Missionaries of Africa

Saint-Joseph THIBAR

We share with you here the short history of Saint Joseph’s Thibar, as found in the Annual Reports 1905-1906, pp. 18-31. Thibar was a sizeable enterprise that contributed for many years to the financing of the Society. We hope you will appreciate, as we do, the frank outspokenness of Father Alexis Lemaître, the author of the report. The photos were taken in 1930.

This station was begun in 1895 to serve as a model farm and provide some income. In April 1896, orphans of the 1893 famine were received there; reception up till then had been at ND de Pitié. Many Brother Coadjutors, in addition to completing their apostolic formal preparation were trained in the various occupations they would be called upon to undertake. The older orphans were married and created a little village, with its church, presbytery and Sisters’ house.

These various buildings date from 1903, but they were only occupied in 1904. The village called ‘Poste de la Sainte Famille’ was only separated from Saint-Joseph for a year (1904-1905). In 1905, the Parish Priest took up residence at Saint-Joseph.

Father Lemaître, in his 1905-06 Annual Report that we relate in part here, wrote, ‘I have not a hope of giving an adequate impression of Thibar in a few pages. It is an undertaking that visiting cards describe as complex. Thibar is a small world and it would need a volume to describe it, which I have not been asked to do, and neither am I standing as a candidate to do so.’

Thibar was so little known. Was it not even neglected in our Society? Some of our now-distant confreres, did they not sometimes express their compassion when thinking of the missionaries at Thibar? Thibar for some was like the Society’s prison, where they sent those who were dismissed for lacking apostolic zeal. Thibar for others was to be condemned to the farm, aware that in the past there were galley slaves there, as though someone would no doubt have had to cripple one of his own to deserve this disgrace! Thanks for the compliment; it shows such a good heart! As for the non-denominational, they see it at least as a school for practicing rational methods of cultivation, and an example to follow in relations with the people. It is at least of a more exact interpretation. For us here, we see it as community life, agricultural and industrial utilisation and above all, an apostolic undertaking.

The Community
Brothers at recreation in the inner courtyard.The community is currently composed of 13 Fathers, almost all of them in active service and 24 Brothers. In the village, there are 7 Sisters attached to the mission. Needless to say, our community life and the practice of religious and apostolic virtues are, as it should remain, our main constant concern.
The Brothers only have work indicated by the Rule; there are enough Fathers today to have enough time daily in favour of ecclesiastical studies. Everyone has something to bear the burden of the day and the heat gladly, remembering that sad saints are sad examples of sanctity. In addition, at Thibar, if we are in our element, we are content, even when it rains.

Agricultural and industrial utilisation
St Joseph’s property at Thibar, bought two years ago (in 1903) by the Société Hollande-Thibar, consists of around 1200 hectares of land for cultivation and 700 of brush and hilly land. It is situated in the valley between Djebel Aroussa in the north and Djebel Gorra in the south. The wadi Thibar runs through it and waters a small hill that used to be the actual town of Thibar, an episcopal town, the titular see of Bishop Dupont. A new road crosses it from east to north to reach the Sidi Zehili rail station, a distance of 12 kilometres and a post and telegraph office run by us. These have significantly increased the value of the property, in enabling the flow and transport of produce.

This property’s variety of natural resources makes it one of the most beautiful and best of Tunisia. The soil also lends itself to the cultivation of cereals and vines, as well as the production of forage. The climate is healthy, with excellent abundant water and the precious resource of brick-earth, limestone and gypsum, and woods for a hundred years and more.

Thibarine actuelleTen years ago, Thibar was almost entirely uncultivated. Seeing its proper utilisation and these immense buildings today, we have never so well merited the title of Desert Pioneers, a distinguished visitor one day said to me. It is very flattering to our predecessors at Thibar!

On this topic, what can a person find of interest at Thibar from the farming point of view? Well, much more than just interesting. I repeat what is done, in general. Firstly, cereals: durum wheat, bread wheat, oats, barley and natural and artificial forage. Then the vine: ‘Your vineyard is the most thriving we have in Tunisia’, a vineyard inspector once told me. As for wine, it is of sufficient quality presently for us to sell 4-500 hectolitres in Tunisia.

