The White Fathers in Senegal (PE nr. 1080)

After the death last February of Fr. Joseph-Roger de Benoist, Fr. François Richard discovered this unpublished article among his many writings. In the run up to celebrating the 150th anniversary of our Society, we remember some personalities who have left their mark on their contemporaries. In this article, we learn about the many confreres that have written a page of history of the Church in Senegal and whose stories many of us know nothing about.

The first White Fathers to arrive in Senegal were Frs. Paul Eveillard, Victor Dupuis and Victor Ficheux who were the companions of Fr. Augustin Hacquard and they had come to found the missions of Segou and Timbuktu in French Soudan. They landed at Dakar on the 5th January 1895 and took the train to Saint-Louis du Senegal where Fr. Hacquard gave a lecture at the Alliance Française. On the 16th January 1895, the caravan boarded the Brière de l’Isle, a small steamship of 50 tons, which at this time of low water could only go as far as Podor. They arrived the following day. The missionaries then boarded barges that brought them to Kayes, arriving on the 12th February. From there, the Fathers continued their journey by train, canoe, on horseback and on foot until they arrived at Segou on the 1st April 1895. Over the following years, many White Fathers’ caravans transited through Senegal where the Spiritan Fathers always made them welcome.

P. Augustin Hacquard et P. Auguste Dupuis

In June 1947, the Ordinaries of the three Missionary Institutes (Spiritans, Society of African Missions, and the White Fathers), working in French West Africa, met in Koumi in what is now Burkina Faso. Two Spiritans Bishops were absent, Bishops Grimault of Dakar who had just resigned and Bishop Lerouge of Conakry. The Bishops decided to coordinate their activities in their territories in French West Africa and appointed Fr. Jacques Bertho (SMA) to be responsible for Catholic Private Education, Fr. Georges Courrier (CSSp) as the director of Catholic works, which included all forms of the Lay Apostolate. They asked the White Fathers to take charge of Social Communications.

P. Marcel Paternot dirigeant une prière

his task was entrusted to Fr. Marcel Paternot who was the former Apostolic Prefect of Bobo Dioulasso. He had resigned because of a car accident and was, at the time, the Procurator at Lyon. In 1948, Fr. Paternot arrived in Dakar, but Fr. Salomon, then Capitular Vicar, asked him to take up residence at Rufisque about 25 kms, from Dakar. Soon afterwards, Fr. Paternot rented huts from the French Army situated at Cambérène much closer to the capital. He received reinforcements in the persons of Frs. André Prost, Robert Rummelhardt, Pierre Jamet and Bro. Roger-Marie. Fr. Henri Etienne arrived a little later and he took charge of the procure. At that time, most of the White Fathers going to French Soudan travelled by boat and passed through Dakar. Fr. Paternot bought some land between the residential and administrative area known as the Plateau and the working class district of Médina. He built a two-storey building opposite the present Grand Mosque. At the same time, he began preparations for publishing a new periodical.

P. Jamet

The first edition of Afrique Nouvelle appeared on the 15th June 1947. At first, it came out every two months but it quickly became a weekly publication in October of the same year. It was distributed in the colonies of French West Africa as well as Cameroon and the countries of French Equatorial Africa until La Semaine en AEF and l’Effort Camerounais made their appearance. In the first issue, Joseph Ki Zerbo wrote the editorial. Fr. Paternot explained the motto of the magazine, Connaître, Aimer, Servir (Know, Love, Service). In October 1950, the General Council sent two confreres for professional training in journalism to the Ecole Supérieure de Journalisme at Lille. They were Frs. François Jacquet (ordained in 1949) and Fr. de Benoist (ordained in 1950). Fr Jacquet came to reinforce the team in October 1950 and Fr. de Benoist after a number of sessions in France arrived in Dakar on the 15th May 1951. He replaced Fr. Jamet.

Despite its rather modest circulation, Afrique Nouvelle quickly became an essential element in the socio-political evolution of French West Africa. In the first fifteen years of its existence, the weekly newspaper had no competitors (no radio, TV and practically no other newspapers). It soon became the unique means of dialogue between African leaders and their constituents. Felix Houphouët Boigny famously remarked, “If you want to get your message known in French West Africa, write it in Afrique Nouvelle.” When Governor General Bechard took a lawsuit against the magazine in 1951, it confirmed the conviction of the readers that the magazine was on the African side in the fight against the abuses of colonialism and their aspirations for independence.

However, this direction of the magazine did not please its ecclesiastical boss, Bishop Marcel Lefebvre at the time Vicar Apostolic and later Archbishop of Dakar. He demanded that the White Fathers withdraw Fr. Paternot in August 1952 and later his successor, Fr. Rummelhardt in September 1954. Rome asked Fr. De Benoist to stay for four months to assure the direction par interim. However, as no agreement was reached between Bishop Lefebvre and the White Fathers regarding the appointment of a new director, this interim period lasted until the end of 1959. (When Fr. de Benoist described himself as a publishing director in his civil documents, he was authorized to become the editor under the names of Joseph Marie Roger, which name was only used by his relatives. Hence the modification of the civil status of the Father to Joseph-Roger.) In the meantime, another row with the Bishop blew up. The magazine was edited and printed in a commercial printing press. In 1955, in order to fulfil the mandate received in 1945, the White Fathers were thinking of setting up a commercial printing press of their own, which would also publish other magazines and books. The Sisters of St. Peter Claver were experts in this area and were prepared to come to Dakar for this purpose. Fearing competition for his own diocesan printing press, which was a source of revenue for the diocese, Archbishop Lefebvre opposed this project, appealed to the Sisters of St Paul in Fribourg to come and take over his own printing press. He forced the White Fathers to print Afrique Nouvelle

P. Louis Martin

there. In 1955, Fr. Louis Martin was seconded to the editorial staff. As well as their journalistic work, the Fathers also had an apostolic outreach; Sunday Mass for the Christians in their neighbourhood, various chaplaincy duties for the French Marines, Scouts and Young Christian Workers. In 1958, Fr. de Benoist obtained an important subsidy from Rome to build a bookshop. He had already drawn up the plans and Mr. Mamadou Dia, then the head of the Senegalese Government gave him some land opposite the White Fathers’ house on which to build. Later the minaret of the Grand Mosque would be built on the same land.

