Ninety-year-old Canadian priest Roger Tessier is not your typical nonagenarian. He drives a car, swims two-to-three times a week, and actively participates in monthly fellowships of an ecumenical group that meets at 7am.
As if that were not enough, he recently attended the 2018 edition of the Zanzibar International Film Festival. Moreover, the clergyman just concluded a whirlwind bye-bye tour of some of the countries he visited or served for 48 years as a member of the Missionaries of Africa (the White Fathers).
His first mission station was the Sacred Heart Catholic Parish in Lilongwe, Malawi, back in 1970, and it was the last one he recently bade bye as he prepares to relocate to his motherland permanently.
The idea of returning to Canada in his sunset years is baffling. Fr Roger has spent the better part of his life in Africa, and as he notes, most of his age mates back home are no more. Must he return to Canada?
“I don’t want to go back in a wheelchair,” he quips. His society has no geriatric home in East Africa, and to be in a situation of total dependence would hurt his confrères’ work as they would need to focus their attention on him. He notes, though, that the Jesuits have the Arrupe House, in Karen, and the Archdiocese of Nairobi has recently opened a similar home in Ruaraka.
But for how long can the Missionaries of Africa do without old people’s homes, when, as Fr Roger notes, “practically everyone” of the younger priests are African? One could also be involved in an accident, rendering him paraplegic, or suffer from a terminal illness, making him bed-ridden. The issue of an appropriate home for incapacitated confrères is actually under serious thought, the priest says. Could some kind of inter-congregational arrangement serve Fr Roger’s needs? He did not say.
Malawi has special memories for the priest. It’s there that he realised the need to drive. “Driving in Africa gives you freedom to decide when to start and reach a destination,” he says.
Like many younger missionaries at that time, he started with a bike, then a small 49cc motorcycle, before upgrading to a second-hand Volkswagen Beetle. Today, he drives an old Toyota Corolla, which has served him well, having been imported from Japan eight years ago as a reconditioned car.
Fr Roger has fond memories of his Beetle. “You could go everywhere with it. During the rainy season, you got stuck in mud and you found four-to-five people to move it out.”
The priest learned driving in Malawi, where he used a learner’s licence throughout. It was only when he was sent to Kenya in 1980 that he went for a driving test. He passed the exam, but with only a few days before departing for Kenya, he had no time to comply with the licensing requirements that included his photographs.
In Eldoret, his new station, at the Amecea Pastoral Institute, he went to the Automobile Association of Kenya (AA), where he passed his driving test after a few more lessons. “I got my driving licence.” Thereafter, an elderly nun, whom he only remembers as Sr Miriam, helped him refine the driving skills that have served him all along.
The nun-cum-nurse had trained several younger sisters, and Fr Roger says he never forgot her advice, which complemented the AA lessons. “She advised me to be careful [and] not to be taken by surprise.” His road safety secret is that he avoids speeding.
He does admit that driving at his age is a rare feat, although he avoids long distances, which he finds tiring. He is comfortable driving in and around Nairobi, although “I avoid driving at night as much as possible.” If he must drive after dark, he ensures that he is behind another car, no matter how slow.
The priest considers himself prudent, with special regard for pedestrians. “I’ve great respect for them because I also like to walk, and in Nairobi, you have to be very careful to walk.” He also minds other road users, be they motorists, motorcyclists or cyclists.
That said, will he continue driving in Canada? He doubts that he will even get a driving licence. “There are so many conditions especially at an older age. Once you turn 60, you have to pass a medical exam each year.”
The first of five boys and three girls was born on September 8, 1928, in Montreal. His family name, Tessier, originates in France. He was baptised Joseph Jean-Marie Roger. Most Catholics at that time named their children Joseph or Mary in honour of the Holy Family. For Fr Roger, the name is extra-significant, for he was not only born in the parish of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, but also, his birthday coincides with the day Catholic and Orthodox churches celebrate the birth of Mary.
Some Scottish blood also flows in his veins; one of his grandmothers was from Scotland, Canada, having been colonised by France and later Britain. The priest speaks French and English fluently.
Fr Roger went to school at five and completed primary education eight years later. He then joined Holy Cross College — a day institution for students preparing for liberal professions, while some of them aspired to priesthood. He studied Greek, Latin, Philosophy, and Sciences, and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Montreal. “Right from the first year, I intended to become a missionary priest in the Society of the Missionaries of Africa,” he says.
He remembers his barber-cum-hairdresser father asking him, as he cut his hair one day, what he wanted to be after Standard Eight. When he said that he wanted to be a priest, his father advised him to meet Father Paradis, one of the priests of the parish, who put him in contact with the Missionaries of Africa.
Roger’s road to priesthood was bumpy, at least by today’s standards, when manual work is largely frowned upon by middle class children. At college, as a contribution for a special fee he had to pay for his studies, he had to sweep a corridor and a series of staircases.
He also walked 20-to-25 minutes to college and back home for lunch, although he could have eaten at the college cafeteria.
He finished college in May 1949 and joined the Missionaries of Africa in August for a year of spiritual formation and initiation.
He also did a course in English, because, although the society had French origins in its founder Cardinal Charles Lavigerie — Archbishop of Algiers and champion of Christian-Muslim relations and a promoter of the Anti-Slavery Campaign — the society aspired to be bilingual soon after its founding in 1868. Studying English was, therefore, inevitable for Roger and his class of 28 seminarians, who had to move to Ville Vanier near Ottawa in August 1950 to do theology.
