Born at Riom (Puy-de-Dôme), on September
Ordination to the priesthood in Paris, December 19, 1846
Taking of the habit in Jaffna, May 19, 1857
Oblation in Trincomalee, May 20, 1858
Ordination as bishop in Tours, August 24, 1868
Died in Colombo on August 3, 1892.
Christophe Ernest Bonjean was born in Riom in the diocese of Clermont in France on September 21, 1823, the second of three children of Yvonne Tardif and Jean-Baptiste Bonjean, attorney-at-law of the court of appeal of Riom. Although Mr. and Mrs. Bonjean belonged to the Voltarian bourgoisie, they had their children make their First Holy Communion. It was Abbé Michel Deval, the parish priest of the parish of Pontaumur where Mr. Bonjean worked as justice of the peace, who provided Christophe with such a splendid preparation that he subsequently desired to become a priest. He spoke to his father about it. Since he did not work very hard at his studies, his father simply replied that he would allow him to pursue his vocation after gaining his baccalaureate. Helped along by his older sister, Émilie, he studied hard and received his baccalaureate with honourable mention. He entered the major seminary of Clermont-Ferrand in October of 1842, and in January of 1846, entered the seminary of the Paris Foreign Missions. Ordained to the priesthood in Paris on December 19, 1846, he left in 1847 for the new apostolic vicariate of Coimbatore in India where he worked in various parishes and ministered to the Irish soldiers. He learned English and Tamil. After nine years of ministry, exhausted and suffering from being isolated, he desired to become a religious. Abbé Pajean, a missionary confrere, spoke to him about the Oblates in the vicariate of Jaffna. In 1855, Abbé Bonjean wrote to Father Semeria who invited him to accompany him to France where he was going to attend the General Chapter of 1856. He arrived in Jaffna on November 28, 1855, after Father Semeria’s departure. While awaiting his return, he lived with the Oblates whose fraternal charity he esteemed.
of Mary Immaculate
Father Semeria had been appointed coadjutor to the vicar apostolic of Jaffna in the spring of 1856 and was consecrated bishop at Marseilles by Bishop de Mazenod on August 17, 1856. Upon his return to Jaffna on May 12, 1857, he advised Abbé Bonjean to make his novitiate in Jaffna. He began his novitiate under the direction of the vicar apostolic on May 19, 1857 and made his oblation at Trincomalee on May 20, 1858.
Having been appointed vicar apostolic of Jaffna at the death of Bishop Bettachini on July 26, 1857, Bishop Semeria set afoot the projects that he had had in mind since his arrival in Ceylon: to preach parish retreats and to open schools. Father Bonjean worked as part of a missionary team made up of Fathers Constant Chounavel, Jean LeBescou and Jean Pouzin. They preached with success at Kayts, Valigamam, Trincomalee, Batticaloa, Jaffna, etc. Bishop Semeria appreciated the qualities and the zeal of Father Bonjean who subsequently became his principal co-worker opening schools and orphanages, founding an indigenous congregation of brothers and sisters, teaching the Tamil language to new missionaries, being novice master, then director of the Society of the Holy Childhood and the Society of the Propagation of the Faith struggling against the Goan schism, writing works defending Christian marriage and the rights of Catholics in education.
In 1867, Father Bonjean was elected as the delegate of the Oblates of Ceylon to the General Chapter and accompanied Bishop Semeria to France. After the Chapter, held at Autun in August, Bishop Semeria suggested leaving January 25, 1868. He fell ill at LeCalvaire in Marseilles and died on January 23. On the suggestion of Father Fabre, Superior General, Pope Pius IX appointed Father Bonjean Vicar Apostolic of Jaffna by a brief of July 25 in 1868. Bishop Bonjean was consecrated bishop at Tours on August 24 of that same year at the hands of Bishop Guibert, archbishop of the diocese. The new bishop immediately left for Jaffna where he arrived on October 25.
Apostolic of Jaffna (1868-1883)
Upon his return to Jaffna, Bishop Bonjean set to work. He made up his council with Father Frédéric Mouchel as pro-vicar general. He developed the works begun by his predecessor and began new projects in the area of education, the apostolate of the press, the building of churches. He undertook a series of parish missions. In sixteen months, he wrote 18 circular letters which described more in detail to the missionaries the method of action, put in order all points of discipline and gave sure, clear and detailed instructions.
In 1869, Bishop Bonjean was summoned to come to the Vatican Council and Cardinal Barnabò insisted to be present. He took an active part and responded to a tract written by Bishop Dupanloup, the bishop of Orléans, who was opposed to the proclamation of the dogma of infallibility. Upon his return at the beginning of 1871, he opened a seminary at Jaffna. In 1875, he published a Directory in which he planned to continue to offer counsel, directives and documentation to the missionaries. On the occasion of the cholera epidemic and the famine of 1875 and 1876, he transformed the church of Sainte-Marie at Mannar into a hospital and urged the missionaries to help those that were ill. In 1876, he founded a weekly publication, The Jaffna Catholic Guardian. In a work entitled, De Infidelibus et Hereticis Evangelizandis, in 1878, he reminded the missionaries of the responsibility that the Church has of evangelizing the pagans. He encouraged devotion to Mary, embellished and reorganized pilgrimages to Madhu and to Saint Anne of Puttalam. In 1879, he participated in the General Chapter of the Oblates and in Marseilles consecrated as bishop his coadjutor, Bishop André Mélizan, on January 24, 1880. In 1881, he transformed the primary school of Jaffna into a college dedicated to Saint Patrick, founded convents of religious, took up again doing pastoral visits and from 1880 to 1883 wrote 58 tracts and circular letters.
