The Memorial of Blessed Iwene Tansi

Blessed Cyprian Michael Iwene Tansi was a native of Aguleri town of Anambra State, Nigeria. He was born in Aguleri, in September 1903 and he died in Leicester, England on January 24, 1964.

He was of Igbo Ethnic group of Nigerian, an ordained Catholic priest of the Catholic Archdiocese of Onitsha, Nigeria. The date of his ordination was December 19, 1937. While still alive, he worked in the Nnewi, Dunukofia, Akpu/Ajalli and Aguleri parishes. Blessed Cyprian Michael Iwene Tansi later became a Cistercian Monk at Mount Saint Bernard Monastery in England.

After he was recommended by Cardinal Francis Arinze, whose own life was inspired by Tansi, Tansi was beatified by Pope John Paul II on March 22, 1998. Cardinal Francis Arinze was one of Tans’s students.

While beautifying him, the Pope stated: “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.”

Blessed  Cyprian Michael Iwene Tansi  ‘s feast day is January 20. Tansi’s father’s name was Tabansi of Igbezunu village, Aguleri.

Shortly before he gave birth to Tansi, He was one of the people taken hostage by the Royal Niger Company, and was later released. His hostage story went as follows: Before Michael was born, Nigeria was a British coloniy. The British [Royal Niger Company] was trading in Aguleri, buying palm oil from the local people, and selling same abroad. An incident took place at the time.

A local man named Onwurume had wanted to take a little palm oil to rub on his roasted yam (yam is a staple food of Igbo people, and palm oil eaten with yams is the cultural equivalent of butter to bread). In order to get the oil, punctured a barrel of palm oil.

However, the hole he made on the barrel of oil caused the entire barrel to be emptied out. Seeing the damage, he has caused, the man ran away but was later arrested by employees of the Company, and put into custody.

When the local people heard what had transpired, they gathered together to negotiate with the company agents, but the company invited the military and arrested the twelve chiefs who came to do the negotiation, and thereafter, attacked the community, including the neighboring 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 nothing to do with the incident.

Tabansi, Michael’s father was one of the people taken hostage over the incident. Given birth to Michael who is equally his first son, after he was released from the hostage, he named him ‘Iwe-egbune’ shortened to Iwene, meaning ‘let malice not kill’; which was the birth-name of Cyprian Michael Iwene Tansi.

It is important to point out here that though, Michaels’ father was a pagan, he was however not a polygamist, he married twice, but his second wife was married after he lost the first one to death. Michael was his first born. His second wife gave him four boys and one girl.

With the intention of getting his son to receive a better education that would help lead their family out of poverty, and never again taken advantage of by the westerners, Blessed Cyprian Michael Iwene Tansi ‘s father sent him to a Catholic mission school.

That decision made Michael to automatically become a Catholic by being enrolled and taught at the school, and eventually baptized in the year 1913, and the Christian name, Michael given to him. When he graduated, he became a teacher, and worked as such from 1919 to 1925.

At the period under consideration, there were very little acceptance of black people into priesthood in Nigeria. The Bishop was Irish, and most of the clergymen were European.

Bishop Shanahan considers the native Igbo as still being steeped in pagan culture; even after conversion and that it was going to be difficult to train them to become proper catholic priests.

Igbo could become priests then, but were subject to strict discipline and we’re often expelled. The concern of the priests who taught them were that that only the best men should become priests. Michael however, attended seminary from 1925 to 1937.

His family, who were appalled at his entrance to the seminary, had wanted him to go into business or something else that would take them out of poverty, which had always been the plan of his father. His family who were poor, were in desperate need of his help, but he felt that God, wanted him to continue in the seminary rather than do something else.

At the time, almost all priests in Nigeria were foreign missionaries and very few Africans were ordained to the priesthood. The foreign missionaries were often not willing to live in the same poverty or bad conditions of life that the native-born Nigerians lived, consequently, if any community, wanted a parish priest at that time, they would get their money together and must be able to supply enough money so that the priest could live reasonably well.

This erecting a church building and the priest’s house (which instead of adobe or mud, could be brick or concrete having a zinc roof), buying a car for the priest, good food which includes wine, chickens, tea or coffee and other foreign imported foods, etc.

The people expected to supply the money for the priest to get these things were most of the times, subsistence farmers, who themselves lacked basics of life, including healthcare and education and were always malnourished.

The church then members to regularly pay money called Annual Missionary Collection, and parishioners who failed to contribute could potentially be denied the sacraments, a Christian funeral, etc. When African priests became more common they most often followed the same example of the lifestyle of the foreign missionaries and did like them.

Monks and nuns of those days had much more comfortable lifestyles than the norm that the poor peasant majority was used to; which was considered great detraction from the entire purpose of someone becoming a monk or nun, wherein they were ordinarily expected to reject the goods of the world just to follow God. People then began to consider the priesthood, or a life as a monk or nun as a way of escaping poverty and living a better life.

When Cyprian Michael Iwene became a parish priest, he refused to adopt the lifestyle described above. He lived an austere life. He rejected a nice home, and would build his own home using traditional materials like adobe and mud. He would even put rocks on his bed to make it uncomfortable. He would eat poorer food than what the local people ate. He survived on tiny portions of yams that he sometimes purposely had completely burnt or improperly cooked.

Sometimes when motorbike is provided for his transportation, would reject it and preferred to use a bicycle or even trek to his destination not minding the huge distance. He would walk in tropical rainstorms.

Cyprian Michael Iwene’s lifestyle shocked and amazed the Nigerian Catholics, who were not accustomed to his kind of priest. His lifestyle became extremely popular and loved among the four parishes that he served.

He organized the communities he worked in to help the poor and needy, and would personally help people to build their own homes or do other projects. He never made payment for ANC a condition for poor people to benefit from the sacraments. He was always remembered being very kind. Cyprian Michael Iwene confronted vice among his flock.

He would not allow men to see their brides before they got married, just to prevent pre-marital sex. He would get the community to place the would-be-bride in a special home where she would be taken care of; until she got married, and the groom would not be allowed to go there without Fr. Tansi’s permission.

He also had a women’s group organized to enforce disciplines on their own members, such that if one of their members had an abortion they would have her uniform burnt in a ceremony and expel have her expelled. He was also a very strict disciplinarian.

His feast day is on 20th January.