Jean-Marie Coquard was born in the Diocese of Nantes in France in 1859, spent some time in the merchant navy, tried unsuccessfully to join the Sacred Heart Missionaries of Betharram while living in Montevideo, Uruguay, was accepted by the SMA and entered the Seminary at Lyon in November, 1886. To the SMA authorities his suitability for priesthood was never in doubt and he was ordained a priest on 13th July, 1890, at the age of thirty-one. In the autumn of 1890 he set sail for West Africa, destined for the Vicariate of the Bight of Benin which had its headquarters in Lagos. He was to spend the forty-three remaining years of his life in West Africa, returning only twice to Europe, in 1897 when he was sent to Brazil via France to collect funds for the Vicariate’s seminary and, again, in 1907 when he took part in the SMA General Assembly in Lyon.
The author, Fr Edmund Hogan SMA is pictured at the statue to Fr Coquard outside the original Sacred Heart Hospital. Flanking Fr Hogan are two OLA Sisters, Srs Alice Chifong and Sr Comfort Ogbanje.
It is worth noting that missionary tours of duty in that era normally lasted five years, the confrères returning to Europe to regain their strength for a period of one year. Coquard holds the record for the longest missionary tour in the SMA, the twenty-five years between 1908 and his death in 1933, easily beating his nearest rival, Msgr. William Lumley, SMA, who spent a tour of eighteen unbroken years in Northern Nigeria.
Immediately, upon his arrival in 1890 Fr. Coquard was put in charge of medical work at the mission dispensary under the guidance of Fr. Justin François. While he had no formal medical training he displayed an extraordinary aptitude for medical work culminating in the establishing of one of Nigeria’s premier hospitals in 1895, acting as the hospital’s surgeon. He obtained medical suppliers, surgery manuals and surgical instruments from supporters back in Brittany. He was convinced of the importance of his medical work for the apostolate and he quickly exhibited a proficiency in the dispensary. Even at this early stage he was beginning to think about developing the medical apostolate and plans to build a hospital were being formulated despite the lack of resources. Possessing a strong and independent-minded temperament his efforts at establishing the hospital frequently brought him into conflict with his SMA Superiors. Undaunted, his efforts were rewarded and the hospital was opened on 5th May, 1911. Fr. Coquard had been the architect, but also acted as contractor and foreman. This new building with its elegant towers and terraces had now replaced the original hospital which had been opened in 1895.
Clergy, OLA Sisters and laity gather for the blessing at the Cross standing above Fr Coquard’s grave in Lantoro cemetery, alongside many other missionaries and catechists awaiting the Resurrection.
Fr. Coquard died in his room in one of the towers of the hospital on the morning of 27th June, 1933 in the presence of Bishop Francis O’Rourke, SMA, Fr. Jean Grando, SMA, Superior of the Lagos Mission, and Fr. Richard (Dick) Fitzgerald, SMA, (uncle to concelebrant Fr. Tim Cullinane, SMA) assistant priest at Abeokuta. After Requiem Mass the following day Fr. Coquard was laid to rest in Lantoro cemetery.