Missionaries of Africa

by Stefaan Minnaert,
M.Afr Archivist Rome

Lavigerie speaks to us about his missionary work in 1869

Recently, I found an interesting text from Cardinal Lavigerie in our Archives. It is his report of the 1st December 1869, addressed to Cardinal Allesandro Barnabò, the Prefect for the Congregation of the Propagation of the Faith, (Lettres de Mgr Lavigerie à la Congrégation de la Propagation de la Foi, N° 10). In it, Lavigerie presents his missionary work, including the foundation of the Society of Missionaries of Africa in 1868.

In spite of its limitations, I thought this text could be of interest to confreres who wish to become better acquainted with the origins of their missionary family. Is not our Founder the person best qualified to tell us about it? Naturally, we have to read this text with a degree of detachment, bearing in mind the historical context of the distant 19th century. It was still at the beginning of the Western colonisation of Africa. We have to keep in mind also that the Missiology of this period aimed mainly at the salvation of souls, rather than the proclamation of Jesus Christ.
Our Society has evolved since 1869. It was already the case in the lifetime of our Founder. The engine of its evolution was the outcome of the various Chapters that tried to respond to the appeals of the Church and of the African world, where there were continually new expectations.

No one today would do mission work as in the Cardinal’s time. Nevertheless, this 1869 report maintains its topicality. It shows us the importance of having a clear objective and the means adapted for its achievement, i.e., motivated and trained personnel, as well as finances. The report shows that at the start of its existence, our Society formed part of several missionary foundations, from which it finally emerged. In order to move towards the future, we have to know our roots, i.e., where we come from so as to know the direction we wish to take, all the time in the company of the One who calls us to go even further. I leave you the pleasure of discovering our past in a quite original way. Of course, every person will read this report with his own missionary experience and culture. No one can remain impassive!

Stefaan Minnaert, M.Afr, Archivist
March 2009 Rome

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Algiers, 1st December 1869

Apostolic Delegation of the Sahara and (French) Sudan

Your Eminence,

When the SC of Propaganda did me the honour of entrusting me, as Apostolic Delegate, with the foundation of a new mission in the vast territories extending to the south of Algeria, I promised Your Eminence that I would furnish an exact account of what we have been able to do for the benefit of this new mission.

At the end of this first year, I keep my sacred promise and request Your Eminence’s permission to state briefly, in the fist place, what was given to us to achieve up till now and secondly, what our needs are and how I believe the SC and the Holy See could very effectively come to our aid, without any burden to them.

I What has been done for the good of the mission since the 1st October 1868
On the 1st October 1868, after receiving Ordinary Powers from the SC of Propaganda, I began my involvement with the foundation of a mission in the Sahara and the Sudan. There was not a single institution, priest or even Christian in this mission. I therefore had to begin by exercising my duties in preparing the indispensable elements for a proper, effective and enduring proclamation of our Holy Faith. Here are the actual results:

1- Foundation of a special seminary and a special Society of Missionaries for the evangelisation of the Sahara and the Sudan
The first requirement for an embryonic mission is the training of a clergy capable of profitably fulfilling the functions of the apostolate. I therefore thought firstly about how to train them and this is how I proceeded. I appealed to young clerics in my diocesan seminary and diocesan seminaries in France. I revealed to them the sad state of abandonment in which the Muslim and idolatrous populations of North Africa had languished in poverty for centuries. I asked those among them who would be fired with the required zeal and courage to devote themselves to this mission.

From the outset, i.e., the first days of October 1868, six young clerics, two of whom already priests, responded to this first appeal. I brought them together in one house. I revealed to them the difficulties and the importance of their mission, as well as according to me, the reasons for the complete failure of the Catholic apostolate towards Muslims. In agreement with them, I drafted the first rules of our little Society, whose founding principles are as follows:

a) They form a Society of Missionaries, entirely intended for the apostolate among the Arab Muslims of Africa;
b) They live in community, always at least three together;
c) Right from seminary, novitiate, they adopt the diet, language, dress, sleeping habits, etc., of the Arabs.
d) They learn enough about medicine to treat the sick.

