Benin Jubilee celebrations

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Four SMA priests ordained as part of the celebrations to mark 150 years of the Catholic Church in Benin Republic

The Catholic Church in Benin Republic is celebrating 150 years of evangelization in this part of west Africa. To begin the Jubilee Year there was a Eucharist, on 25 April, to recall the arrival of the first SMA missionaries in Dahomey (as it was then called). During the Mass Bishop Antoine Ganye ordained four young men who have committed their lives to serve as priests in the Society of African Missions (SMA).

On 18 April 1861, the French ship ‘D’Estaing’ anchored off the port of Ouidah in the Republic of Benin. On board were the first missionaries to reach the Kingdom of Dahomey, as the Republic of Benin was then called.  They were Fr Francesco Borghero SMA, an Italian and Fr Francisco Fernandez SMA, a Spaniard. The town of Ouidah was well known for centuries to every slave trader in Europe.

benin-sma-arrival-pointToday, if you go there you can follow the slave route from the slave market past the tree around which the slaves were forced to walk three times to say goodbye to their country and where their minds became deranged as they were led through the gate of  “no return” to the  waiting ships which took them into slavery. Right beside an imposing monument to the slave trade is an equally imposing monument (pictured here) fronted by a giant cross to the memory of Frs Borghero and Fernandez and the early SMA and OLA missionaries who brought the light of Christianity to the country.

As the waves break along the sandy shore telling their own story, one  is struck by the contrast  between the evils of the slave trade which was still taking place unofficially at the time the early missionaries arrived and the giant cross symbolizing the liberating message of Jesus Christ brought by the missionaries. After their arrival they had a meeting with the king of Dahomey who told them that while they could work among the “whites” in Ouidah they were not allowed to preach or convert the native Dahomeans.

As a result, they moved to Agoue, a small village (even today),  just outside the Kingdom of Dahomey and on the Togo border.  It was here that the ceremony to mark the beginning of the Year of Jubilee to celebrate the birth of the Catholic Church in Benin took place on Sunday 18 April. 

It lasted just under five hours and was broadcast live on Benin TV. The celebration was organised by the Benin Episcopal Conference with people coming from all over the country. All the bishops of Benin, apart from one who was ill in France, over 300 priest and 500 sisters were present. An estimated crown of 12,000 participated. The President of the Republic of Benin, His Excellency  Dr B Yayi led a strong government delegation. At the end of the ceremony, he spoke and emphasised that this was not just a Church celebration but a National celebration as the Church, through the Society of African Missions and the OLA Sisters had brought much that was good to the country especially in the field of education, health and the advancement of women.

In his homily, the main celebrant, the Bishop of Dassa-Zoumé, Mgr Antoine Ganye spoke with affection for the work of the SMA and gave a brief resume of the life of our Founder. He ended by saying that 150 years ago the seeds of Christianity were planted here by the early missionaries and now 150 years later we can see the fruit of their work and now the Church in Benin is itself sending out missionaries. Four SMA deacons from Benin were ordained  to the priesthood during the ceremony: Valentin Fadegnon, Jose Kakpo, Desire Salako and Anselm Yonlonfoun. Since there were people from all parts of Benin present at the ceremony, Fr Anselm at the end of the Mass thanked them in 6 languages much to the acclamation and appreciation of the crowd and of the President himself.

benin-agoue-cemeteryAcross the wall from the place where the celebration was held are the graves of the early SMA and OLA missionaries. Twelve of them died between 1880 and 1900, most of them in their twenties and thirties after only one to five years in the country. In their widest dreams they could not have imagined a day like this.

At the end of the Mass the four newly ordained priests were given a mission cross and their mission appointments:  Valentin and Jose to Nigeria, Desire to Tanzania and Anselm, to the Central African Republic. Fr Michel L’Hostis, the Regional Superior for Benin & Niger, reminded the crowd that when the early missionaries came they were supported by their own people at home and appealed to them to give their own sons, who were going as missionaries in their name, the same kind of support.

The ceremony ended at 2.30 and we were back over the border to Lagos, Nigeria by 8pm with the sound of the trumpeter heralding  in the Jubilee and singers and dancers in harmony with him still lifting our hearts.

The SMA will also ordain three Nigerians and three Indian priests in the coming months. Their ordinations come at the end of a long period of formation in different parts of the world. It would not be possible without the prayers and financial help of our many supporters in Ireland, particularly members of the Family Vocations Crusade  (FVC).