethren. They verified the grave in our Cemetery and witnessed the exhumation of the remains and their attested sealing into a double coffin in the Chapter House of the Abbey on September 18th.
At 10.30 a.m. a Solemn Requiem Mass had been concelebrated in the Abbey Church by the Bishop of Nottingham in whose diocese the cause had first been inaugurated before being transferred to the Archdiocese of Onitsha. Amongst the huge number of concelebrants were three Nigerian Bishops, including Archbishop Stephen who thanked the Abbey for voting to allow him to take the coffin back to Cyprian’s homeland. Amongst the Prelates were the Abbot of Mount Saint Bernard and the Abbot General of our Order who had known Fr. Cyprian when he was Assistant Novice Master and later as Abbot of Mount Saint Bernard. Seventy of the diocesan clergy also concelebrated with Padre Paulino, the Postulator for the Order from the Generalate in Rome, the four members of the Tribunal who escorted the open coffin, and the priests of the Mount Saint Bernard Community. Representatives of all the religious Orders in the diocese were also present with Nigerians from different parts of the country. Sr. Eucharia and Mrs. Veronica Umegakwe and Mrs. Sabina Omesu from the Archdiocese of Onitsha travelled with the Tribunal. They all had connections with Fr. Tansi. Sr. Aloysius was unable to be included in the delegation.
The letters which Fr. Tansi wrote from Mount Saint Bernard to her as a nun from 1950 till shortly before his death in January 1964 form a valuable resource for his teaching, especially on the Religious Life. In April 1993 Dom John Moakler made a Canonical Visitation of Bamenda and also held an Abbatial Election, which was slightly anticipated, since the second six year term of Dom Adrian would normally have expired in August, 1993. Dom John had intended to come to the Cameroon towards the end of the previous year- 1992.
He was warned that the civil and political conditions were not sufficiently safe at that time. Travel was restricted to one day in each week. The monastery has had to maintain an armed night watchman for some time. A strong metal barrier has been erected across the approach to the monastery as a partial deterrent to armed robbers driving a lorry right up to the monastery buildings. At the close of the Visitation an Election was held. This proved inconclusive since no one received the required majority of the votes cast. Dom John then asked Dom Ambrose Southey, the retired Abbot General, who was then Novice Master at Mount Saint Bernard, if he would consent to an Appointment for three years as a Temporary Superior. Very generously he accepted the nomination and left for Bamenda in May 1993.
The first unexpected event after his arrival was the death of our dear Father Mark Ulogu, who, in 1949 had been assistant priest to Fr. Tansi at Aguleri. He joined him at the Noviciate at Mount Saint Bernard in the summer of 1951. He was a pioneer of Bamenda in 1964; appointed Superior of Our Lady of Mount Calvary (Awhum, Nigeria) by Dom John Eudes, its Father Immediate, and was elected the second Abbot of Bamenda in February 1982 for a six year term, towards the end of which he resigned owing to ill health. He suffered a stroke in May, and died after a week in hospital at Bali on June 2nd 1993 at the age of 81.
Return to top
7. Publications on the Life and on the spread of devotion to Father Cyprian Tansi
1. “Entirely for God.” The Life of Michael Iwene Tansi by Elizabeth Isichei, Professor of History, University of Jos. 1980. Published simultaneously by Kalamazoo, Michegan, USA and by Macmillan Education, London.
cf. for a contrasting view on the Irish Holy Ghost Fathers Fr. Cyprian’s high praise of them in his Retreat to Bishop Okoye, and also Veronica Umegakwe’s play to mark the Centenary of their Missionary Sacrifices and Labours: Men of Faith (Catholic Church in Eastern Nigeria 1885-1995).
2. “Father Tansi”: CTS pamphlet: (B 561) 1983 by Father Gregory Wareing OCSO.
3. A series of ten articles published by Fr. Gregory in the Lagos bi-monthly: “Catholic Life” running from February-March 1984, November-December 1985.
They represent the first synopsis made of a 40,000 word initial story-type life of Father Cyprian Tansi requested from his former Novice Master by his Abbot soon after Fr. Cyprian’s death in January 1964. It was compiled slowly and laboriously from the testimonies of many contemporary witnesses from Nigeria and from Europe through the years until about 1982. It has not yet been published, but full access to it has been afforded to later writers in Nigeria who have made use of it fairly extensively. In 1983 the forty thousand words were cut down to ten thousand and again clipped to the six thousand words which the CTS said they would accept for their pamphlet (B561).
4. “Our Memories of the Reverend Father Michael Cyprian Tansi”. There have been two editions: the second was enlarged. No date is given for either edition.
Compiled by the esteemed Vicar General of the Onitsha Archdiocese, Rt. Rev. Mgr. Peter Meze Idigo. He is a one-time pupil of Mr. Michael Tansi when Tansi was a young Headmaster of their old school at Aguleri. “This work is dedicated to our great priest predecessors who sacrificed their rives for our nation.” (Tabansi Press, Onitsha.)