The intention of these various rules is to smooth their entry into the various regions where they could be sent and more quickly win the trust and affection of the Arabs. This operation has now been running for fourteen months. Eight other missionaries have come to join the first six. There is therefore a community of fourteen clerics who are preparing to leave for the mission. The Jesuits kindly agreed to accept the running of this seminary, or rather novitiate, as we would like to call it. I set it up last year in a rented house, but with the increased number of members, I situated it at Saint-Eugène, in a vast diocesan property.

2 - Foundation of a special junior seminary for the Sahara and the Sudan.
The aim of the major seminary and the Society just mentioned is to provide workers of the Gospel for the mission in the Sahara in the short term, but we have to think also of the future and seek to use all the resources within our reach, and in particular, native resources.

Now, among the 1,753 Arab children we rescued during the last famine, several of whom belong to Saharan regions, there are a good number of very intelligent ones, gifted in aptitudes towards piety and wisdom. Step by step, we spoke to them not only of receiving Baptism, but even of becoming priests. With great generosity, they accepted this idea and four months ago we selected thirty-four of them, bringing them together in a special house. There, they follow the same subjects as in the junior seminaries of France and demonstrate the most cheering attitudes. They are preparing as a well-stocked nursery of seedlings, tailor-made to the customs and language of the country.

This junior seminary is also at Saint-Eugène. It is run by missionaries who have completed their first novitiate, to whom I have added an excellent local man from the Sahara who has already been baptised. Our intention is not to ordain these young men until they would want to enter the Society of Missionaries later, so as to be more sure of their perseverance.

3- Foundation of two establishments on the borders of the Sahara, one for the Jesuits Fathers and the other for Sisters, to serve as advance staging posts and entry to the mission.
To place ourselves in more frequent and direct contact with the Saharan populations that we are to evangelise, I thought it best, eight months ago, to found two religious establishments, one for men and the other for women, at Laghouat. It is deep in the desert, but still within the territory of the Diocese of Algiers. The first is entrusted to the Jesuit Fathers, the second to the Sisters of Christian Doctrine.

In both establishments, we provide lessons for local children. There is help for adults, hospitality for desert dwellers coming from town, some medicine for the sick and most importantly, we prepare a warm welcome for missionaries.
We already have to think about enlarging the Jesuit Fathers’ establishment by adding another house. This house belongs to the Cadi, or head Muslim, who agreed to sell it to us ‘in gratitude for the good we do for his fellow-countrymen’. These are his own words.

4- Foundation of orphanages and homes intended for children of the Mission to the Sahara and the Sudan in the Diocese of Algiers.
I will not reiterate here the creation and existence of orphanages intended for the Arab children of Algeria, rescued by us during the famine. Our Algerian orphanages continue to make progress. However, for the benefit of the mission, I had to multiply these establishments, make them permanent and ensure their future as far as possible.

1870In the course of the year, I will therefore have established five new ones, intended for the mission and on land bought by me, of which I shall speak later. For the missionaries, the orphanages will represent highly prized establishments. They will send all the children there from upcountry they can gather, either from their parents, or ultimately redeeming them from slave-trading countries. They will have them educated and recall them to the mission, where, in any event, they will become their auxiliaries.

I believe this is the only practical way to achieve sure and worthwhile results. Indeed, experience tells us that converted adults make more trouble with their demands and infidelities, whereas children raised in the Christian faith are strongly attached to it. When they have received an education enabling them to earn their living usefully, they are a genuine support for the missions upcountry. Added to that is the unhealthy climate that quickly mows down European missionaries and makes the cooperation of sons of the soil even more valuable, as they are immune to these attacks.

5- Purchase of plots and the creation of agricultural institutes in Algeria, for the good of the mission.
For all the reasons I gave in the above paragraph, I decided, as I said, to create orphanages in Algeria for the good of my Delegation in the Sahara. These orphanages are agricultural institutes where the children I have just mentioned will be educated.

