Why was Bernard Fonlon ousted from Bigard Memorial Seminary, Part 2

By Nchumbonga George Lekelefac,

On Friday, 20th of June 1952, after the immediate result of Bernard Fonlon’s 15-page memo, it marked the beginning of a new period and a turning point in his life. That Friday, the 20th of June, 1952, marked the beginning of a new period in Fonlon’s life; for, though convinced that his action was unquestionably just, he began, increasingly, to focus the searchlight off his mind on his own soul to see, as lucidly and as clearly as he could, whether all was well therein. And he found that all was not. He was ousted the following year in 1953 on the morning of the sub-diaconate.

Late Monsignor Luke Ade Atang of blessed and evergreen memory was an eye-witness of the ouster and shared his experience when Bernard Fonlon was ousted at Bigard Memorial Seminary in 1953 in his book: “The Struggle for the Catholic Priesthood.”

He was present at Bigard at that time and he noted that Fonlon was not only a very studious and bright student, but also one they all liked and looked up to for his moral rectitude and exemplary character. He noted that Fonlon loved writing articles and also loved and trusted him so much that he used to invite him to a lonely and quiet place on an extraordinary free day (EFD: There were days, often liturgical feast days, when there were no classes, and the students were free to go visiting in the town). In this quiet place, Fonlon would read out to him one of his articles, and humbly welcomed suggestions, if he had any.

Then, he narrated the great shock when Fonlon was ousted: He observed that Fonlon was denied permission to proceed for holy orders and was asked to leave Bigard Memorial Seminary, Enugu, Nigeria. This sounded so unbelievable to all the seminarians, that they, at first, did not take the news serious. They thought they had not heard Fonlon well, for the news was not only shocking, but shattering too. Bernard Fonlon was indeed to leave the Seminary.

Bernard Fonlon as a seminarian at Bigard Memorial Seminary, Enugu, 1951

Luke Ade Atang, then a seminarian for the diocese of Buea with Bernard Fonlon was so flabbergasted and confused, and thought to himself, if Fonlon was not to be a priest, then he was wasting his time and decided that he must leave with Fonlon. Who could be more suitable for the priesthood than Fonlon?, he asked! So, Luke Ade Atang went to the Rector who had ousted Fonlon to tell him he was leaving the Seminary, for he did not think he could make it to the priesthood. When he lifted his hand to ring the doorbell, something seemed to have pulled him back, and he seemed to have heard a soft-spoken voice say to him: “who are you to decide for yourself? Leave that to your authorities. If I don’t want you, I will speak through them. Go back to study.” So, he quickly sneaked back to the hall, but feeling very sad and still confused at heart. Fonlon himself took this big shock admirably well. He simply said, “let Gods will be done,” and remained cool and calm. And, indeed, God had other plans for him. As a consequence of this heart-searching, Fonlon began asking himself some searching questions; and the following were the cardinal ones. (Cf. Luke Ade Atang, The Struggle to the Catholic Priesthood, Macacos, Douala, 2000, page 51-52).

Since, often, in the future, situations, such as that from which the crisis of Fonlon had sprung, must arise, when we shall have to take decisions, stern, and costly, and painful, and fraught with far-reaching consequences; – what principles must we adopt to guide us, on such occasions, so that, before and after, we should remain, unmoved, with unshakable peace of mind, whatever betide?

In the course of Fonlon’s life, one is ineluctably bound to meet or live with those, who, for one reason or another, will strive to frustrate you, will treat you, not merely with covert hostility, but even with overt antagonism, and do all in their power to provoke you, to besmear you, to make your heart fester; – what sane, salutary attitude of soul and mind one cultivates to brace one’s energies up, to meet such circumstances?

It is not rare in life that a friend or family member of long standing turns traitor and stabs you as Brutus stabbed Caesar; or sells you to the foes; sometimes people whom you have served, to whom you have done many favours, completely fail to show any sign of appreciation, or, what is worse, openly assert that you have never done anything for them; sometimes people will come groveling in the very dust before you, for help, only to rise up, spiteful and insolent, sometimes a person whom you have helped nine times financially or any other way, but whom you cannot help the tenth time, completely forgets the past favours, and bears you a rankling grudge, as though serving him were a duty that you owed him at every turn; sometimes you do your very best and expect congratulations, but to your utter stupefaction, you are roundly denounced, disavowed and condemned instead; – what principle of life should be our mainstay to help us avoid becoming confused, and hurt, and bitter, when such should betide?

Since (at least in those days of scare education) few people like Bernard Fonlon who were blessed with the privilege of a chance, had the duty to serve their  people, to lead them, if the need arose; – what spirit should animate us, in that service; what principle should guide us, in that leadership; what should we do to prepare ourselves for it adequately; what attitude should we adopt in their bearing towards their less privileged brethren?

In a word, by what principles of life can we acquire, preserve, and strengthen, a peace of soul, unruffled and constant, in a world, where you are constantly mauled and floored; where misunderstandings, ingratitude, greed, selfishness, wickedness and cruelty are rank and rife; where the struggle to be good looks, a priori, foredoomed – a bootless, thankless enterprise?

Thus it was that, from that fateful day, Friday, June 20th, 1952, the nature of the entries in Bernard Fonlon’s diary changed. It became, not merely a haphazard record of passing events, above questions. Whatever one such idea struck Fonlon, he noted it down, pondered it over, scrutinized its implications and complications, and finally elaborated in such a wish that it should firmly grip his heart and mind, a principle of thought and action, a Law of Life, and set it down to serve as a constant reminder, in the after-time.

Since then, when there was a decision to be made, Bernard Fonlon turned to the relevant rule to see what to do, and brace up his soul for the action and its consequences.

Mr. Fonlon did not go back to Cameroon after he was ousted, but took up teaching appointment at Christ the King College Onitsha, his alma mater.

In 1954 at the ordination of his classmate Monsignor Alphonsus Aghaizu at Uli, Fonlon and some others left Onitsha the day of the ordination of Fr. Innocent Egbujie and came to Uli for the ordination of Monsignor Alphonsus Aghaizu- as the first indigenous priest of Owerri Diocese by Bishop J.B. Whelan C.S.sp. He had a brief chat with his visitors including Bernard Fonlon from Onitsha that busy day and they went back.

After Monsignor Alphonsus Aghaizu’s month’s tour of the stations in Uli, he had to go back to Bigard Memorial Seminary, Enugu, to continue his studies and get his faculties. On his way back, he stopped at CKC Onitsha and stayed at Fonlon’s house for the night at the teachers quarters. He did not go to stay at the parish house with the white fathers. The next morning, Bernard Fonlon served the mass and Mons.

Alphonsus left for Enugu. The incident so impressed the white Fathers that they recommended Fonlon to obtain a scholarship for the British Cameroon government and studied in the national universities of Cork, Ireland, France, returning home in Cameroon with a doctorate degree in English and French literature. Bernard Fonlon is the first English-speaking Cameroonian to obtain a doctorate degree in 1961. In that same year of his return, which was on the threshold of independence and unification with French Cameroon, having chosen the Federal System of government.

Fonlon was readily employed as President Ahidjo’s interpreter and translator in the Federal Republic of Cameroon. It is Fonlon who translated the Cameroon National Anthem from the French to the English Language, retaining its beautiful melody.

Fonlon later held ministerial posts in the Federal government and later, in the United Republic government of Cameroon. But, somehow, he did not seem to like working with a government whose system and policy he did not believe in. He was dismissed from government. So, he eventually, took up professorial post as Associate Professor in the Yaoundé University, and remained a professor, until his sudden death in Ottawa, Canada on 27th August 1986.

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