Return to the source : Day 3

La Marsa (Tunis), 14th December 2018. Popular wisdom sees rain as a blessing. So we are not complaining. On the contrary, the rain will inspire us all along the way to imagine these men, women, young people and children, many of whom live in precarious conditions, and to pray that they may find more and more dignity, peace and joy in their lives. The journey to Thibar will be long, very long: 170 kilometres, with traffic jams at the beginning and winding mountain roads afterwards.

But what a joy to arrive in Thibar, this high place in our history! Many of our elders would have been happy to accompany us. Jean Fontaine is a privileged man, too happy to share some information and memories with us. As the bus approached the former scholasticate, I saw myself, barely a week ago, going through the photos in the archives. Thus, this scholasticate still exists, practically as it did at the beginning, at least in its external structure.

As we got off the bus, we were greeted by a man with an abundant smile, flanked by several colleagues and at least one policeman, who will supervise us throughout our visit. After all, we are not just anyone. We are White Fathers and White Sisters, whose ancestors created everything in the region. Very soon, we will realize that the principal and his school of agriculture and livestock breeding see themselves as the proud heirs of all this heritage created by our ancestors for the highest glory of God and the dignity of every man and woman.

We are welcomed in a conference room with water and fruit juices. The principal presents his school and his future development projects to us through a “powerpoint” presentation. He slipped old photos here and there into the presentation as if to show his attachment and gratitude to those who started it all here. There is even a photo of White Father scholastics. Jean Fontaine no longer keeps into place, approaches, looks more closely and declares turning around: “it’s Kalilombe”… the only African in this promotion of 1957, the year of my birth!

He then takes us through the main building, we pass through the corridors and climb the stairs where so many of our elders hurried to arrive in time for prayer or for class. That’s very impressive! We only see the upper part of the large chapel which has been divided in two in height and in several classes also on the surface.

We go out, it still rains. We therefore board the bus that will take us a few hundred meters further to the place called “La Cave” to which the wine cellar – the “Cave à vin” – has given its name. We enter the antechamber of a reception room in the centre of which we see a carved table and its heavy chairs, undoubtedly from the prime times. In the antechamber, a bottle of Thibarine is on display, as well as two bottles of wine, and in front of the bottles, ready for tasting, glasses half full of these precious liquids that continue to be produced since the White Fathers planted the vine over a hundred years ago. We see the eyes of the school principal and the person in charge of the Cellar sparkling with pride, rightly so. I ask one of the escorts if he drinks wine. He makes me understand in approximate French that he doesn’t drink it… today. It is true that it is Friday, the day of Prayer at the Mosque. But in Tunisia, people work on Fridays and rest on Sundays!

The rain continues its work and soaks the ground. It will be impossible for us to reach the cemetery, as we would risk getting the bus stuck in the mud. We will pray for our brothers and sisters Missionaries who died in Thibar, during the evening mass, presided this time by Didier Sawadogo. The latter will reflect so well what we all feel. We had to leave Thibar, but the Mission of “putting Human Beings upright” continues within the walls of the former scholasticate through this man with an abundant smile, so proud of a school that gives young people the ability to develop and live in dignity.

Sister Cécile could not be with us today, but she had prepared a booklet for the guide which you will certainly read with pleasure and interest.

Philippe Docq, M.Afr.

Return to the Source : Day 2

La Marsa (Tunis), 13th December 2018. This is the second day of our pilgrimage to the source. Technically, it’s the first day because yesterday we arrived from all over the world. We are about 45, White Fathers and White Sisters, and also some sisters from the MSOLA family and a former Polish White Father candidate who came to report on the 150th anniversary for a Polish Catholic magazine. The organization is excellent: the two leaders are Fr. Markos and Sr. Spesioza for logistics, but many will provide various animation services, among others.

An excellent little booklet was distributed to us, which includes the programs, schedules, common prayers, and especially historical and even spiritual contents following the circuit of our pilgrimage. The confreres and sisters who prepared everything did not cheat us. I will make this booklet available to you as soon as I get a PDF copy, so you can follow the same pilgrimage, minus maybe the local colours, the smells and the Tunisian kindness.