Algeria provided me with favourable conditions for this. Its climate is healthy, the land is fertile and abundant and although it is perhaps not lacking envy, its government is not openly opposed to our plans. I have therefore been able, at a stroke, to ensure territorial custody of the mission.

On that account, I paid the high price, it is true, of six hundred and fifty thousand francs, for nine different major properties, together comprising almost three thousand hectares of excellent land. When it is cultivated, our missionaries, orphans and the mission itself will have rich resources. It is where the children sent by the mission will be received and brought up by the communities of which I will speak in the next paragraph.

6 - Foundation for the mission of two agricultural and charitable communities.
In order to direct the children’s activities, to work the land properly and even help in establishing the missionaries in unfamiliar regions where everything has to be obtained from working on the spot, other workers for the Gospel were needed, whose character and abilities were apt for this ministry. I therefore thought of giving rise to and promoting the creation of two communities: one of Brothers, the other of Sisters, who would be exclusively intended to help the mission by the running of the agricultural institutes where the orphans, boys and girls, would be gathered. This would be by the exercise of the works of mercy towards the poor and the sick, separated according to sex, and finally by the cultivation of our land. Both these communities are already in existence. There are 27 Sisters in the women’s and 15 postulants for the Brothers’ community.

Faced with such results, we had to consider giving some provisional rules to these two communities. This is what I did, while waiting for them to be sufficiently consolidated, so that I may submit these rules for the approval and correction of the SC and the Holy See.

The faithful have given the name of Brothers and Sisters of the Foreign Missions to these two communities and they have placed themselves under the patronage of the Venerable Martyr Geronimo. I am appending their printed rules to this report. Moreover, I can do no better than saying that they propose to achieve for our mission, as far their humble strengths allow, what the Order of St Benedict, both agriculturally and apostolically, did for Europe in the Middle Ages. It was then pagan and barbarian and his Order cleared the ground and converted them. The Brothers’ novitiate is run by the Reverend Jesuit Fathers, while that of the Sisters is run by the Sisters of Saint Charles of Nancy.

7- Foundation in France and preparation in Belgium of Postulancies for the communities of the Brothers and Sisters of our mission.
Both communities mentioned, although founded in Africa and having their Mother Houses and novitiates there, will certainly not find the required recruits there, due to the small number of Christians, as well as good Christians, who are in this country.

In this respect, Divine Providence has come to our assistance by opening the way to the creation of postulancies in France and Belgium. In a letter to the works of the Propagation of the Faith, I had made known the beginnings of these two little Societies and the objectives they had set for themselves.

Soon afterwards, many applications were addressed to me from France. I did not think I could welcome them all, due to the problems of travel and distance and I asked them to wait. During this time, Bishop Deleusy of Viviers charitably consented to the establishing of two postulancies in his Diocese, one for the Brothers and the other for the Sisters. I took advantage of his benevolent authorisation and rented two properties near the small town of Vans, where the postulancies are now established.

While this movement was taking place in France, a similar effort was taking place in Belgium. Fr. Jaspers, an excellent priest of the Diocese of Malines, wrote to me asking to admit him to the Brothers’ community and with him, about a hundred young men who were part of a very numerous association of workers in Antwerp. I delayed this admission until I would be able to have an interview at Paris with Fr. Jaspers and the delegates of his young workers, before I would arrive for the Council.

Their entry into the community has been decided. Fr. Jaspers and his companions will go to the novitiate at Algiers next February. If I can, and I hope I shall be able to do so, I shall obtain authorisation from the Archbishop of Malines, so that I can found a postulancy in his diocese also, to promote vocations for the missions. Just as I was receiving these requests from Belgium for the Brothers’ community, I was also receiving perhaps even more extraordinary ones for the postulancy of the Sisters. Mademoiselle Mortier, one of the most distinguished young women of the country by their nobility and fortune, pleaded with me again and again to come, she told me, to earn her living with the poor, by the sweat of her brow. She is now a novice at Algiers, with several of her compatriots.

