Up-Close … with French Chang Him, first Seychellois Archbishop-‘A man with remarkable qualities’


31-July-2012

Since writing for our weekly column ‘Up-Close’, he is the personality who has inspired me the most.  Not least because, like so many Seychellois, I have always held him in the highest esteem and strongly believe that Seychelles would be a better place if we each possessed even a fraction of his remarkable qualities, such as serenity, generosity and compassion.

As a young schoolboy, I first heard about French Chang Him in 1963 when he was ordained priest at St Paul’s Cathedral. Later on, we got better acquainted, especially during the period 1975-1976 when he served on Praslin and I was environmental health officer there.

We often crossed paths -- him touring homes at Grand Anse, bringing spiritual solace to his flock and comforting the sick and elderly.

With beloved wife Suzy, who passed away in 1996, a cancer victim

He had then just got married to Suzanne Talma, a dental hygiene therapist, whose services was also very much in demand on Praslin and La Digue, with no resident dentist then.

I heard from someone that “Paster French” as we called him, also repaired watches. So I brought him mine to fix, which he promptly did. I recall that when I offered to pay, he refused to take the money. It was only upon my insistence that he replied: “If you are giving the R5 for the Church, then I shall take it, otherwise not. I am just happy to have helped.”

Born in a family of ten in 1938, French, like his brothers Rolly and Davidson, learned watch repair from their dad, Francis. Later when French studied for the priesthood, the two brothers decided to take that up as a career and follow in their dad’s footsteps.
 
Rolly also played in the band ‘Mickey and the Buccaneers’ as a sideline.
French was schooled at St Paul’s Boy’s School and later Seychelles College, where among his classmates were James Mancham – who later became the founding President of Seychelles; Rolly Baker -- footballer/commentator and Marcel Coopoosamy, once a Catholic priest.

It was around the time he was doing his O-levels that he felt the call to serve his church and God.  He was encouraged by Archdeacon Derick Preece. After College, he taught for a while at St Paul’s before travelling to the UK to study at the Theological College in Lichfield, near Birmingham.

After three years, French was ordained deacon at Sheffield Cathedral. He officiated there for a year before catching the British India (BI) steamer to Seychelles where he was ordained at St Paul’s in a colourful ceremony that was the talk of the day. French served on Praslin until 1966 when he returned to Canterbury, UK for further studies. He worked in UK for another year before coming back home, when he again went to Praslin until 1974 when he went to Toronto, Canada for more studies.

It was on French’s return that he got married to Suzanne Talma, who had also just returned home from dental studies in New Zealand. Many will recall it as the wedding of the year --not because of its lavishness, but because a large percentage of the Anglican congregation turned up and escorted the happy couple to the old Pirates Arms, where the reception was held.

It was three weeks later that French nearly lost his life when the inter-island schooner Ero capsized on August 12, 1975.

Recounting the sad incident, he said: “I was travelling to Mahe for a meeting. There were 22 people, including four women and one child on board the Ero, which had left Praslin at 6.30am. The sea very rough and since I did not have sea legs, I preferred to stay below deck. “Two hours later, off Mamelles Island, water gushed in and skipper Luc Grandcourt called out to us to come on deck as he felt the ship was sinking. It appears that the high seas, with five- metre waves, had ripped a plank from the Ero’s bow, flooding the engine room.

“On deck, Luc quickly got us into life jackets and the ship was keeling over when he urged us to jump into the sea. That was around 9.30am and the water was cold. Luc had also got some empty oil drums tied together to form a raft. We were all linked to the raft by a rope to stop us from being washed away and getting lost.

“We were in the sea for several hours and several of us were getting cramped from the cold when a small airplane flew overhead and spotted us, bobbing on the waves. Some two hours later, the Lady Esmée and another vessel came to pick us up. That was around 5pm and we were all rushed to hospital where I was admitted overnight.”

Unknown to French at the time, it was customary for Luc’s father, Japhet Grandcourt, to call Mahe at 10am each time the Ero left to ensure that everything was fine. The Grandcourt patriarch was uneasy in mind since his wife told him that she had slept badly and dreamed of Luc swept away by the waves. That was when the alert was raised.

All the while, the passengers and crew, clinging to ropes for dear life off Mamelles Island, were fearing that night would soon fall and nobody would see them.

French feels everybody was saved due to the courage and leadership of Luc Grandcourt. To this day, he is sad that nobody has ever seen fit to reward the man with a medal for his outstanding bravery.

It was while in charge of Anse Royale parish that French and his wife were blessed by the birth of almost identical twin daughters -- Frances and Michelle. Today, Frances is married with two children.

It was the following year that French suffered the first family tragedy when his brother, Davidson, was shot in the events of June 5. Being a forgiving man, he does not want to talk about it, besides saying that he feels his brother could have been spared.

His consecration as Bishop in 1979

Happier times were to come in 1979 when he was made first Seychellois Bishop of Port Victoria. Until then, Seychelles had always been administered from Mauritius. He was consecrated by George Briggs, his predecessor and Trevor Huddlestone, leading anti-apartheid campaigner from South Africa, assisted by three other bishops from Madagascar.

In June 1984, French again made history, being elected Archbishop of the Indian Ocean Province (including Mauritius and Madagascar). He was the first native son of the islands to have been elected to such high office -- his predecessors, Briggs and Huddlestone, both being British.

That French remained Archbishop for 11 years speaks volumes for the respect and esteem he enjoys in the region.  Elections are held every five years. The post is presently held by Reverend Ian Ernest of Mauritius.

Sadly, tragedy was to strike again on May 12, 1996 when his beloved wife, “Suzy” as she was affectionately known to everyone, succumbed to cancer. French was left with two 18-year- old daughters to care for.

I had always believed that his engagement with Cancer Concern Association was linked to that tragedy. That is true, but French notes that Suzy had before her demise established contacts with cancer support groups in South Africa.  The organisation, set up in 2002, has many members, who like French, have lost a loved one to cancer.

French says Cancer Concern Association is soon to launch an education campaign focussing on diet as a way around the dreaded illness. He says he feels frustrated that canned foods, packed with chemicals are being publicised in the media. This is similar to advertising cigarettes.

French retired as Bishop in 2004, but is still in charge of St John’s parish, Glacis and is often present at services, including funerals at St Paul’s. He usually tells family members and friends of the deceased that their beloved one has probably found peace that evaded him or her in life and that the soul is sleeping eternally, looking down upon our beautiful islands.

French is also active with other organisations such as Friends of Prison, the National Council for the Disabled and the National Council for Children (NCC). He also played a key role in setting up the Inter-faith Council, which he sees as the spiritual voice of Seychelles, linking both Christian and non-Christian religions.

French Chang Him looking forward to golden jubilee next year

As French looks forward to marking his golden jubilee next year, the Anglican Church has every reason to celebrate, being adequately staffed with 10 local clergy.

I asked the retired Bishop where does he find time to fit into all this at 74, with two daughters and two grandchildren to care for.

His advice is that retirement must be well planned. “If you are active and then stop too quickly, old age sets in. There should be a balance between giving back some of what we have learnt, while also caring for ourselves.”


By John Lablache

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