Last Saturday or thereabouts, my friend Jude Ozughen and I reminisced of encounters with Fr Joseph Ngah. He recounted for the umpteenth time a story he has often told of the impact of priests in his life. Growing up in Ndop, at the time Fr Joseph Ngah served there, their mum used Fr Joe to discipline them. Every time they did something wrong, after the initial physical punishment of having to get to the top of Mount Ngoketungia to fetch some particular wood found only there, they had to write an apology and deliver to Fr Joseph and their mother will take it from him after morning mass. Of course, you did not want to meet the priest that often at least not under those circumstances. He asked me to try to get Fr’s Joe’s number so he could be in touch and thank him for the role he played in shaping his life. I dragged on only to learn about his shocking passing three days later.
How can “Pere Joe” as some of us called him exit so unceremoniously? The death of any priest often evokes deep emotions of sadness within the community of course because he is a man of the people and for people or is supposed to be. Yes, priests are automatically associated with virtue and holiness and so it begs the question why a tribute like this is warranted. Fr Joseph Ngah Mbiydzenyuy served as a priest of the archdiocese of Bamenda for 38 years and 10 months. He was a normal “Joe” and in this normalcy touched many lives like mine. Every time one attempts to capture the life of such a larger-than-life person as Pere Joe, a great injustice is done for words pale in expression of the truth of this magnanimous creature.
It is in the very obvious things of life that I find true key to Fr Joseph’s legacy. Fr Joe had a penchant for cleanliness. As obvious as this might seem given that most priests have people taking care of their laundry needs, one could not fail to notice Fr Joe’s peculiarity and particularity of being neat, trim, and clean. While it sounds counterintuitive given the peculiarity of the local church, he carefully straddled the limits of ostentatiousness call it flamboyancy and being well kempt and polished. He remained true to that transcendental property of being – beauty. One could best describe him as someone beautiful for God to paraphrase Malcolm Muggeridge’s characterization of Mother Teresa of Calcutta. It is a beauty radiating the divine and bringing home the fact that cleanliness is next to Godliness.
His greatest legacy in the archdiocese of Bamenda is in his transformation of Bopson a lay private school in the heart of Nkwen with a notoriety for brigands to St. Paul’s Bilingual Comprehensive College. The purchase by the archdiocese of Bamenda did not automatically translate to its Catholicity. It took the “grit, gut and gumption” of Fr Joseph for the Pauline-like conversion to take place. It suffices for anyone to read the tributes on social media from the alumni of this college to ascertain the quality of his work. His name is forever etched in the annals of this school not just for being its pioneer principal but above all for the many lives he inspired and built during his time there. He understood the psychology of young people and bonded well with them shepherding them through perilous paths like Joseph “with the heart of a father.” He was greatly admired by both teachers and students for his pragmatism and down to earth character. You could walk into St Paul and not tell he was in charge except for the immaculate white soutane he donned. Pere Joe vindicated the Bishops’ decision to have priests serving as principals of catholic schools.
Obviously, there is a camaraderie and conviviality that Pere Joe exuded that you could not miss. His intentionality and intensity with relationships is something which will be greatly missed. His uncanny ability to empathize, sympathize and fraternize endeared him to many. You could not miss his signature smile and laughter which always lit up wherever he went to. He knew how to laugh and make you laugh too.
Personally, the one treasure, Pere Joe left me is friendship. In the summer of 1982, Fr Clement Pishangu served in St Theresia’s parish in Small Mankon where we lived. He inspired me to seek to be a priest. He journeyed with me throughout the seminary and even beyond when that journey ended prematurely. While in the seminary, I claimed All Saints parish, Bayelle as my local parish even though my family lived in Buea at the time. So. for seven years of that journey, I had the guidance of Pere Joe, a classmate to Fr Clement. You could not be around Pere Joe and not want to be a priest. He enjoyed his vocation and served selflessly. And by some coincidence, I spent my pastoral year in St Gabriel’s parish, Bafmeng under the tutelage of Fr Peter Amah of blessed memory. They were the three ordained for the archdiocese of Bamenda on April 6th, 1983. Fr Clement planted the seed of what I perceived as a vocation to the priesthood and watered it with Fr Peter Amah and Pere Joe and I did the stonewalling. I am eternally indebted to these priests, all classmates who each in their own way helped shape me. Pere Joe was a true “big brother” who provided the example and the frequent admonition.
I would be remiss if I did not mention that Fr Joseph Mbiydzenyuy was a great preacher. He taught the word and preached the word with distinction. Never a boring moment with him and you know a great preacher when years after you can recount some of his sermons. One that stayed with me was his explanation of the sacrament of reconciliation. He availed of the common experience of being badly in need of a toilet especially if you had a running stomach and got to one and discovered it was broken and dirty. You often would dump before complaining about the state of the receptacle. This impressed upon me the need to go for confession even when the vessel God had chosen to use was in one’s estimation a not too worthy one. It is the characterization of Henry Nouwen’s the wounded healer that he evoked to help us focus on our need for confession.
For Father Joseph Mbiydzenyuy to have died in the year of St Joseph is a happy coincidence given St Joseph is the patron of a happy death. To him we commend our father, Pere Joe as we tearfully bid him farewell and entreat the angels to bring him to God’s kingdom. Eternal rest grant unto him O Lord and Let perpetual light shine upon him. May he rest in peace.