8- Translation and printing of the Catechism and the Holy Gospels into Berber.
At the same time as preparing personnel for the mission, we also had to provide it with the means to spread the Word among the populations it was due to evangelise. Consequently, all the missionaries were to apply themselves without delay to learning Arabic and Berber. This had not yet occurred among the clergy of Algeria. In addition, we had to think about putting into their hands religious books written in the language of the country and that could usefully be of service to non-believers. This is what we did. The Arabic books were not difficult, as we had recourse to the excellent publications produced under the direction of Propaganda.

For the Berbers, it was more difficult. There was no Catholic book in this ancient language. I immediately called upon Fr. Creusat, Superior of the mission seminary, who, with the assistance of several local-born neophytes composed the following:

a) a Berber translation of the diocesan catechism of Algiers,
b) a Berber translation of the Holy Gospels for the Sundays of the year.

At my own expense, I had these first two books printed and I have the honour of presenting them to Your Eminence the Prefect of Propaganda, as the first fruits of a language still unknown in Europe, although it is certainly contemporaneous with Phoenician and Assyrian.
In these few lines, therefore, is the simple and succinct exposé of what we have done in this first year.

II Hopes and difficulties for the mission
According to what has been said in the first part of this report, the mission in Algeria already has 11 establishments that belong to the mission or are intended for it, namely:

- A major seminary or novitiate for the missionaries.
- A junior seminary for local boys.
- Five orphanages, three for boys and two for girls.
- A Mother House for the Farmer-Brothers
- A Mother House for the Farmer-Sisters
- A residence for the Jesuit Fathers at Laghouat.
- A residence for the Sisters of Christian Doctrine, idem.

Maison-Carrée à Alger (photo de 2006)I bought and paid for these establishments for the sum of around seven hundred and fifty thousand francs, namely, as I said, about six hundred and fifty thousand francs for the plots of land and one hundred thousand francs for the buildings. This amount has been completely paid in total, as I insisted on not having any debts on our properties.

I spent all my resources on these payments and will need at least three hundred thousand francs a year for three or four years. This will be for the smooth running and purchase of the actual establishment of the mission in the Sahara and the Sudan, as well as educating the orphans, training missionaries, etc.

Our properties already provide us with a hundred thousand, but we will have to find two hundred thousand more by applying to Catholic charity. The problems we have to overcome to achieve this result are of two kinds.

The first comes from the Algerian Government that does not dare, as I have already stated, to do anything against us overtly. It still harbours silent but very tangible hostility towards us and tries to discredit our mission centres, thereby reducing trust and slowing the pace of donations.

The second, more painful and serious, (I only mention them to Your Eminence with the greatest reluctance) come from the attitude taken from the outset of our affairs by both suffragans, in particular the Bishop of Constantine. I will have the honour of disclosing this sad situation viva voce to Your Eminence. Prudence and charity prevent me from doing so here.

Nevertheless, faced with such obstacles, I would need the support of the SC of Propaganda and Your Eminence the Prefect to attain the resources I need.

a) Your advocacy at the Opus of the Propagation of the Faith and the Holy Childhood. The Opus gives me 15,000 Fr for the mission and the Holy Childhood absolutely nothing, whereas I am bringing up twelve hundred non-Christian children entirely on my own account. I feel sure that one word from Your Eminence to this Association would guarantee us an allowance.
b) Your advocacy especially with the Holy Father, from whom I would like to have a Brief of encouragement and satisfaction for all those who have so generously helped us already and who could help us in the future.

I feel sure that it would be enough to guarantee us the resources we need and I know the tender kindness of Your Eminence well enough to hope that you will agree to accept my request.
With these sentiments, I have the honour of being, with profound and respectful devotion to

Your Eminence, a very humble and obedient servant,
+ Charles, Archbishop,
Apostolic Delegate to the Sahara and the Sudan.