Missionaries of Africa

by Stefaan Minnaert,
M.Afr Archivist Rome

Father Pierre Viven, 1844-1933
A Superior General forgotten by history

All those who have visited the Generalate have been able to admire the photos of our Superiors General in the ‘Lavigerie Room’. In all, there are thirteen. Curiously enough, no one imagines that this list could perhaps not be complete. It is possible that one is missing, for instance, Fr. Pierre Viven. We discovered it by chance when reading his obituary. ‘It even occurred that in the course of 1890, from the 10th January till the 10th October, Rev. Fr. Viven had to exercise the office of interim Vicar General.’ The title of Vicar General was then used to designate the Superior General of the Missionaries of Africa, given that the title was reserved to Cardinal Lavigerie until his death in 1892. Therefore, according to this obituary, Fr. Viven was administrator of our Society for nine months, under the watchful eye of its Founder. This entry, which surprised us, requires a little explanation.

At the September 1889 Chapter, Bishop Livinhac was elected Assistant, and then chosen as Vicar General. Now, he was in the missions, in Equatorial Africa, as Vicar Apostolic of Victoria Nyanza, with his residence at Kamoga, Bukumbi (present-day Tanzania). While waiting for his return, which could take months, Fr. Deguerry, First Assistant of the Council, elected in 1889, exercised the office of Vicar General. However, to everyone’s great surprise, Fr. Deguerry submitted his resignation in January 1890 and left the Society after a disagreement with Lavigerie concerning, amongst other things, the possible shifting of the Mother House from Algiers to Carthage, Tunisia. It was then that Fr. Viven became First Assistant with the office of interim Vicar General, a responsibility he exercised for 9 months.

However, before adding Father Viven to the list of Superiors General, a thorough investigation would have to be made of this matter. His obituary is not sufficient as documentary evidence.

Who was Fr. Viven? He was French, from the diocese of Rodez. He was born on the 19th October 1844 at Lacapelle-Balaguier. After his priestly ordination on the 3rd June 1871, he worked firstly as a curate for 2 years in St. Christophe parish, then 3 years at Saint-Côme-sur-Lot parish. In January 1876, he applied to join the Society of Missionaries of Africa. The reply was favourable, but his bishop refused to give his permission, arguing that the candidate was too old and his health would not allow him to work in Africa. Finally, Fr. Viven obtained his agreement, and on the 19th October 1876, he began his Novitiate. At that time, he wanted to ‘make himself worthy to work at the great undertaking of the conversion of the poor Arabs.’ He took his Missionary Oath on the 9th October 1877. After a short stay at Our Lady of Africa, he worked at Tagmount-Azouz, Kabylia. On the 4th January 1878, he went to Maison Carrée to fulfil his duties as director and professor at the Scholasticate.

In October 1878, he was appointed Director of the Brothers. In spite of his new appointment, he continued to give courses of philosophy at the Scholasticate until the 4th April 1879. On that date, he was appointed parish priest of the parish for Christian Arabs at Saint-Cyprien-des-Attafs. In September 1880, he became Superior of the Scholasticate, an office he exercised until 1886, firstly at Maison Carrée, then from October 1882, at Carthage. From 1886 till 1896, he was Novice-Master. During the Chapters of 1878, 1880, 1883, 1886, 1889 and 1894, he was elected a member of the General Council. From September 1889 till September 1891, he was also Provincial of Algeria.

Due to these many activities, Fr. Viven became old before his time. In 1896, he became chaplain at Our Lady of Africa. The following year, in 1897, he returned to the Mother House, where he spent the rest of his life in semi-retirement. Finally, in 1900, he gave up his seat on the General Council to Fr. Pierre Michel and went to live at the St. Joseph Sanatorium at Maison Carrée. This house accommodated sick missionaries returning from Africa. Fr. Viven was to be its Superior till 1930. On the 3rd June 1931, he celebrated his Diamond Jubilee. Unable to hear and sightless, but alert until the end, he passed away in the night of the 22nd and 23rd February 1933 at the age of 89.

Thus, the life of someone who had administered the Society in a discreet and efficient manner during a difficult period in its history ended.

Stefaan Minnaert

See also
The General Councils of the Society from 1894 to 2010
The Superiors General of the Society from 1868 to 2010