I arrived in Kenya on August 2, 2002. I hoped to teach at Tangaza College, where our brothers study theology, but, of course, it couldn’t happen that first semester, as classes were starting in two weeks.
Just to put my name in for future reference, I visited the College to introduce myself to the Director of Theology. As happens in all of our lives, a happy coincident occurred. (I know very well that it wasn’t a coincidence at all).
Two days before I walked into his office, the Director discovered that the Mariology lecturer would not be available that semester. So, two weeks after arriving in Kenya, I was in a classroom at Tangaza College.
I hope that God arranged this, at least, partially, for my students’ sake. I know for certain that teaching theology and eventually spirituality, philosophy, and even Latin has brought me tremendous graces and blessings. While I learned more than I taught, I hope my students learned something, as well.
The very experience of teaching sisters, brothers and future priests is more than rewarding. How many classrooms in the whole world are filled with students who are vowed to poverty, chastity and obedience – and follow regular schedules of prayer each day? Naturally, they are responsive! And, though I have only lived on two continents, I suspect that Africans may be the world’s most humorous people. And they are most respectful of elders!
I am always moved whenever I attend ordinations or priest’s funerals, as young priests remind me that I taught them in 2004 or 2010. They don’t seem to be too badly affected by the experience, although, perhaps, time heals wounds.
I am especially happy with our own Dominican friars, whom I once taught, as I see them doing good ministries and assuming responsibilities in our communities – and doing very well– even if the things they claim I said and did some years ago couldn’t possibly be true. Of course, I obey those former students who have become my superiors, such as our vicar provincial and the prior of our house. Imagine!
Often, at celebrations, I recognize young priests in the processions (naturally, some carry a few more kilos). I thank God that I have had a small part in their training. Their parents and families, those who formed them in their communities and many other lecturers have contributed much more. Still, I played a part, even if a minor one. Initially, I was touched when a priest informed me that whenever he is transferred, he always brings my notes with him – until he confessed that he never looks at them (this is technically known as “faint praise”).
Some former students are engaged in further studies and some are already lecturers. St. Thomas must have felt rewarded as his own students became teachers, as he remarks: “God governs thing that He makes some of them be causes of others in government; as a master who not only imparts knowledge to his pupils, but gives also the faculty of teaching others” (1a. 103, 7).
Some former students are in areas where there is great need. One former student told me that he is a chaplain in a refugee camp. Another creates schools in South Sudan, even though many schools have been demolished as a result of the civil strife. When I attended an ordination in Lodwar, one of the driest areas in Kenya, at least seven priests and a lay minister were former students and others may have been hiding.
Many of the former students serve the people in parishes, that is, they feed their people with the Word of God and enable them to encounter Christ in the Sacraments. Recently, I was moved during a conversation with a former student, now a parish priest, by all he was doing. I even thanked him. St. Thomas asserts: “The best kind of physician is not the one who devotes his attention to theory alone, but the one who can get down to cases; the same is true in other fields” (1a. 103, 7).
Some of my former students are sisters and brothers who are doing wonderful work. Some time I will put together more information about them.
Some of my students realized that God was calling them to serve Him as lay persons. Some of these use their knowledge and skills to help their parishes. Some are good husbands and fathers. Some have pursued studies in peace and development and contribute to make their countries better places.
Some former students have died in accidents. One student, Fr. Denis Carriere, a Quebec Missionary, whom I taught in 2003, died in Manchuria.
I would like to tell you about one former student in particular, Fr. Cosmas Omboto Ondari, a Mill Hill Missionary. I cannot say that I played a significant role in Fr. Cosmas’s life, although I taught him Mariology and Latin.
For some curious reason, I had saved some old assignments and came across them recently. The assignments were supposed to be anonymous but a few added their names, including Cosmas Ondari. He wrote:
Given that the rosary is a summary of the key moments of Jesus and Mary in fulfilling the plan of salvation, I usually reflect on these events and they inspire me. I also pray that through Mary, I may always stand firm in my life to live a holy and focused life in order to fulfil God’s will for me as a Christian.
I will share with you the story of Fr. Cosmas, through the words of Bishop Andrew Nkea, Bishop of Mamfe, in Cameroon, which he wrote on November 23, 2018:
“At about 3.00 pm local time, on Wednesday the 21st of November, 2018, Rev. Fr. Cosmas Omboto Ondari, a Mill Hill Missionary, who was in front of the Church of the Parish of St. Martin of Tours, Kembong, was shot and killed on the spot in cold blood.
Fr. Cosmas Ondari was the Parochial Vicar of the St. Martin of Tours Parish in Kembong since April 2017.
Bom in Gucha, in Kenya on the 19th of September 1985, Fr. Ondari joined the Missionary Society of St. Joseph, otherwise known as the Mill Hill Missionaries
He did his studies in Theology in the Tangaza University College in Nairobi. Upon completion of his studies, he was ordained on the 26th of March 2017.
In April 2017, the Superiors of the Mill Hill Society appointed Fr. Ondari to Mamfe Diocese where he was then posted to the St. Martin of Tours Parish, Kembong as his first appointment, and which turned out to be his last appointment as a priest.
Already in December, 2017, when the security situation in Kembong was very tense, Fr. Ondari and his Parish Priest Fr. Tiberius Vouni, MHM, alongside with some of their parishioners, moved out from Kembong to Mamfe. The village of more than 5000 people was almost completely abandoned and many houses were burnt down.
In April, 2018, in a bid to give hope to the desperate population, many of whom were living in the bushes in horrendous conditions, Fr. Ondari and his Parish Priest courageously opted to go back to Kembong so as to encourage the people to return. Some of the people with whom they ran to Mamfe went back and sought refuge in the closed down premises of the Catholic School in Kembong.
It was in this context that Fr. Ondari was brutally and recklessly murdered on the 21st of November, 2018. Eye Witness accounts say that he was killed by Government Soldiers (Gendarmarie Nationale), who were shooting at random from their passing vehicle.
I visited Kembong Parish on Thursday the 22nd of November, 2018, and I personally counted 21 bullet holes made on the Church building of Kembong where at the time, the priest, the Catechist and many Christians were carrying out various activities in the Mission compound.
The blood of the murdered priest was still clearly seen on the cemented entrance to the Church just at the door. He died right in the house of God and it is our prayer that the God whom he served so well will welcome him into his eternal kingdom.
May the soul of Fr. Cosmas Omboto Ondari, rest in Perfect Peace.
+ Andrew Nkea, bishop of Mamfe”
A few days later, at the close of a requiem Mass at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in the Adams area of Nairobi, a large procession of priests filed by Fr. Cosmas’ coffin. Some priests blessed Fr. Cosmas and some blessed themselves. I asked Fr. Cosmas to bless me.
Bishop Andrew told us that an eighty-year old man in the church in Kembong told him, “We have lost our papa.” Bishop Andrew simply said, “He has done his work. He was a papa.”
Denis Vincent Wiseman, O.P.