Anniversary year ends with blessing of new church
With a liturgy at the Cathedral of Nkongsamba on November 30, 2012, the Cameroon Province began a year of celebration, commemorating the 100th anniversary of the SCJ presence in the country.
The special year closed on November 30, 2013, with the blessing of the newly built Sacred Heart Church in Bafoussam.
“It was fantastic! I’d go back in a minute,” said Fr. Byron Haaland, SCJ, upon his return from Cameroon. “The ceremony was five hours long and I loved it!”
Fr. Byron, Fr. Jan de Jong, SCJ and Fr. Charles Brown, SCJ, represented the U.S. Province at the blessing of the church, a church built with significant financial support from American benefactors.
The history of the Priests of the Sacred Heart in Cameroon, as well as the Church itself, “is a history of great fidelity but also a history filled with trials,” said Fr. Leopold Mfouakouet, SCJ, provincial superior. Twice, wars in Europe seriously disrupted the mission effort. Later, missionaries died in the country’s war for independence.
“It is because of the efforts of those who served before me, and the many sacrifices of our missionaries, that the Province of Cameroon has come to be what it is today,” said Fr. Léopold when he was elected as the province’s first indigenous leader. “This is a legacy, a sacred heritage to be preserved.”
A boat on a hill
According to its architect, Escher Gerard, the newly blessed Sacred Heart Church, built in the form of a boat, references two things: the vessel that brought the first German missionaries to Cameroon, and the bark (barque or boat) of Peter, the first fisherman, pillar of the church.
“It is a rather unique view: a cargo bark built on top of a hill, hundreds of kilometers from the coast,” wrote Fr. John van den Hengel, SCJ, who represented the General Curia.
The site for the church was given to the Priests of the Sacred Heart by a tribal chief; it was originally intended as the “Chefferie,” or the seat of the chief of Bafoussam. Mont St. Jean, the SCJ mission in Bafoussam, and the church, now symbolically dominate the town from atop the hill.
However, the hill’s past is not forgotten. The tribal chief’s gift was conditioned. He insisted that community keep intact an ancient tree where traditional ceremonies took place before the advent of Christianity. The tree remains in a small park surrounded by a hedge.
Full weekend of events
The day before the ceremonies at the church, visiting SCJs from around the world took part in the blessing of Jonas House. Operated by the group JED (translated from the French as “Youth at Risk”), the organization was founded by SCJ missionary Fr. Bernard Groux. Now managed by a group of French volunteers in coordination with the SCJs, the organization works with hundreds of young people, offering them job training and literacy skills. It also has a group that assists youth with disabilities.
Another part of the weekend’s celebrations was a panel discussion on the impact of the Priests of the Sacred Heart in Cameroon. Among the three speakers was Fr. Joseph Kuate, SCJ, whose doctoral dissertation (Les Dehoniennes au Cameroun) focused on an intense period of evangelization during which the Catholic Church developed a strong base in the country. Many of the over 2,000 people who attended the concluding centenary ceremonies were first or second generation Catholics.
Joining these lay people at the celebrations was just about the entire Cameroon Province, visitors from many of the other provinces, regions and districts of the congregation, as well as local clergy, religious sisters who have worked with the SCJs for many years, and SIX bishops.
The blessing of the church was an intense celebration, filled with symbolism of both the Church and of the local African culture. Each ritual was accompanied by prayer, song and dance.
At the end, Fr. Leopold expressed his thanks and his hope that this celebration would be a sign of the vibrancy of the second century of the SCJ presence in Cameroon.
The final word at the celebration was from the archbishop of Douala. He thanked the congregation for its work in helping to build the church in Cameroon. Most of the people at the celebration could recount the moment in which their families became Christian, and often, it was because of the influence of an SCJ.
A seminarian’s view
“The excitement of the closing of the centenary was visible at the Scolasticate of Ngoya months before the event,” wrote Frater Anthony, an Indian SCJ seminarian at Ngoya. “The arrival of delegations from different provinces gave an even more joyous atmosphere in the preparation of the event.
“On Thursday, November 27, we took the road to Bafoussam, for the festivities. After the long journey between Ngoya and Bafoussam we had a soccer game between the Priests of the Sacred Heart and the youth of the parish of Sacred Heart. It ended with a score of 5 to 3 for the SCJs!”
The seminarians attended the panel discussion on the impact of the SCJs in Cameroon and after, “we took part in the Holy Hour, led by Fr. Christopher Dikoundou Eitel, SCJ, the novice master. It was a moment of reflection calling us to entrust all of our activities to the Lord.”
And then, “The party continued!” wrote Frater Anthony. There was an evening of skits, poems, dances and music. “The atmosphere was electric and opened with the singing of the centenary hymn, sung by all members of the Cameroon Province.”
The next day, the church blessing and consecration began at 10 a.m. with Bishop Diedonné Watio of the Diocese of Bafoussam, presiding. “Rich in color and ceremony, despite the length [as noted: five hours] it was not possible to become impatient because it was so well prepared, very beautiful…
“We scholastics experienced the event in all its dimensions… the joy of working for the kingdom of God and the well-being of the province. This was the feeling everyone had when we left Bafoussam for the long trip back to Ngoya.”