“This first itinerary is intended to be both a discovery and a spiritual journey in the footsteps of the ancient Church of Africa, Lavigerie and the White Fathers and White Sisters in Tunisia.” This introduction describes well what we will do throughout the day.

As some of us live in La Marsa, about thirty kilometres from the City Centre of Tunis, and the others live in the Diocesan House in the city, we met at around 9am. We “registered” and chose one of the four badge colours available. We were then invited to meet by colour, now part of this “sharing team” defined by the chosen colour. Everyone could express their prayers of expectation for this pilgrimage. Already, hearts were opening to a grace that would be abundant.

We boarded a large bus that will take us from one place to another in the suburbs of La Marsa and Carthage where we have seen and sometimes visited places rich in culture, the history of Christian martyrs from antiquity and the modern establishment of a Church… which will not succeed in convincing a Muslim world very proud of its culture. All of this was imbued with the strong and radical words of “Lavigerie”, our founding Father who, with Mother Salome, realized many of his visions, many of which were often very audacious.

We start by discovering the places where we live: the Chapel Lavigerie, Villa Odo, first residence acquired by the Cardinal, which has now become the Charles de Foucault monastery, and the first building built by the Cardinal, which will quickly become a junior seminary and has now become the property of the diocese, which rents the first floor to a local primary school.

The bus will stop several times to show us the Perret Institute, the many archaeological discoveries of Bishop Delattre, including the remains of the Majorum Basilica, as well as the amphitheatre of Carthage where the saints Perpetua and Felicity and their companions were martyred. It is in a cave in the amphitheatre, where the prisoners were probably waiting for their “entrance on stage”, that we meditate on the story of their passion. We discover to what extent Bishop Delattre was instrumental in uncovering the Christian remains, now Tunisia’s heritage.  We criss-cross Carthage, stopping at the Chapel of Saint Louis and the Basilica of the same name. We will visit it on Saturday.  We arrive at the former high school of the White Sisters where, for the first time, it seems, the headmaster of the state school comes to meet us and invites us to enter, taking us directly to the old chapel which has been converted into a library. Some quotes in English on the walls impress us (see photos). A second school will open its doors to us, the former Franciscan Sisters’ school, where we were also invited to enter the old chapel, converted into a conference room, but where the original stained glass windows are intact, a sign of Tunisia’s great respect for its cultural heritage, will later tell us our confrere-bishop, John McWilliam. We meet many high school students, very friendly and smiling, not hesitating to chat with one or the other of the “elders” or even to pose with Josef de Becker whose Burkinabe hat obviously impresses! We will pass through many other places and end with a visit to our well-preserved “cemetery” where many white fathers and sisters rest in peace. We find, among others, our famous archaeologist Bishop Delattre. We each place a small lit tea light on a few tombs and recite a decade of rosary.

We return to La Marsa where we exchange, in our sharing teams, the feelings that inhabit us. This sharing will be followed by the Eucharist presided over by Fr. Francis Barnes, General Assistant of the Missionaries of Africa. He will note the many open doors we had during the day and the obvious spiritual fruits gathered by the participants in this pilgrimage day. This will make him say that, truly, everything is grace.

You will take interest in read the PDF of the booklet as soon as I put it on this site. It is a very well done work by Sister Cécile Dillé, I think.

Philippe Docq, M.Afr.

And here is the booklet (the full version of the animator) realised by Sister Cécile Dillé.

Return to the source – Day One

Tunis, 12 December 2018. Missionaries of Africa, Fathers and Sisters, from all over the world, landed in Tunis where they gather in the name of all the others for a return to the source. For the occasion, and the place is particularly suitable, we will speak almost exclusively of White Fathers and White Sisters, names that very quickly became established, back in those days. On Sunday 16th, we will proclaim the official opening of the Jubilee Year, even though many celebrations have already taken place in Africa and elsewhere. 150 years ago, the first novitiate of the White Fathers was begun, and a year later, the first White Sisters were working in Algiers.

Some have taken up residence at the Diocesan House in Tunis, while others are staying at “La Marsa”, in the property that used to belong to the White Fathers until only a few years ago.

