By Nchumbonga George Lekelefac
Between 1951 and 1953, Bernard Fonlon studied Sacred Theology at Bigard Memorial Seminary, Enugu, Nigeria in preparation for the Catholic priesthood. For seven years, he had limited himself merely to recording passing events that struck, or shook him, like the tragic death of his intimate friend of long years, Chrysantus Yankees, who was murdered between Mbalmayo and Ebolowa, in the August of 1948. Before that brutal murder, Bernard had left Sasse and had arrived at St. Paul’s Senior Seminary at Okpuala, 1948, to continue his studies in Philosophy and Theology for the Catholic Priesthood for the mother diocese of Buea in Cameroon.
For the first two years at Bigard Memorial Seminary, Enugu, Nigeria, things went on very smoothly. Then, in 1950, a new Rector, Fr. J. O’Neill, C.S.Sp. took over, and things began to change. In January 1951, seminarians including Fonlon moved up to Enugu to become the first alumni of Bigard Memorial Seminary. As days grew into weeks, and weeks into months, and the months into years, Bernard Fonlon felt, more and more, that there was something going increasingly wrong with the new administration at Bigard Memorial Seminary, Enugu. Bernard Fonlon noted that Fr. J. O’Neill, C.S.Sp. was a very good and saintly man, extremely kind, and keen on running the institute along what he believed to be the best possible lines. Everything he did, or said, was done and said in the unshakable belief that it was for the good of the seminarians, and for that of the future native priesthood. For this, from thence, Bernard Fonlon thought of him with thoughts of affection and gratitude.
Unfortunately, however, in addition to this unshakable faith in the rightness of his rule, Bernard Fonlon observed that the Rector had a very short temper; and to make things worse, there was very little contact between the black students and the white faculty, outside of classroom and conference hall, inspite of the meager numbers – in fact, they were less than thirty! And certain things were said and done, on the part of the authorities that alienated the students, and widened the gulf between the administration and the boys. And things were worsened by this that the students had no venue for venting their views. And Bernard Fonlon saw dissatisfaction and disaffection and frustration mounting; for, among the students, there was ceaseless grumbling in hushed keys. Unfortunately, in those days, when imperialism held sway, even an institution so exalted, in itself, and in its aims, could not escape the pernicious influence of the racial Zeitgeist.
Here were a group of young men like Bernard Fonlon being brought up to dedicate themselves to such a high calling as the Sacred Priesthood, a calling which called for cultivated minds, for compassionate hearts, and for wills steeled in the right. But, at the way things were going, as Bernard Fonlon stated, “there loomed, in the offing, the danger of turning out a fawning, cringing, cowering, deceitful, spineless priesthood, or what was worse, more likely, an in disciplined, rebellious, white-hating clergy; instead of worthy, manly, saintly and straight-speaking churchmen.”(Fonlon’s Diary, Bigard memorial Seminary, Enugu).
For the four that formed the batch of Bernard Fonlon, three went through successfully; of the three, some years later, one had nervous trouble, the other suffered a mental break-down. Only one has survived till date. I had the privilege of interviewing him at St Paul’s Parish at Owerri, Nigeria on Friday, October 9, 2020. He recently celebrated his 96th birthday. He was born August 1925 at Akuma in Imo State. He is the oldest monsignor in Nigeria. He is Monsignor AlphonsusAghaizu, a Philanthropist, a light, a role model, a trail blazer, a selfless priest.
By June 1952, Bernard Fonlonwas convinced that something must be done about it that some must speak up to right the situation and avert the danger. But who?And how? Yet, Fonlon saw clearly that to form a group of malcontents, and risk many students being dismissed, as ringleaders, was the worst way to go about it. So Bernard Fonlon decided to do it himself. Fonlon decided, to pull the case, as clearly as possible, in carefully chosen words. And with this view, Bernard Fonlon drew up a 15-page memorandum, intend for the Rector, Fr. J. O’Neill, C.S.Sp.
For over a fortnight, Bernard Fonlonread this 15-page document/memo over and over again, cross examining his conscience, to find out whether what he had written was based on mere imagination, or did it rest on solid, concrete facts; on objective evidence, what was the worst that could befall him for this rash step? The sack, of course! But Bernard Fonlonwas convinced that, if angry counsels prevailed, and he was expelled, note would be taken of his observations, notwithstanding, and salutary changes would be wrought in the institute. And that was what counted above all other considerations.
On Friday, the 20th June, 1952, in the afternoon, Bernard Fonlon, dressed in his immaculate soutane walked up to the Rector’s room, knocked his door and handed in his15-page memo.
Result of the Memo
The result was immediate: an explosion of wrath. The Rector was stunned and shocked, as Bernard Fonlon had never seen him before, in the ten years during which he knew him; and the fact that this calling to question of his rule came from Fonlon, a Cameroonian seminarian for whom he had always shown special kindness through these years, wounded him sore and deep. It hurt Fonlon too, indeed, as sore and as keen, to see how deep he had hurt a man, who had been exceptionally good to him for ten years and more.
The Rector, Fr. J. O’Neill, C.S.Sp. summoned the seminarians at once into the auditorium and spoke at length and bitterly. He said it was signal indiscipline that he should be criticized in this way; Archbishop Charles Heerey, C.S.Sp. must hear this. But only one student in the whole hall knew and understood what he was talking about, and it was Fonlon because he had written the 15-page memo. The rest sat completely dumbfounded, for the Rector, Fr. J. O’Neill, C.S.Sp. mentioned no name. Monsignor Alphonsus Aghaizu, classmate of Bernard Fonlon remembered that day so well.
The soul of Bernard Fonlon was plunged into anguish, although his conviction about the rightness of what he had done remained unshaken. Fonlon was to be dismissed right away, but one thing prevented this: the fact that, instead of fomenting trouble among the seminarians, Fonlon had addressed himself, directly and confidentially, to the rightful authority and had not made himself the mouthpiece of a disgruntled group. The rest of the faculty took careful note of this, and counted it a credit.
So the storm blew over. But Fonlon knew that one wrong step, however slight, would mean his undoing. And so it was: the ouster came the following year in 1953 when Fonlon as an acolyte was stopped for sub deaconate ordination on the morning of the ordination. His classmate Msgr. Alphonsus Aghaizu narrates that Fonlon’s sister and other family members had trekked the long 522 km distance from Kumbo in Nso to Enugu in Nigeria to attend the ordination to their greatest dismay to see before their eyes that Fonlon was not ordained that morning. Why was Fonlon not informed weeks or months before the ordination so that he could have informed his family members? Why was this black seminarian from Cameroon treated in such an unrespectful and inhuman way? We will continue the narration in part two next week.
Mr. Nchumbonga George Lekelefac, a prolific writer, is a Doctorate Candidate at the Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität, Münster, Germany