The project never came to fruition. During the course of 1959, Archbishop Lefebvre demanded the withdrawal of Fr. de Benoist and he left in December. (Fr de Benoist then spent four years in Mali: a language course in Faladyé, eighteen months in Kolongotomo, two years in Bamako, where he opened the bookshop Djoliba, the starting point of the Centre of the same name.) This was the opportunity to hand over the responsibility of the magazine to laypeople, only Fr. Martin stayed on for some months. The White Fathers wanted to maintain a procure in Dakar, at least for some time. They bought a villa at Point A where Fr. Henri Etienne took up residence. Frs. Jean Bouteille (coming from Bamako) and André Fournier-Leray (from Guinea) soon joined him. They assured Religious Knowledge in many scholastic establishments.

In 1968, Archbishop Hyacinthe Thiandoum, the successor to Archbishop Lefebvre as Archbishop of Dakar, asked the White Fathers for a priest to serve the parish of Saint Pierre des Baobabs founded in 1960 by Fr. Baudu, a Fidei Donum priest who had returned to France. Fr. Bouteille took up residence in the room serving as the sacristy of the big hall that served as the Church. In April 1976, Archbishop Thiandoum asked the White Fathers to take charge of the Parish. They agreed on condition that the Archdiocese build a Parish Church. To achieve that, the White Fathers donated their building and the proceeds from the sale ought to have been enough to finance the construction of the Church. However, the Bursar of the Diocese Fr. Vassal, a Spiritan, preferred to rent out the house as the rental income could be used to repay the outstanding loan on a building he had built on the top of the Plateau area known as the Pink House (on avenue de Jambaar). (Read the full story, click here now.)

Fr. Bouteille then worked at the Secrétariat Episcopal de Pastorale (SEP) and took over its direction after some time. He stayed in the Martyrs of Uganda Parish run by the Piarist Fathers from Catalonia. A team of White Fathers subsequently took over the parish of Saint Pierre des Baobabs and over the years, Frs. Pierre Nélis, Jan Decavle, Alfonso Continente, Jaime Labiano, Fernando Balduz served there. Fr. Paul Fondeur also came and for a time took over the administration of Afrique Nouvelle. Lacking a church, Fr. Decavle found the funds necessary from Belgian benefactors to build a multipurpose hall next to the presbytery. It was a very popular meeting point for young Senegalese Catholics. In 1986, the Regional of Mali deemed the time opportune to withdraw the Fathers from the Parish. The Italian Blessed Sacrament Fathers who were already running the adjoining parish of Saint Joseph of Medina replaced them. The departure of Fr. Etienne, who died in Paris in 1978, had led to the closing of the Procure and the sale of the Villa on Point A.

In 1973, Fr. Joseph-Roger de Benoist was at Bobo-Dioulasso and he had just published a biography of Fr. Jean-Louis Goarnission who had been the general councillor of Upper Volta. This led him to take another look at the history of decolonialisation. He met President Leopold Sédar Senghor in his villa at Verson in Normandy. The President suggested that he come and work in Dakar in the framework of the l’Institut Fondamental d’Afrique Noire (IFAN). So, the father enrolled in the l’Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes en sciences sociales and in 1976 obtained a Diploma of EHESS with a work on the balkanisation of French West Africa. In July 1976, he obtained a Doctorate of the 3rd cycle of the University. He had passed some time in French West Africa, particularly in Senegal in order to research his thesis. He was admitted to IFAN as a researcher in October 1978 and obtained his Ph. D in April 1985 with a thesis on, Administration coloniale et Missions catholiques au Soudan et en Haute-Volta). He became the first Director of Research at the Institute in 1990. Already in 1989, he was on the Board of Directors of the Historical Museum of Senegal at Gorée. This led him to become a specialist on the history of the island. During all this time, he lived in his own private accommodation and helped in pastoral ministry at the Cathedral on Sundays (A task he fulfilled up to the time he left Senegal). On 1st January 1993, he retired from IFAN at the age of 70 years. He took up residence at the Diocesan Procure. From 2002, he lived in the presbytery of the Cathedral. The Senegalese Bishops had asked him to write a history of the Catholic Church in Senegal. This resulted in the publication of ” Du milieu du XVe siècle à l’aube du 3ème millénaire: l’Eglise catholique au Sénégal ” that was published by Karthala in 2008. In the meantime, he published a history of Gorée Island (Histoire de Gorée) in collaboration with Maisonneuve et Larose. He also wrote a biopic of Léopold Sédar Senghor, politique et chrétien (Editions Beauchesne). Fr. Joseph-Roger de Benoist returned to France for good in 2006. The contribution of the Society to the life of the Church in Senegal had lasted for nearly 60 years.

Joseph Roger de Benoist

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