In December, Roger faced the test of his life: he was found with tuberculosis, which had gouged a big hole in his lungs, and almost put paid to his priestly dreams. “I had to stop my studies,” says the priest, who was subsequently admitted to St Joseph’s Sanatorium, in Montreal.
Because he had only done three months of theology when the then highly contagious disease struck, he had to restart his course in 1952. He was eventually ordained priest in January 1956.
Did Fr Roger’s struggle with TB, and later pleurisy, make him the tough man he is, with a crisp-clear mind and an active lifestyle that belies his age?
It’s not all about toughness, he says. “Sometimes you’re driven not only by your physical capacity, but by the pastoral need, and this is the case on Saturday mornings,” he says in reference to the monthly 7am ecumenical fellowship at PCEA St Andrew’s Church.
The fellowship is “very important for me” — a statement that is confirmed by the fact that Fr Roger always comes armed with photocopies of clippings relating to ecumenism prepared the previous evening. “I get up early to wash a bit, and have a bite before leaving …” Even as his friends and colleagues admire his apparent strength, he insists, “I’ll never be a strong man.”
However, he has kept certain routines, including the siesta habit, which he adopted at the TB sanatorium. “I always take a siesta after lunch,” he says, for about 45 minutes, up to 2.30pm. Occasionally he oversleeps up to 3pm, but with a characteristic twist, he adds: “Often I don’t sleep. I listen to the radio,” which he describes as “a soothing instrument.”
He never retires before 11 o’clock, and exercises every day. “This is important in any situation,” he says. “The minimum is walking every day, especially after supper on our compound on Oluvimu Road, South C, which he considers “very safe”. He also factors the 20-or-so times he has to walk to his room, which is upstairs, and the dining room and office downstairs. “Without knowing, I do exercise.”
We are what we eat is a scientifically-proven truism, so what does the priest’s diet consist of? “I eat well, but I pay attention to sugar.” French Canadians are known to have a sweet tooth, and he rarely finishes a meal without eating something sweet, besides a fruit. He concludes his meal with a biscuit or two. He also avoids too much fat. He has been on high blood pressure management since the late 1980s.
Fr Roger said “pardon” several times during our interview, evidence of a hearing challenge. Although an ENT specialist recently prescribed a hearing aid for his right ear, he is postponing its acquisition until he returns to Canada. Like many older people, he has missing teeth — 11 in all — and wears dental plates on the upper and lower gums.
The priest had surgery for cataracts on both eyes about 15 years ago. He uses progressive glasses to see, with another pair for reading. He has regular check-ups whenever he goes on home leave. The check-up is in Canada, not because doctors there are better than those in Kenya, but because “they have my dossier and so it’s easier”. He has regular heart check-ups here in Nairobi.
OUTREACH >> FROM CANADA
Ecumenical outlook started long before Roger was born, at inter-faith missions
From the tuberculosis that almost ended his priestly ambitions (See main story) to the pleurisy that followed, Fr Roger, who remains active at 90, is surely an unlikely priest.
Perhaps because of his medical challenges, his superiors retained him in Canada after ordination as his confrères went to Africa. And when he thought he was consolidating his health, he suffered pleurisy in 1957 — another lung infection that saw him readmitted to the sanatorium for nine months.
In 1960, he was appointed to Quebec City to help edit the Canadian missionaries’ monthly magazine, Peres Blancs d’Afrique. He also had a full page on Africa in a local daily every Saturday. The content was culled from letters and interviews with missionaries.
In 1963, he was asked to set up in Montreal a documentation and information centre on Africa. Clueless about what was expected of him, he was sent on a five-month tour of Europe and Africa, during which he visited countries in West, East and Central Africa.
His passion of clipping, photocopying and sharing information with friends and colleagues arose from that mission. This is something his colleagues at the International Ecumenical Movement, Kenya, will miss as Fr Roger always attends monthly fellowships armed with topical material.
Fr Roger’s tour coincided with the Second Vatican Council in Rome. An encounter with Cardinal Leger, archbishop of Montreal, paved the way for his appointment in 1968 to the board of an organisation, Fame Pereo, involved in collecting and sending medicines and funds for lepers in several African countries.
He was also tasked with launching a department of mission for the religious of Canada. Canadian bishops already had a department of mission that mostly catered for Latin America, hence the need to also serve Asia and Africa. That meant running two offices — the Centre for Information Documentation for Africa in Montreal, and the Religious’ Conference office in Ottawa.
He had the chance to work with many Christian groups, like addressing a group of Baptists during their annual general meeting. They wanted to know what Vatican II meant for other Christians.
However, he prefers to think of his ecumenical outlook as something of “a discovery” that started long before he was born, when the founder of his society, Cardinal Charles Lavigerie, allowed his missionaries to feed starving orphans in predominantly Muslim Algeria. “It was an encounter with Islam.”
The missionaries’ outreach has since encompassed non-Christians and non-believers. Pope Francis, he says, is doing exactly that. “He is trying to reach everyone everywhere.”
Fr Roger is passionate about ecumenical education. He wishes to see the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, which is jointly prepared with the Vatican and the Geneva-based World Council of Churches, used also to educate members on what ecumenism entails. Common activities for peace, justice and interest in interfaith marriage should be part of such education.
“We know practically nothing about the other churches. We know the people, but we don’t know what their churches stand for, their way of liturgical prayer, et cetera,” he laments.
— Dorothy Kweyu