5. The texts of two Retreats given by Father Cyprian when a monk at Mount Saint Bernard have been published by Father Emeka Nwosu, the indefatigable promoter of Father Tansi’s Cause.
The first Retreat was given to his old parishioner at Dunukofia, recently made Bishop of the newly created Diocese of Port Harcourt, the fate Rt. Rev. Bishop Okoye. The second was the revised version of the Retreat given to four Nigerian nuns on holiday near the monastery. They were all students at Coloma College in the south of England. Both Retreats were published by The Postulation For The Cause of Father Tansi, Archdiocesan Secretariate, Onitsha, Nigeria. The first was called The Royal Way of the Cross (Veritas Press Col, Onitsha). The second: Irrational Love (Vicalex Nigeria, Ltd.) (No dates for either publication.)
Fr. Nwosu regularly publishes through Veritas Press a pamphlet or bulletin giving a list of favours received in answer to prayers to the Servant of God. Each edition is called: Father Cyprian Tansi: Life of Evangelical Witness. Notable amongst these pamphlets are two: January 20th 1986 Inauguration of the Archdiocesan Tribunal for the Cause of Cyprian Michael Iwene Tansi, priest and Cistercian monk and the celebration of the 22nd Anniversary of his death at the Cathedral, Onitsha, 20th January 1986. The second is the: Translation of the Remains of the Servant of God, Father Cyprian Michael Iwene Tansi: OCSO. Pontifical Concelebrated Requiem Mass and Re-interment at Holy Trinity Cathedral, Onitsha, Tuesday 23rd September 1986. (Extended use of Igbo is a pleasing feature of the previous Vigil Masses at Enugu, Dunukofia, Aguleri and Onitsha, as well as at the Solemn Mass of Re-interment at Onitsha. All are printed in this pamphlet.)
6. Beautiful translations into French of 1) Father Gregory’s CTS pamphlet as Le Père Tansi. 2) Veronica Umegakwe’s The Halo of Father Tansi (le Rayonmement du Père Tansi), 1989. Both were made by Mlle. Jean Alex – an ex-lay Missionary in Gabon, and Teacher of English in France. When Pope John Paul II was at the Cure d’Ars village recently Jean handed in to him a specially typed and bound copy of: Le Père Tansi through the hands of a Papal Gendarme.
7. 1) The Halo of Father Tansi, 1984. 2) The Remains of the Servant of God, Father Cyprian Michael Iwene Tansi, 1987. 3) 1989. Father Tansi Solidarity Prayer Movement- spread by her zeal throughout Nigeria and the Cameroon and further afield. 4) A centenary play: Men of Faith: Catholic Church in Eastern Nigeria, 1885-1985. (Etukokwu Press, Nigeria, Ltd.) 5) Footprints in the Sand, The tomb is not his Goal. A play in five acts, dedicated to the Abbot and Monks of Mount Saint Bernard, 1992. It may have been published by now in Nigeria. All five writings are by Mrs. Veronica Umegakwe, co-ordinator of the Father Tansi Solidarity Prayer Movement.
Mount Saint Bernard,
the twentieth day of January nineteen hundred and ninety four,
thirtieth anniversary of the death of Father Cyprian.
Internet Version with permission: – Nunraw Jan 1998
End Note: Father Cyprian Tansi was beatified on March 22 1998. The Pope flew to Lagos on the 21st, went to Onitsha by helicopter for the beatification on the 22nd, and returned to Rome from Lagos on the 23rd. Father Cyprian Tansi’s cause was initiated and handled by the diocese of Onitsha and the Nigerian Bishops’ conference. They insisted on the beatification to be done in Nigeria.
Return to top
The Death Notice of Father Cyprian as printed by the
St. Bernard Press
“Die 20a mensis Januarii, anni Domini mcmlxiv, obiit in nosocomio
e nostro monasterio Beatae Mariae Montis Sancti Bernardi
Ordinis Cisterciensium Strictioris Observantiae,
in Dioecesi Nottinghamensi in Anglia
Nonnus CYPRIANUS MICHAEL TANSI, Sacerdos
Primus Nigeriensis ordinem nostrum ingressus
pro cuius anima vestras precamur orationes
et sacrificiorum suffragia ex caritate, et orabimus pro vestris.
Anima eius requiescat in pace.”
Return to top
The remains of Father Cyprian in Mount Saint Bernard Abbey Church
after exhumation, September 1986
Blessed Cyprian African Homepage Blessed Cyprian – Cistercian Procurator General’s Page Nunraw Abbey Homepage
– including links to other 20th century Cistercian Beati and Martyrs. Nunraw Abbey Mailbox