At 6:30 p.m., we gathered in the parish chapel to celebrate the Eucharist for the first time, presided over by one of the bishops of Algeria, Bishop John McWilliam, M.Afr. who was the provincial of the Maghreb when he was called to succeed Claude Raulx, M.Afr., almost two years ago, as Bishop of Laghouat-Ghardaïa. After Mass, the “pilgrims” met or reconnected with one another and shared a delicious meal.

We note the absence of Sister Carmen Sammut, Superior General of the Missionary Sisters of Our Lady of Africa, who was called urgently to the bedside of her very sick mother. We will keep her and her family in our prayers during our pilgrimage.

Below are some pictures of this first meeting.

Philippe Docq, M.Afr.

140 years of presence in Jerusalem

This is an article from the site of the Latin Patriarchate in Jerusalem, dated December 11. The original post is here. The text was translated quickly with online help. In case of doubt, please refer to the original French.

On December 8, 2018, the Missionaries of Africa invited, as they do every year, the faithful and friends to come and celebrate with them the feast of the Immaculate Conception. This year, in addition to the Marian celebration, there was also the launching of the festivities for the jubilee of the 150th anniversary of the congregation and the 140th anniversary of its presence in the Holy Land.

The Mass of December 8 is traditionally celebrated with fervour among the Missionaries of Africa – also known as the White Fathers – because the solemnity of the Immaculate Conception is the patron saint’s feast of this Society of priests and also the women’s congregation, the Sisters of Our Lady of Africa. This is also the date of the annual consular mass [1] and on this occasion the Deputy Consul General, Mr. Rémy Bouallègue, joined the ceremony.

But this year, the mass of December 8 was also celebrated in union with the mass for the beatification of the 19 martyrs who died for their faith in Algeria, including four White Fathers murdered on December 27, 1994 in Tizi Ouzou. Finally, this Mass on December 8 celebrated two important jubilees: the 150th anniversary of the foundation of the Society of the White Fathers and the 140th anniversary of the presence of the Missionaries in the Holy Land.

Fraternity beyond cultural differences

It is the date of the opening of the first novitiate, October 18, 1868, which was chosen as the date of foundation of the Society of the White Fathers. For the founder, Bishop Lavigerie, the Missionaries of Africa must be “all things to all people” and adapt to the way of life of those to whom they are sent to spread the Gospel. For this reason they ask them to wear the local habit, to eat the same food as the inhabitants and to speak the language that allows them to open themselves to the culture of the country. Founded in North Africa, the society has developed in a large part of Africa. Today, there are still 1200 White Fathers, most of whom are in Black Africa. At the service of parishes and dioceses, they are as close as possible to the needs of the population and actively participate in interreligious dialogue. Also present in Europe, they bring their missionary experience to the dioceses of rich countries, to help welcome migrants and broaden the Church’s vision of the world.

Missionaries of Africa in the Middle East?

To find a congregation that has been mainly oriented towards Africa in the heart of Jerusalem for 140 years may seem questioning at first sight, but it would then be to not know the history of the founder. Charles Lavigerie before being the Archbishop of Algiers and the founder of the Society of the White Fathers was the first ecclesiastical director of the Work of the Schools of the Orient (now the Work of the Orient) and it is in this context that he had known, like a revelation, the Eastern Churches. This memory will come back in a flash when France, which became the owner of the church of Sainte-Anne, sought a religious community to keep it. Arriving in 1878, the White Fathers set up a seminary there in 1882 to train the Greek Melkite Catholic clergy. This seminary operated for 85 years, until the June 1967 war forced its transfer to Lebanon. Since then the White Fathers have continued, in various ways, to work for the Churches of the East, their unity and mission, and the service of the Church of Jerusalem in the fields of ecumenical and interreligious dialogue, and action for justice and peace. Thanks to the biblical training sessions, organized in Sainte-Anne since 1976, the Church of Africa is now coming to Jerusalem to pray and recharge their batteries.

Cécile Klos

[1] Each year, the Consul General of France officially visits each of the national domains belonging to France and certain religious communities of French origin, by taking part in the celebration of a mass.

