Mount St. Bernard Abbey: Re-internment of the remains of the Lulworth Monks & Blessed Cyprian Tansi.
Re-Internment of Lulworth Monks at Mt. St. Bernard Abbey at which BLESSED CYPRIAN TANSI was present and appears.
Blessed Cyprian Michael Iwene Tansi (born in Aguleri, Anambra State, Nigeria in September 1903 – died in Leicester, England, 24 January 1964) was an Igbo Nigerian ordained a Roman Catholic priest of the Archdiocese of Onitsha, Nigeria on 19 December 1937. He worked in the parishes of Nnewi, Dunukofia, Akpu/Ajalli and Aguleri.
He was later a Cistercian Monk at Mount Saint Bernard Monastery in England. After being recommended by Cardinal Francis Arinze, who was inspired by Tansi as a boy (he had been one of Tansi’s students and knew him personally), he was beatified by Pope John Paul II on 22 March 1998, who said, “Blessed Cyprian Michael Tansi is a prime example of the fruits of holiness which have grown and matured in the Church in Nigeria since the Gospel was first preached in this land. He received the gift of faith through the efforts of the missionaries, and taking the Christian way of life as his own he made it truly African and Nigerian.”
Heritage and Early Life
Before he was born, the British had come to colonize Nigeria. The British [Royal Niger Company] was traded in Aguleri before Michael was born, and buying palm oil from the local people to sell abroad. An incident happened when a local person named Onwurume wanted to take a little palm oil to put on his roasted yam (yam is the staple food of Igbo people, and palm oil to yams is the cultural equivalent of butter to bread) and he decided to puncture a barrel of palm oil to get some. When the hole he made caused the entire barrel to be emptied out, he ran away but was grabbed by employees of the Company and put into custody. When the local people heard about it they gathered together to negotiate with the company agents, but the company called for military reinforcements and arrested the twelve chiefs who came to negotiate, and then afterwards proceeded to attack the neighbouring villages, burning down the homes of the local people, pillaging their property as well as mistakenly destroying a nearby village of a different group that had no relation to the incident.
Michael’s father was Tansi of Igbezunu, Aguleri. He was one of the people taken hostage by the Royal Niger Company, and later released. Later he named his firstborn son ‘Iwe-egbune’ shortened to Iwene, meaning ‘let malice not kill’; which was the birth-name of Cyprian Michael Iwene Tansi. His father was a pagan, but not a polygamist, and he married twice, the second wife after the first one died. Michael was his first born, and he had another son with his first wife. His second wife gave him four boys and one girl.
His parents were poor farmers.
When he was a young child, he became permanently blinded in one of his eyes as a result of a mud-fight with other children.
His father sent Iwene to a Catholic mission school, with the intention of getting his son to receive a better education that would help lead their family out of poverty and would never again be taken advantage of by the westerners. Michael automatically became a Catholic by being enrolled and taught at the school, and he was baptized in 1913 with the Christian name of Michael.
Upon graduating, he became a teacher, and worked as a teacher from 1919-1925.
At that time there was little enthusiasm for Blacks becoming priests in Nigeria. The Bishop was Irish, and most of the clergy were Europeans. Bishop Shanahan saw the native Igbo, even after conversion, as still being steeped in paganism, and that it was going to be difficult to teach them to be proper priests. While Igbo could become priests they were subject to strict discipline and were often expelled from seminary for relatively minor lapses. The priests who taught them were concerned that only the very best men should become priests.
Michael attended seminary from 1925-1937. His family was appalled at his entrance to the seminary, because they wanted him to go into business or something that would take them out of poverty, which was what his father had always planned. His family was poor and they desperately needed his help, but he felt that God, the same God he had learned about in the mission school his parents had sent him to as a child as a means of getting material benefits for the family, wanted him to continue in the seminary rather than do something else.