Under his administration, the vicariate of Jaffna made a great deal of progress. In 1868, there were 50,000 faithful, 22 missions, 14 missionaries, 31 schools, and 9 religious sisters. In 1883, there were about 80,000 faithful, 50 missions, 23 missionaries, 46 religious sisters, 29 of whom were indigenous, 113 schools, one college, a seminary, a Catholic newspaper and a print shop.
Apostolic of Colombo (1883) and Archbishop (1887-1892)
In 1883, the Holy See detached Kandy, which had been entrusted to the Sylvestrines from Colombo where Bishop Bonjean had been appointed Vicar Apostolic. After having said goodbye to the faithful of Jaffna who were very sorry to see him go, he arrived in Colombo on August 18. The task to be addressed was brutal. He had only 28 priests; sources were lacking; school teachers were demanding their back pay; the orphanages were living from hand to mouth; preachers were rare, etc. The bishop did not let himself be intimidated. He began by making a canonical visit of the entire vicariate, appointed Father Boisseau as his vicar general, in 1884, founded Saint Bernard major seminary for the formation of the local clergy, a normal school for the formation of good teachers. Each year, he obtained additional missionaries from Father Fabre to replace the Italian diocesan clergy who were leaving the vicariate, undertook to finish building the cathedral, etc.
Fifteen months after his arrival in Colombo, Bishop Bonjean was called to Rome to discuss the termination of the jurisdiction of Goa on a few parishes in Ceylon and the establishment of the hierarchy in India and in Ceylon. He appointed Father Boisseau administrator of the vicariate during his absence, which lasted from October of 1884 to the beginning of March 1886. As a result of these discussions at the Congregation of the Propaganda, a new concordat was signed between Portugal and the Holy See on June 23, 1886 and, on September 1, 1886, the hierarchy was established in India and Ceylon. On June 6, 1887, Bishop Agliardi, the Apostolic Delegate in India, while passing through Colombo, announced that Jaffna and Kandy would become dioceses and Colombo an archdiocese with Bishop Bonjean as archbishop.
The archbishop continued to develop his diocese. In 1886, he installed the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary at Moratuwa, at the general hospital of Colombo and the refuge for lepers at Hendala. In 1888, he was able to get the Little Sisters of the Poor for a senior citizens’ home in Moratuwa. He had four orphanages for abandoned girls, but no orphanage for boys. He opened an orphanage for boys in Kotte in 1884 and transferred it into the huge building of the Saint Vincent house of Maggona. This house developed and became a reform school as well and an industrial school. In 1889, in Borella, he built an administrative centre for the diocese and the central house of the Oblates. In 1891, he had built three churches in buddhist country and six others were under construction. In 1891, he announced the construction of Saint Joseph College, long time a desire of the city of Colombo and which was opened in 1896. In nine years, the Catholic population grew by about 30,000 faithful; the number of schools went from 140 to 200; the clergy was made up of 41 Oblates, 8 diocesan priests, 5 major seminarians and 19 minor seminarians.
At the end of 1891, Bishop Bonjean was stricken with a grave flu. He was confined to bed. He remained bedridden until his death on August 3, 1892, after having appointed Father Charles Collin administrator of the diocese. His remains were laid to rest in the cathedral of Saint Lucy in Kotahena, Colombo.
In the work, Our Tribute, Father Jesuthasan Philip ended the 25 page biography of Bishop Bonjean with this paragraph: “Even though Bishop Bonjean is dead, his memory continues to live long in the hearts of the Catholics of Sri Lanka. He put his stamp on the Church of Sri Lanka, first as Vicar Apostolic of Jaffna (1868-1883), then, as Vicar Apostolic and, from 1886 on, as archbishop of Colombo (1883-1892). He was a born leader, sure of himself, endowed with a profound understanding of people and situations. He was a great preacher, writer, organizer and administrator and won respect and prestige for the Catholic Church. In his preaching, his writing and his struggles, he had only one goal: the glory of God, the triumph of the Church and the good of souls […] Above all, Bishop Bonjean was a man of faith and of prayer from which he drew immense energy. He had a deep love of our Lord Jesus Christ and had a special devotion to Mary. A man of great simplicity and humility, may he rest in peace.”
Yvon Beaudoin, o.m.i.
Sources and Bibliography
G.A.: 23 dossiers: Birth certificate and
taking of the habit; a few letters received; spiritual correspondence and a
study of this correspondence; about 350 letters especially to Oblates, 62 of
which were to Father Isidore Belle, 74 to Father Joseph Fabre and 69 to Father
Mission O.M.I., 1865-1971, passim.
Jonquet, E., o.m.i., Mgr Bonjean, o.m.i., premier archevêque de Colombo, Nîmes, 1910, 2 volumes.
Reinhold, Simon, o.m.i., Die Leuchtende Insel Lebenswerk eines Apostels, Hünfeld, 1937, 263p.
Lusan, A. R., o.m.i., C. E. Bonjean, the first Oblate Archbishop of Colombo, Rome, PUC, 1997, 109p.
Philip, Jesuthasan, o.m.i., “Archbishop C. Bonjean, o.m.i.”, in Our Tribute, Vol. I, Colombo, 2001, pp.152-181.