150 years… of which 140 in Jerusalem

On the 8th of December, at 10h, we celebrated the solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of Mary in the basilica of St-Anne in Jerusalem. Many invitations were sent out. It is a ‘Consular Mass’ at which the General Consul of France participates, with members of the Consulate. But as the Consul was absent, he was represented by Mr. Remy Bouallegue, his ‘Adjoint’. Though it was raining, a good crowd came for the celebration: lay-people, Sisters, staff and students of the Salesian Institute and many more and about 20 priests concelebrating. Josef Buholzer, the superior of the community, was the main-celebrant, assisted by Mgr Michael Fitzgerald and Benoît Bernard, the newly arrived Rector of the Basilica. Bosco Ufoyuru, our newly ordained deacon, proclaimed the gospel. Continue reading “150 years… of which 140 in Jerusalem”

Memory of Christian Chessel, a testimony

On 8. December 2018, 19 Algerian martyrs will be beatified. One of them, Christian Chessel, we met in Rome during our studies. A few days ago, I was asked to make a few memories for a website article. Here you are…

Memory of Christian Chessel, Africa Missionary (White Father), new blessed of Church

8. December 2018 will be a special day. It is the 150th birthday of the society. On the same day, there are nineteen martyrs in Algeria, including four Missionaries of Afrika who were shot by militant Islamists on 27th December 1994 in Tizi-Ouzou (Algeria): Jean Chevillard, Alain Dieulangard, Charles Deckers and Christian Chessel, Christian, who was only 36 years old, and thus the youngest of the nineteen martyrs, remains in vivid memory.

After having entered the so-called “White Fathers” he came to Rome for a few years, to the Generalate of his community, where some of my confreres and I lived before we got our own house.

The Superior of his community had sent Christian to the Pontifical Institute for Arab and Islamic Studies (Pisai) and he was busy learning Arabic. I can still remember how he regretted not being German speaking, because in German-speaking cases it is much easier to pronounce the gutt and reibelaute such as the “ch which is almost an impossible thing for a French. To stay in good condition and keep fit, we saw him in winter with a fancy beanie jogging. He was a nice guy and had a winning way. We were all happy to be with him and we were happy to have dinner and chat together, or when he came to us to the anbetungsstunde.

We were also there when he was ordained a deacon in the chapel of the Missionaries of Africa. The moment was particularly impressive the moment he took his missionary oath, the hand over an arab gospel that had taken the first white fathers to the mission to Africa: these first missionaries had all been killed and only some time later In the sand of the Sahara this gospel was recovered together with the remains of the bones of the missionaries and other things that belonged to them.

On June 28th, 1992, the day before the feast of Peter and Paul, Christian was ordained a priest in Nice. He came to Tizi-Ouzou (Algeria), a mission of the White Fathers. In 1993, he moved to the Palestinian state of Palestine for a three months session. Before he finally left to Algeria, he came back to us in Rome, and we asked him what was the purpose for him to go to Algeria, to a place where you can’t be “right” because the public announcement of the Gospel is forbidden.
Christian told us: “the important thing is that the Church is also there for the salvation of people and that we also pray there and celebrate the Eucharist.”

Christian was not able to celebrate the Eucharist in Algeria for a long time. He was making a new library for the young people of Tizi-Ouzou. Shortly after Christmas 1994, a group of terrorists raided the mission and Christian was killed together with his confreres. The Eucharistic victim of the body and blood of Christ that was so close to him was sealed by the devotion of his own body and blood.
His picture for his First Mass, on which a schmerzensmutter (Pietà) is seen in dark robe, I often face and sometimes I pray that I, like Christian, have the courage to add my whole life to Christ and to his people.

Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, who is himself Missionary of Africa said on November 24., 2018, during the oath and decaon’s ordination of three young Missionaries of Africa:
“The testimony that you are asked for can go to martyrdom (the word martyrdom means ” testimony “). Let’s think of our confreres in Algeria, who will be beatified as martyrs on December 8th and we think of all the confreres who have suffered a violent death and whose names are registered on the plaques in the crypt of the Generalate in Rome. The martyrdom is prepared by a given life, by constant acts of love and service.”

Andreas Hermann Fritsch
Priest of the Congregation of the Works