Iwene Tansi was born in Aguleri, southeast Nigeria, Africa, in September, 1903. His parents followed the traditional non-Christian religion, but they sent him to the local school run by the Irish Holy Ghost missionaries. There he became a Christian, baptized Michael. For a while he worked as a teacher. Then, in 1925, feeling called to the priesthood, he entered the seminary at Aguleri. When he was ordained a priest in 1937, he was one of only ten native Nigerian priests.
From 1937 to 1950 Fr. Tansi served in the archdiocese of Onitsha. In 1939 he opened a new parish there. On November 1, 1941, he baptized, at the age of nine, a boy of the new parish named Francis Arinze. He also, in due time, heard Francis’ first confession, gave him his first Holy Communion, and prepared him for confirmation. Francis served Tansi at Mass, and looked up to him as a spiritual father. Fr. Tansi was strong on self-denial. Although he entertained guests abundantly, he ate little himself. He was a zealous preacher and delivered fiery sermons that people did not readily forget. Soon he gained the reputation of being a “holy man”.
Still a promoter of schooling, Fr. Michael opened a boarding school for children. Francis Arinze was one of those who enrolled. Like other students who lived some distance from the school, Francis would come there on Sunday evening, bringing enough food to last him until Friday, when he would return home. Eventually Francis himself decided to become a priest. He would always attribute his vocation to Michael Tansi. Tansi was the first priest he had ever met, and he wanted to be like him.
One of Fr. Michael Iwene’s special undertakings was marriage preparation for girls. In this he was aided by the local religious sisters. For several months the young women would be taught home cleaning, domestic science, and catechism. Michael would not permit the fiancées to live with their prospective husbands before the wedding, as many Nigerian women did.
But Michael Iwene Tansi was by nature more a contemplative than an active priest. In 1950 he and another Nigerian priest were accepted as monks by the English Trappist monastery of Mount Saint Bernard. He hoped, in due time, to return to Nigeria and found a Trappist monastery there.
Meanwhile Francis Arinze was studying for the priesthood in Rome. Fr. Cyprian (Fr. Tansi had taken that name on entering the Trappists) followed Arinze with interest from his monastery near Leicester, and asked a Trappist in Rome to represent him at Francis’ ordination in 1958. When Fr. Arinze was sent to study at the London Institute of Education in 1963, he visited Fr. Cyprian’s monastery. He was sad to find his mentor in declining health. But he knew that the monastery superiors were fully aware of the black priest’s quiet but extraordinary holiness. Iwene died in England on January 20, 1964. Arinze attended his funeral and his burial in the monastery cemetery.
In 1965, Pope Paul VI named Father Francis Arinze auxiliary bishop of Onitsha, and two years later as its archbishop. Calling together several Nigerian priests who had known Tansi, Archbishop Arinze said they must start gathering material on the life of Cyprian Tansi, with a view to his canonization. In 1984 Pope John Paul II called Arinze to Rome to head the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, a post he still holds. He was created a cardinal in 1985. His successor back home had opened the cause of canonization in 1984. The case was well documented, and Michael was declared venerable” in 1995.
Meanwhile, Tansi’s body had been brought back from England to Nigeria for reburial. Now, at Onitsha there was a young woman named Philomena who worked for the local nuns. She had been operated on unsuccessfully and was declared incurable by her physicians. She could neither eat nor stand nor walk. One of the nuns, Sister Mary, decided to take her to the reinterment service. Philomena had to be carried through the great crowd in the Cathedral cemetery, but she was able to reach out and touch the priest’s coffin.
Suddenly Philomena the cripple stood up! “Let’s go to the Mass,” she said to Sister Mary. “There’s no need for anyone to help me. I can walk.” The crowd marveled and the cure stuck. Later on, she married and today has three children. She went to Rome in 1990, attended the Pope’s Mass, and broke bread with Cardinal Francis Arinze. The miracle was officially recognized by the Roman Congregation for the Causes of Saints in January 1996, and Tansi’s beatification took place in Onitsha on March 2, 1998, during the visit of Pope John Paul II to Nigeria.
Onitshan Catholics look forward to the day when many Nigerians and other Africans will be beatified. Beatification and canonization of their own teaches African Catholics an important lesson: “Saints are ordinary men and women who come from your own villages.”
–Father Robert F. McNamara