Ordination Class of 2024: Deacon John Tanyi

This is the fourth article in a series profiling the 11 men who will be ordained to the priesthood for the Archdiocese of Boston at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross on May 25, 2024.

WESTON -- "Mommy, one day you will call me reverend," Deacon John Tanyi said to his mother when he was seven years old.

Thirty-nine-year-old Deacon Tanyi, a seminarian at St. John Paul XXIII Seminary in Weston, was born John Tanyi Nquah Lebui in the coastal city of Tiko, Cameroon, a country in West-Central Africa. He grew up on a farm with seven siblings. His mother was a lab technician and his father was the headmaster of a Catholic school for almost 50 years. Visiting the Catholic school compound with his father, Deacon Tanyi was fascinated by the white cassocks the priests wore. That was when his interest in a vocation began.

"The faith was ingrained in us," he told The Pilot in a Jan. 22 interview.

Deacon Tanyi likes to say that his family was his first seminary. He, his parents, and his siblings would wake up at 5 a.m. daily and walk almost an hour to attend Mass at 6:30 a.m. Before dawn, with only a torch to light the way, they prayed the rosary as they walked to church. He would work on his family's farms, growing corn, beans, yams, plantains, and cassava, and raising chickens and pigs.

"I would never eat the pork from our compound because my father treated them like human beings," he recalled. "He gave them names. He cleaned the sty morning, afternoon, evening. They became like part of us."

Every Christmas and Easter, one of the pigs would be slaughtered and served for dinner.

"My younger brother and I found it very difficult because we'd become so used to these animals," he said.

Deacon Tanyi's parents made sure that he attended one of the finest Catholic secondary schools in Cameroon.

"We were not poor, but we weren't rich," he said. "We had a decent, decent living and our parents worked very, very hard to make sure we had all of what we needed."

Around the time he graduated in 2002, he talked to his pastor. At first, Deacon Tanyi wanted to be a diocesan priest, but his pastor convinced him to become a missionary. He spent six years doing missionary work in Uganda.

"It was a very good experience, but different," he said. "It is Africa, but Uganda is in East Africa. It is somewhat different from life in West and Central Africa where I come from, and a new language, new cuisine."

He speaks seven languages: English, French, Luganda (the dominant language of Uganda), Swahili, Cameroonian Pidgin English, and the Cameroonian languages Bayangi and Ewondo. He is also currently learning Spanish.

After missionary work in Uganda, he studied international relations in Kenya, and was hired to teach at the Catholic University of Eastern Africa and Mount Kenya University.

"I was very interested in academics," he said.

It was difficult for him to give up academia for the priesthood. After his ordination, he hopes that he can continue writing about his favorite topic, the diplomacy of the Holy See. He recently wrote "The Cross and the Flag," about the international travels of Pope St. John Paul II, which will be published by St. Augustine's Press in June. He plans to give the book to his friends and family as an "ordination gift."

Coming to the U.S. for a sabbatical rekindled Deacon Tanyi's interest in the priesthood. He had conversations with several priests and Cardinal Seán P. O'Malley, which inspired him to finally pursue a vocation to the priesthood.

"I've been very happy that I made the decision to come to this seminary," he said.

Before coming to Boston to earn his master's degree in theology and ministry from Boston College, he had only seen snow on TV.

"One day I was in the library," he recalled. "Going out, it's all white."

He remembered saying "My God, what is this?"

"That is snow," someone told him.

"The cold I experienced in Boston," he said, "I've never experienced something like this prior to coming to America."

In addition to the Boston weather, some aspects of American culture surprised him. He has found that Americans prefer to keep to themselves, and are less conversational than Cameroonians.

"People are not very open," he said. "Life here is a very busy life."

He also found that Americans tend to have less free time than Cameroonians.

"It's not easy to easily socialize with friends," he said.

He graduated from Boston College in 2020, then joined Pope St. John XXIII National Seminary, where he received "spiritual nourishment" as well as academic training. His favorite part of being a seminarian has been getting to know people from different backgrounds.

"My interactions with not only the faculty but my fellow seminarians have really enriched my spiritual life in many ways," he said.

He was ordained to the transitional diaconate in 2023, and assigned to St. Anne Parish in Salem. That same year, his father died. He returned to Cameroon to deliver the homily at his funeral Mass.

"It was a blessing to me," he said.

Deacon Tanyi said that when he first called his father to tell him he decided to become a priest, "he was so happy that it shocked me."

"He started calling me reverend even before my diaconal ordination," Deacon Tanyi recalled.

His mother is "super excited" and is planning on attending the presbyteral ordination, along with his siblings.

When he becomes a priest, he hopes to "help people develop intimate relationships with Christ."

"I really want to be close to Christ," he said. "To be close to Christ in prayer, to be close to Christ in front of the Blessed Sacrament. And I want my life, my ministry as a priest, to help people also grow in their faith.''

He also looks forward to reaching out to people who are lacking faith.

"If through me," he said, "and the ministry that the church will give me, they can come back to the faith, that would be good."

As his ordination looms, he feels both excited and nervous.

"I'm humbled that my childhood dream is becoming a reality," he said. "To be called to share the priesthood of Christ is a good feeling to me."