The little-known story of Father Tansi; West Africa’s first Catholic monk who was beatified by Pope John Paul II

November 07, 2019 at 11:00 am | History

Michael Eli Dokosi

Michael Eli Dokosi | Staff Writer

November 07, 2019 at 11:00 am | History

Cyprian Michael Iwene Tansi via Wikipedia

Cyprian Michael Iwene Tansi, an Igbo is the first catholic monk from West Africa and the only Nigerian till date to be beatified. He was beatified on March 22, 1998 by Pope John Paul II at Oba in Nigeria. In 2010, Michael Cyprian Iwene Tansi was named a patron of Nigerian priests.

He came into the world in 1903 through Igboezunu having Tabansi and Ejikwevi as parents. The modest Igbo farmers who practiced the “traditional religion” also called him Iwen.

Irish missionaries would be responsible for his Michael name when he met them in Nduka village. He would be baptized in that town and by 16 received his first school leaving certificate, which qualified him for teaching.

He served as a teacher at the Holy Trinity Primary School in Onitsha for three years becoming a headmaster at St. Joseph School in Aguleri for 12 months.

Sculpture by Leicester Thomas on the wall in Mount St Bernard Abbey

Although his parents and family weren’t enthused about him enrolling at the St. Paul’s Seminary in Igbariam in 1925, he defied them concluding his philosophical and theological studies and getting ordained as a priest in the Onitsha cathedral on December 19, 1937 by the missionary Bishop Charles Heerey.

As a parish priest of Dunukofia (Umudioka region) in 1939, he helped the people get rid of harmful myths.

He also served as a parish priest of Akpu, where he served from 1945 until his transfer to Aguleri in 1949. By 1950, Fr. Tansi had volunteered for monastic life and thanks to Bishop Heerey who contacted the Trappist Abbey of Mount St. Bernard in Leicestershire, England; he was accepted as an oblate. In the summer of 1950 he led his parishioners on a pilgrimage to Rome and after two and a half years as an oblate, he was admitted to the novitiate on the vigil of the Immaculate Conception, taking the name Cyprian.

Father Tansi left a lasting impression on the locals and observers alike when as a parish priest; he lived a very austere life unlike the other priests. He reportedly built his own home using traditional materials, slept on any bed, however, uncomfortable, ate even poorer food than the locals-surviving on tiny portions of yam while preferring walking or using a bicycle to reach communities.

His lifestyle so stunned the Nigerian Catholics that he became extremely popular and loved among the four parishes that he served in: Nnewi, Dunukofia, Akpu/Ajalli, and his home town Aguleri. While helping the poor ranks high, his personal involvement in helping build the homes of the residents using new building techniques adobe or mud brick cemented his legacy.

Fr. Tansi’s rallying of women to fight oppression targeted at them including helping them win cases against erring men in court endeared him to the women folks while setting up a place to prepare young women for marriage was a welcome innovation.

In accordance with the Cistercian rule, he spent seven years leading a life of prayer and work as well as humility and obedience. He took the simple vows and solemnly professed on December 8, 1956.

The body of Blessed Cyprian Michael Iwene Tansi on display during his silver jubilee celebration at Holy Family Catholic Church, Festac Town, Lagos.

Cyprian Michael Iwene Tansi served as a novice master for the African monastery in Cameroon although his understanding was the monastery was to be situated in his home country of Nigeria.

Tansi died on January 20, 1964 in Leicester having complained about pain in the leg. Diagnosis showed him having thrombosis with further examination revealing an aortic aneurysm. His burial at Mount St Bernard on January 22 attracted notables and Nigerian priests in London.

In 1988, Fr. Tansi’s remains was exhumed and reburied in the priests’ cemetery near the Cathedral of Onitsha, where he had been ordained a priest 51 years earlier.

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