Not only Anglicans of Seychelles, but the whole country celebrated the 50 years of priesthood of French Chang Him on Sunday June 9 at the St Paul’s Cathedral – the same cathedral in which he was ordained priest in 1963.
During Sunday’s ceremony, touching testimonies were read by those close to Bishop French. They described him as a great role model and as a man who has been through tough times but who has remained strong in faith and committed to his work.
Inside a packed St Paul’s Cathedral, Bishop French knelt down in front of the altar to receive blessings while all priests gathered around him. There were songs of praise, prayers, readings from the Old and New Testaments and the Gospel.
After receiving gifts from the various Anglican parishes, staff of the Anglican Diocese, the organisations he forms part of, friends and other individuals, Bishop French thanked all those who have been supportive throughout his 50-year journey.
The 75-year-old added that his active involvement in the non-governmental organisations have helped to enrich his life.
President James Michel, former President James Mancham, Designated Minister Vincent Meriton, Minister for Education Macsuzy Mondon, members of the judiciary, family members, friends and members of the Anglican congregation and of other denominations joined in celebrating Bishop French’s 50-year anniversary of priesthood.
It was around the time French Chang-Him was doing his O-levels that he felt the call to serve his church and God and he was encouraged by Archdeacon Derick Preece.
After completing his studies at Seychelles College, he taught for a while at St Paul’s before travelling to the United Kingdom to study at the Theological College in Lichfield, near Birmingham.
Three years later, 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 priest in 1963 at St Paul’s Cathedral in a colourful ceremony that was the talk of the day.
He 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.
In 1979, French was made first Seychellois Bishop of Port Victoria and was consecrated by George Briggs, his predecessor, and Trevor Huddlestone, leading anti-apartheid campaigner from South Africa, assisted by three other bishops from Madagascar. Before French’s ordination as Bishop, Seychelles had always been administered from Mauritius.
In June 1984, French was 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.
Father of almost identical twin daughters – Frances and Michelle – Bishop French earned the respect and esteem of all in the region and stayed as Archbishop for 11 years. Elections for Archbishops are held every five years.
Although French retired as Bishop in 2004, he is still in charge of St John’s parish at Glacis and often presides at services, including weddings, baptism and funerals and this includes at St Paul’s Cathedral.
In a recent interview, Bishop French said: “I feel a great sense of thanksgiving. Just like before the start of climbing a mountain or starting married life one never knows if one would make it to the summit and each day you have to be grateful to the Lord and thank Him for everything.
Looking back at 50 years of priesthood, I am thankful to the Lord for life itself, for everything that has happened in my life, the inspiration he has given me. There has been very good moments and some very difficult times as well but one thing which is certain is that God is always present in everything I do.”
Still a very active member of various other organisations like Friends of Prison, the National Council for the Disabled and the National Council for Children (NCC), Bishop French is also very much involved in the Seychelles Inter-faith Council (Sifco) which he played a key role in setting up.
His wishes are that Seychelles remains the peaceful and stable country that it has always been and that people of all faiths focus and concentrate their energy, effort and strengths on all the things that unite us as a nation and a people and such things are education, family values and unity.
“Regardless of our different faiths we should all work in collaboration and should not compete with each other. Any sign of friction between the different faiths saddens me deeply but I know if we focus on the things that are positive and unite us we will go very far in life,” he said.
Bishop French also provides a lot of counselling and visits the sick at the hospital and take Holy Communion to the sick at home.
“I feel happy and content with my life. Though not shouldering the great responsibility of the diocese I still remain at the service of the church and ready to assist in any way I am called to do so,” said Bishop French.
The difficult times
Three weeks after marrying Suzanne ‘Suzy’ Talma at the St Paul’s Cathedral followed by a reception at the old Pirates Arms, Bishop French nearly lost his life when the inter-island schooner Ero capsized on August 12, 1975.
He was one of 22 people, including four women and one child, on the boat. He recalled that two hours after leaving Praslin at 6.30am on board Ero, water started gushing into the boat off Mamelles Island and skipper Luc Grandcourt called everyone on deck as he felt the ship was sinking.
Bishop French recounts the incident: “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 was 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.”
In June 1977, Bishop French’s brother, Davidson, was shot.
On May 12, 1996, he lost his beloved wife ‘Suzy’, as she was affectionately known to everyone. ‘Suzy’, who had followed dental studies in New Zealand, succumbed to cancer.