Jean-Marie Coquard – a review

Edmund M. Hogan, Cross and Scalpel: Jean-Marie Coquard among the Egba of Yorubaland (Heinemann Educational Books, Nigeria, 2013)

Reviewed by Peter Costello, for the Irish Catholic Newspaper, June 27 (Dublin, Ireland)

With Ireland now a new mission­ary territory in the eyes of many, Irish historians have been active in the last decade or so in exploring the nature and meaning of missionary activity in the wider modern world.

This book, by a Cork-based historian and archivist of a missionary society (the Society of African Missions), explores a fascinating aspect of the great epic.

Hero

The hero of Fr Hogan’s book, Frenchman Jean-Marie Coquard, is a larger than life character – a heroic figure in all senses of the word. He was brought up in Brittany and like so many of his con­temporaries went to sea at an early age. But the sense of a religious vocation grew on him. This was frustrated at first but eventu­ally he was sent to Africa under the auspices of the SMA Fathers based in Lyon. His destination was a place called Abeokuta, now to the north of Lagos, but then a more or less independent kingdom outside of the Brit­ish protectorate along the coast of which Lagos was the capital.

What makes his career ex­ceptional was that he threw himself into the provision of medical care, learning by himself from text books not only how to treat patients but also to undertake quite serious operations. On a visit to France he was able to have some immediate experience in a Lyon hospital but essen­tially he was self-taught. This seems extraordinary but then he was an extraordinary man.

Radical

He was in fact a radical practitioner. He became interested in the use of a Vietnamese herbal treatment for leprosy which had been used by St Damien on Molokai. Even today this would be still considered ‘fringe’ medicine by many. But for him it worked. However, this career was only part of the story that Fr Hogan has to tell. Through the life of Coquard he is able to relate aspects of the development of colonialism in West Africa, the rivalry not only between France and England in the region, but also the ambitions of the local kings and chieftains. This is quite fascinating, but towards the end with the arrival of Frederick, later Lord Lugard the full extent of British rule was extended over the district.

The author remarks early in the book that in Ireland the Church was originally not keen on such mission­ary work, preferring to use its own priests at home or among the Irish diaspora in England, Australia and the US. However, towards the end of the century, he notes the ar­rival of Irish missionaries in the area, whom Coquard, patriotic Frenchman though he was, welcomed because of their native command of English and their better un­derstanding of the British imperial mind.

Also of interest is the in­teraction of Coquard with his own superiors in France, and later when he assumed more senior roles himself with the authorities in the Vatican.

However, nowhere does he lose sight of Coquard as a human being and a priest. Even today there are those who say the role of a mis­sionary should be to preach the Gospel and baptise. They should leave ‘social work’ alone. But that was not Coquard’s view – as it is not the view of many today. The cure of souls goes hand in hand with the care of bodies.

I would have liked a more extended discussion of the limiting effect of neo-Thom­ist theology on mission work which is alluded to at one point as the more recent theological developments of the notion of ‘the anonymous Christian’ will clearly have consequences here at home.

Development

This is a richly detailed book, finding room also for the de­tails of Coquard’s relations with his own family back in France. But, overall, it is about a hero of missionary work who deserves to be better known. Fr Hogan’s work will help his readers understand not just important aspects of the development of Nigeria -though the Muslim aspect of that country is not alluded to simply because at this date it did not impinge on Coquard’s work. He dealings with were pagans and ‘other denomina­tions’, many of whom were among the crowd at his fu­neral.

Fr Hogan has added a great deal to a detailed understand­ing of how the individual life plays out in the larger socio­political scheme. This a won­derful comprehensive book which will greatly enlighten all who read it.

This book is available for 15 Euro + postage, from: Archives, Society of African Missions, Blackrock Road, Cork, Ireland. On Amazon it costs 40 Euro + postage