At that time in Nigeria, almost all priests were foreign missionaries. Few Africans were being ordained to the priesthood. The foreign missionaries were generally unwilling to live in the same poverty or conditions that the native-born Nigerians endured, and as a result if an area wanted a parish priest the local people had to get their money together and be able to supply enough money so that the priest could live well. This included building a church and rectory (which rather than adobe or mud, could be brick or concrete, with two stories and a zinc roof), buying a car, scooter or bicycle for the priest’s use, European style foods including wine, chicken, tea, coffee, sausages, peas, potatoes, imported foods, etc.
As Black priests became more common some often followed the lifestyle of the foreign missionaries. Monks and nuns also lived more comfortably than most Nigerians and some people began looking at taking holy orders as a priest, monk or nun as a way to escape poverty.
When Michael became a parish priest, he refused to live in this fashion. He lived a very austere life in comparison to the other priests around him. He refused to live in a nice home, and he would build his own home using adobe, mud brick or other traditional materials. He would sleep on any bed even if it is uncomfortable. He would eat even poorer food than what the local people ate, surviving on tiny portions of yam. He sometimes had a motorbike provided to him, but he often preferred to use a bicycle or even just to walk. He was not deterred from doing his work by tropical rainstorms.
His lifestyle shocked and amazed the Nigerian Catholics, who were not accustomed to this kind of priest. And he became extremely popular and loved among the four parishes that he served in. He organized the community to help the poor and needy, and he personally would help people to build their own homes or perform other projects. He never insisted that poor people pay the AMC, although for richer people he insisted. He was very good at building homes, and taught people new building techniques with adobe or mud brick that were copied and used by the whole community. He was remembered as always being very kind.
He was unyielding in confronting vice among his flock. For example, towards the issue of pre-marital sex, he would not allow men to see their brides before they got married, and he would organize the community to place the bride to be in a special home wherein she would be looked after until she got married, and if the groom attempted to go there without Fr. Tansi’s permission, he could be penalized. He also had a women’s group organized who would enforce disciplines on their own members to avoid pre-marital sex and deter abortion. He was also a very strict disciplinarian with students who failed to work hard at the parish school to the point of hiding near the school, waiting for the bell to ring, and then when he saw students coming late he would come out of his hiding place and penalise them for coming late to school.
He also stood up against oppression of women within the traditional culture and advised women to fight back against those who would rape them or mistreat them. On one occasion, a female parishioner was attacked by a group of pagan males, and she fought back against them, and Fr Michael, who was nearby, came on his bicycle and joined with her and fought them until they fled. He then encouraged her to bring the assailants to court and she did, and won the case against them, forcing them each to pay her four pounds; this case was a milestone in the establishment of women’s rights in Nigeria.
He also was opposed to some aspects of the traditional pagan culture in Nigeria, especially the masquerades, who were believed to be spirits and used to punish innocent people at times. Nigerian pagans had murdered his own mother after claiming she was a witch who had caused mischief.
He gave the community advice and teachings about the right way to live in a practical fashion. For example, there were many mango trees in his locale, and it was common for people to go to the trees and throw rocks at the fruit, and in the process they would knock down far more than they were going to eat, or they knocked down the unripe fruit along with the ripened fruit; and as a result the tree would be denuded before the season was over. Michael considered this very wasteful, and told his parishioners to pluck each mango individually so that nothing was wasted and that they would not lack mangoes to eat later.
He worked in four large parishes: Nnewi, Dunukofia, Akpu/Ajalli and Aguleri (his own home town).
He was also remembered as being a perfectionist, who wants things to be done in the most perfect of way possible, which sometimes placed a burden on those who were under him that they resented.
While serving in his last parish, in his own hometown of Aguleri from 1949-1950, Michael began to become attracted to the religious life and was asking about becoming a monk. At that time there were no monasteries established in Nigeria, and the bishop was interested in the idea of sending some candidates to a monastery in Europe who would become monks in Europe and later would return to Nigeria to start up the first Nigerian monastery. Michael and others were selected for this project.
