Convert to Catholicism now leads Cameroon Province

Fr. Jean Marie
Fr. Jean Marie

“In my room there was a book about Fr. Leo John Dehon. I stayed up and read it in one night. I was sold. This was what I was feeling in myself. This is what I was called to.”

-Fr. Jean-Marie Signié

Why did Fr. Jean-Marie Signié become an SCJ priest?

“Because I wanted to donate myself fully to God, fully to God’s people. That was my call… IS my call, ” he said.

It is a call he first heard as a teenage convert to Catholicism.

An alumnus of Sacred Heart Seminary and School of Theology’s ESL program, Fr. Jean-Marie is now provincial superior of the Cameroon Province. In September he returned to Sacred Heart in the midst of meetings in Canada and the United States. Before one of those meetings –– with the US Provincial Council –– he sat down for an interview.

A convert to Catholicism

Fr. Jean-Marie converted to Catholicism when he was a teen, as did three of his siblings. Their parents were not Christian, but one by one the children were drawn to the faith. Fr. Jean-Marie credits his sister, whose husband is a teacher in a Catholic school, for introducing him to the Church.

After his baptism he immediately became involved in his parish, serving as an acolyte and singing in the church choir. He felt at home. And, he immediately felt the call to priesthood.

The young Jean-Marie took part in a vocation program sponsored by the diocese. It was there that he learned that there are two kinds of priests: religious and diocesan. “The religious priest was described as someone who gives his life as a total donation,” said Fr. Jean-Marie, “You give away everything to give yourself. It immediately resonated with me…

“I told my parish pastor that this is what I wanted; I wanted to become a religious priest.”

Although his diocesan pastor didn’t initially understand Fr. Jean-Marie’s desire for religious life, he suggested that he speak to the closest religious priest he could think of: a priest who served as a chaplain at nearby convent.

The chaplain was a member of the Priests of the Sacred Heart.

“What is a novitiate?” Fr. Jean-Marie asked the chaplain.

He explained it as “a kind of a ‘boot camp” for becoming a religious. And then he invited young Jean-Marie to come and see for himself. Two months later he did just that.

“In my room there was a book about Fr. Leo John Dehon,” he said. “I stayed up and read it in one night. I was sold. This was what I was feeling in myself. This is what I was called to.”

Immediately he applied to be a candidate, was accepted, and later became part of a novitiate class of ONE (there were three in his postulancy class).

Although the SCJs have been in Cameroon since 1912, the province itself is only about 20 years old. For many years the SCJ presence was a missionary region under the jurisdiction of the French Province.

Fr. Jean-Marie is only the second indigenous SCJ to be provincial superior. He succeeds the first, Fr. Leopold Mfouakouet, SCJ, who served from 2011 until his election to the General Council in 2015.

The novitiate classes have grown since Fr. Jean-Marie professed his first vows in 1990. There are now 113 SCJs, most of whom, like Fr. Jean-Marie, were born in Cameroon.

There are 12 SCJ communities in Cameroon and two in Chad, one of the congregation’s newest missions. Most ministry is parish-based, but the province also supports a program for at-risk teens, some of whom live in the streets. “Many of these children have never even been to school,” said Fr. Jean-Marie. The aim of the program ––  JED –– is to give the young people basic skills to help them get a job. It can handle about 60 teens at a time.

Cameroon is a bilingual country of French and English. The province reflects this: its philosophy program is in English and its theology program is in French. Cameroon also has students studying in Rome, Belgium, Ireland, Germany and Portugal (preparing for the SCJ mission in Angola). It also welcomes international students, including two seminarians from India.

The province has grown quickly, but that is also one of its greatest challenges. Approximately half of its members are still students. “We have to form them, give them a good education and a solid base in religious life,” said Fr. Jean-Marie. “But at the same time we need to answer the calls from bishops.”

Fr. Signié spoke about his province’s plans for the future, especially in regards to financial self-sufficiency. The SCJs hope to build student housing near the Catholic University of Central Africa, based in Yaoundé, the capital of Cameroon, for rental income in the near future. Several years from now they would like to develop a multi-use conference center. Two parcels of land have been purchased for these projects.

Agriculture is another possibility for income; the province already does some minor farming.

Personnel journey

Fr. Jean-Marie enjoying one of Milwaukee's famous German restaurants.
Fr. Jean-Marie enjoying one of Milwaukee’s famous German restaurants.

When he first tells his story, Fr. Jean-Marie’s vocational call sounds incredibly straightforward. He was introduced to the Church by his sister and became Catholic. He became involved in his parish and soon felt the call to priesthood. He learned about religious life, and more specifically, the Priests of the Sacred Heart, and quickly found a home for that call.

Was it really that easy?

“No exactly,” said Fr. Jean Marie. His parents supported his conversion to Catholicism, but when he said that he wanted to be a priest, even his aunts and uncles expressed concern. And then to join a religious congregation, a missionary community based in Europe?

“’Why?’ is what many asked me,” said Fr. Jean-Marie. Often implied was that if Fr. Jean-Marie were to become a priest, why not more directly serve the Church and the people of Cameroon as a diocesan priest?

But by the time of his first profession “they accepted it and supported me,” he said. “At my ordination they told me ‘We are now together with you; go and do your ministry without concern or regret.’”

Five days before his death Fr. Jean-Marie’s father was baptized. His mother was baptized two months before she died; Fr. Jean-Marie was at her side as a fellow SCJ did the baptism. “Many members of my family who were initially against my ordination are now members of the Church,” he said.

Fr. Jean-Marie was ordained in 1997, and soon after, began work toward a master’s degree in Canon Law. While studying, he also served at a bilingual parish. To help him in his ministry he enrolled in the ESL program at SHSST in 2000.

The extra language skills were a help to him when three years later he went to Ottawa to begin his doctoral studies in Canon Law at the University of St. Paul.

The focus of his doctoral thesis was the management of parish resources. In 1999, the Diocese of Yaounde, the capital of Cameroon, went bankrupt. It was a wake-up call for the Church to look at how it handled its resources. At the time there were no finance commissions and few trained financial managers at either the parish or even diocesan level in Cameroon.

“I believe that good management of temporal goods is a way to self-sufficiency,” said Fr. Jean-Marie. “We are a poor Church in a poor country often dependent on outside help. We must manage our resources in a professional, prudent way.”

His work has been instrumental in revising the way the Church manages its finances, not just in Cameroon, but throughout central Africa.

For the past nine years Fr. Jean-Marie has been the head of the Department of Canon Law at the University of Central Africa in Yaoundé; he is considered an expert on the topic of financial management in the Church. It is covered in the courses he has taught at the university –– and continues to teach while serving as provincial superior.

“When I was named as provincial superior I told the university that the work as superior would take much of my time, but they asked if I would continue to teach,” said Fr. Jean-Marie. “I said that I would, but only if I had help.”

Now Fr. Jean-Marie’s time with the university is managed with the same precision that he teaches in regards to the management of Church finances.

“It is a lot of work, but it is also a great joy to serve,” concluded Fr. Jean-Marie. It is a joy to be of service to the university, to the Church and to my brothers. It means thinking of others instead of placing oneself first.”

It is a way for Fr. Jean-Marie to continue to do what called him to religious life in the first place:

“To donate myself fully to God, fully to God’s people.”