We raise livestock, cattle, sheep, pigs, mules and horses. For several years now, we have centred on the creation of a nursery and tree plantation. At the moment, we have over 10,000 varieties of tree species: pine, ash, carob, eucalyptus, elm, etc., which grow very well. We created an orchard of 4 hectares, double-dug and surrounded by a thorny hedge, quite enough for its protection. It is three-quarters planted with fruit trees and will be completed this year.
Due to lack of space, I am skipping a lot of interesting items in each area of service, notably the bursar’s activities.

 Thoroughbred Breton mare and its foal. Breeding takes pride of place.These are raising geese, ducks, chickens and guinea fowl. There is also the livestock: these are young English half-blood colts or thoroughbred Barbary, which this year won eleven prizes at the insemination by donor stud commission proceedings. There is the service of cultivation with these transports of manure that bring in a net saving of 50%. There are mechanical services for the biggest machines and wood-burning heating that costs less than coal.

As can be seen, Thibar can therefore produce just about anything, without counting other natural resources such as lime, plaster, wood, natural phosphates already being tried, water, etc. I did say water: this is not to tantalise our confreres in the Sahara. It is not that we have any pretensions about doing everything better than many others in Tunisia, but it is well-known that here there is a multifaceted complex that can be found nowhere else.

I now come to the main part of our enterprise at Thibar. Agri­cultural and industrial utilisation is only a means to an end: mission is the objective.

Apostolic work
For all the local people, we see to practicing charity through justice. There, we saw the first of our duties, as it is the first right of these poor people. However, we understand that this dual virtue of charity and justice imposes reciprocal duties. Nevertheless, in these inevitable cases of dispute, resulting from theft, grazing offences committed by some doing us serious harm, I am unable to say that any of them, even the culprits, would ever deny the testimony given in our favour, both by the European and native authorities, and by public opinion: ‘The Babas are just and fair.’

As for gifts or loans to the local people, we have done away with almost all of them, after seeing that for some time these means of the apostolate, at least here, have no other effect than making us look like very rich people. We had no merit in giving or lending, often creating ungrateful recipients and also often making enemies when the time would come for repayment, even if it was not obtained. Did playing the fool ever have an effect?

Village de la Sainte FamilleFinally, according to the traditions of our missions, we give, as in the past, our care and our time to the corporal works of mercy by treating the sick at the mission or at home in our apostolic visits. In turn, the Fathers treat the sick at the dispensary for a fortnight each and the apostolic visits are done every week by a Father accompanied by two Brothers, each one in a region reserved to him.

We have also opened wide the doors of our chapels to those who come looking for the Word of God, the Sacraments, or fulfilling their Sunday obligation, and I may say for several, a return to God. I say our chapels, for we have six of them to look after: five open to the public and our community chapel.

For one or another living at Thibar, we have had to perform a serious purification. However, now we have peace, because our rigid discipline maintains the tranquillity of order for everyone, the youngest to the oldest. Good conduct is a must to have employment at Thibar and moreover, to keep up the hope of marrying in the village.
It is quite understood that this village will be a model Christian village. To remain here is a reward. It has to be earned by exemplary behaviour and great docility to­wards not only the Superior, but also towards all missionaries, Fathers, Brothers and Sisters, regardless. As the missionaries have the same dedication and have made the same sacrifices, the duties of the children should be the same for all.

In summary, Thibar is above all an enterprise of native apostolate through Christian education and work. Let those who could have been mistaken on the importance of this last-mentioned means, i.e., work, think again. Perhaps they will judge with us that if man, according to his condition is made for work, work brings with it aptitudes for supernatural virtues, whereas idleness will always be the mother of all vices.

Training men to become farmers, tradesmen, supervisors and foremen is to improve their manhood with legitimate ease, and place within their reach their own food and that of their families.

On top of human virtues of work and conduct regularly directed and governed, there is the possibility of grafting Christian virtues, especially specific ones, onto them. Certain degrees of virtue are rarely acquired by will power, through strenuous effort and pain. By contrast, would this be a recommended remedy, perhaps the only one for many unavoidable miseries in the missions of our confreres elsewhere, whose resounding successes make them considered more fortunate than we are at Thibar?

Fr Alexis Lemaître

Petit Echo N° 1002

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Thibar Photos 2002 and the village of Thibar