1950 was a jubilee year in the church, and Michael was first sent to Rome to make the pilgrimage to the four major basilicas. He was then sent to Mount St. Bernard in England, to join the Trappist monks there. He arrived on June 8, 1950
At the monastery he joined the novitiate and took his vows, later becoming a full monk, taking the name Cyprian after the Roman martyr. No one at the monastery had any idea of how he had constructed such great parishes in Nigeria and all his accomplishments, and he never told them. He did not try in any way to stand out among the other monks, and to them he seemed like just a normal monk, and many of them did not think that he was a saint or special person.
Despite fears of being treated with racial prejudice, he was fully accepted by the other monks, with the exception perhaps of one South African monk who seemed to look for things to find wrong in his work.
His novice master was very hard on the new monks, which caused him much stress. Bl. Cyprian was sensitive to criticism, and his novice master could always find things that were wrong with what he had done. This caused him much suffering and it was during this trying time that he understood he had made some mistakes in Nigeria with the hard discipline and expectations he had placed on those under him.
He was found to be intelligent and educated. When the monks were listening to a reading of Julius Caesar’s invasion of England, when the boats could not continue, Cyprian asked, ‘Why didn’t they turn on the motors?’ He also didn’t memorize the psalms which the monks sang every morning at 2am after getting out of bed, and would make up words as he sang along.
The English winter was also hard on him.
He didn’t go back to Nigeria again, but remained in Mount St Bernard, because of illness. He did not feel Nigeria independence movement was properly done. His health deteriorated, but he accepted death with no complaint. Before he died he went to Leicester Royal Infirmary, and when he was examined the doctor came out of the examination and spoke with monastery priest Fr James saying “Can you help me please, Father? This man must be in terrific pain, but he will only admit that he has ‘a little pain.'”. He died the same day as a result of Arteriosclerosis and ruptured aneurysm. The date of his death was 20 January 1964.
His body was buried at the monastery in England, but it was later moved to Nigeria.
“Count no one saved, until he is found in heaven” (Onye afuro na enuigwe, si aguyi na)
“Do not be imitating the whites in everything, strive hard to gain the Kingdom of God. The whites are already in heaven in this world, but you are suffering every want. Are you going to suffer also in the next world: Life on earth could be compared to the journey of a young student who received a slip for a registered parcel, and he had to go to Lagos to claim this parcel. On the way he passed through many beautiful towns, towns with very attractive things in the shops. He started going from one shop to another, stretching his hands to the beautiful things he saw. He stopped so often in these big towns that he almost forgot what he was travelling for. It was after a long time that he ultimately reached Lagos, and when he went to claim the parcel he was told that the parcel had lain in the post for so long without him arriving to claim it that they had finally decided to send it back to the sender.”
“God will give you double for what you give Him”
“If you want to eat vultures, you may as well eat seven of them, so that when people call you “vulture eater” you really deserve the name. If you want to become a Catholic, live as a faithful Catholic, so that when people see you, they know that you are a Catholic. If you are going to be a Christian at all, you might as well live entirely for God.”
“Whether you like it or not, saving your soul is your own business. If you are weak and fall by the wayside, we shall push you aside and tread on you as we march forward to meet God.”
“She is not ‘Onye Bem’ (a common Nigerian expression for wife, meaning ‘in my place) but your wife, your better half, part of your own body. ‘Onye’ means a stranger which your wife is not. You must recognize the worth and position of your wife and treat her as your partner and your equal. Unless you do that, she is not a wife to you but a servant, and that is not what God wants a wife to be to the husband.”
INSTITUTIONS NAMED AFTER BLESSED CYPRIAN IWENE TANSI
Blessed Iwene Tansi Major Seminary,Onitsha Anambra State Nigeria (Provincial Seminary)
Blessed Iwene Tansi Secondary School,Aguleri
Blessed Iwene Tansi Parish,Umudioka
Blessed Iwene Tansi Parish Ugwu Orji Owerri Imo State
Blessed Iwene Tansi Chaplaincy, Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu University (Igbariam Campus)
Tansi International College Awka
Mount St. Bernard Abbey: Re-internment of the remains of the Lulworth Monks & Blessed Cyprian Tansi.