First Novitiate at Maison Rostan

Here is an extract of Lucien Duchêne’s History of the White Fathers:
Les Pères Blancs. 1868-1893. vol.2

The first novitiate at Maison Rostan

On 20th Sept 1868 the “L’Echo de N-Dame d’Afrique” announced: “Following the mind of the Holy Father, Monseigneur the Archbishop of Algiers is going to found a special seminary for missionaries. In imitation of the French missionaries to China, they will adopt the manner of life of the Arabs and of other African peoples. Thus they will gradually establish themselves in the desert which, south of Algeria, extends from Senegal in the west to the country of gold and the black people in the east. Being true pioneers of European civilisation, their apostolic stations, while establishing communication with each other, will link our two African colonies on the Mediterranean and the Atlantic Ocean.”

Maison Rostan, on the hills of El Biar, in Algiers

What the article calls a seminary for missionaries was, as Mgr Lavigerie admitted, “a poor rented house situated on the hills of El Biar” dominating the south of Algiers. The Maison Rostan, a Moorish house, hidden behind groves of mastic trees, some minutes from the orphanage of Ben Aknoun, was the humble cradle of our Society. Previously, it had been inhabited by the Arab orphan girls under the direction of the Sisters of St Charles of Nancy. These now moved to Kouba and the novitiate began at Maison Rostan on 19th October 1868.

The courtyard in Maison Rostan

The Archbishop had invited the Jesuits to provide a novice master. They gave him Father Vincent who had previously been an assistant to Fr Ducat at the orphanage of Ben Aknoun. Mgr Lavigerie drew up a line of conduct which the novice master tells us about in a letter. “On 17th October I went to receive my orders from Monseigneur before coming here and to ask his blessing on the beginning of this Society. He said to me, ‘Go, Father, and may the blessing of God be with you. Train apostles following exactly the direction of the novitiate of your own Society. The only difference is that you will give more time to study. Saints, I want saints. Throw them into the mould of St Ignatius and let them be in your hands like a dead body which will let itself be carried anywhere in whatever way that is required. Let them be like a stick in the hands of an old man to serve him in whatever place and for whatever purpose he wishes.’ These words of the Rule he repeated to us, and insisted on them, when I went with the community on his feast day to present our congratulations.”

Father Vincent SJ, First Novices’ Master

Towards the end of October Monseigneur gave Fr Vincent an assistant, Fr Gillet. He was a Sulpician priest who had come to Algeria hoping the African climate would restore his health. He was charged with the teaching of theology. There were seven novices. The three former seminarians of Kouba, Finateu, Pux and Barbier, then Fr Blanchard, a young priest from Douaouda, Fr Dubut the parish priest of Saoula and two young men from his parish, Tassy and Be’ne’jean. On the 20th of the same month another novice arrived at the novitiate, Victor Cordier. Later we shall speak of him at length. Also at the novitiate, but not a novice, was a young African called Luigi. Originally from the missions of Mgr Comboni in the Sudan, he had been raised at Verona in Italy where he had obtained a teaching diploma. He was given the task of teaching the novices Arabic and so helping them catechise the orphans of Ben Aknoun.

Orphans being presented to Cardinal Lavigerie
Photo pose of Cardinal Lavigerie with an orphan


I must also mention the cook, Francois Boulac. This young man had an interesting history. He was born at Bab-el-Oued, a suburb of Algiers from where he had moved to Boufarik with his parents. When his father died, he remained there with his mother in the same village. Whenever he misbehaved, she threatened to send him to the Jesuits directing the orphanage of Camp d’Erlon. Eventually, the poor woman died in her turn. On returning from the burial, the parish priest of Boufarik was touched with compassion and took Boulac to his presbytery. “Wait for me here,” he said. “I am going to ask the superior of the orphanage to take you in.” At the mention of the word orphanage,the child was filled with fear for he believed it to be a kind of prison, and taking advantage of the absence of the parish priest, he fled. In the evening, he arrived at Blida and went into a Moorish cafe to spend the night. The kaouaji gave him a little food and lodging for the night without payment, but made him do the washing up. The next day, a rich Arab, seeing the young French boy there, offered to take him to his douar. Francois did not need coaxing and straightaway followed his new master. Henceforth he abandoned European clothing and dressed like an Arab. He received the name of Si Hassen until one day, he was pressed to marry a Muslim. He refused and left the Arab’s house. At the time of the famine, Boulac, now twenty-three years old, went to Lavigerie and offered his services. I am a Frenchman and a Christian, he told him. To the prelate’s reply, “I have not a lot of confidence in you,” he pleaded,” All the same, try me, Monseigneur, if I cannot satisfy you, you are always free to send me away.” Francois was accepted and there was every reason for Lavigerie to be pleased with him. He settled in well among the orphans of Ben Aknoun, getting them to sing and encouraging them as well as he could. He rendered services to them like shaving their heads to get rid of nits or curing the many who suffered from ringworm. When the novitiate opened at Maison Rostan, Lavigerie sent him there. He was very useful to the Bursar with his knowledge of both the Algerian dialect and local customs.

Orphelinat Ben Arkoum

Lavigerie also attached four orphans to the service of the house. The novices were expected to speak Arabic with them during their recreation. In order to give even more opportunity for language study, the Archbishop sent away the Jesuits from Ben Aknoun, and confided the spiritual ministry of the orphanage to the young missionaries.

Saint Joseph, the sailors’ chapel, before the construction of the Basilica of Our Lady of Africa

Reflections around the 150th anniversary

7th reflection text taken from the documents of our two Societies.

“Fraternity and Fight Against Racism” (1985)

Missionaries by vocation, we married Africa and the East by taking our oath. Our own mission is to welcome, understand, respect and love Africans wherever they may be, and to share our convictions with others throughout our lives, “to the point of death,” our oath states. Apostolic action in international communities has already helped us to overcome narrow nationalism. Life in Africa has formed us in the esteem of what is foreign to our original culture. The entry of young Africans into our Missionary Society is in the same perspective. We must be consistent with our life-long commitment. We must go further, at least if we want to remain in the line drawn for us by our founder, Cardinal Lavigerie, who wrote from Algiers: “I am a bishop, that is to say a father, and although those for whom I plead here do not give me this title, I love them as my sons, and I seek to prove it to them, happy, if I cannot communicate my faith to them, at least to exercise charity towards these creatures of God. “We are his sons, responsible for his heritage, living witnesses of his fruitfulness. His action and his Instructions to the Missionaries show us the way forward.

Cardinal Lavigerie could not bear the injustice and suffering that so many Africans suffered in his time. After a period of charitable action (buying back slaves to free them), the Cardinal embarked on an international campaign that today could be described as a “struggle for human rights”. Among other things, he wrote to the Christians of Sicily: “In pleading the cause of so many unfortunate, I have in view only the salvation of their bodies and souls, that respect for justice, the laws of nature and the laws of God, according to which all men are equal, are free, are brothers, and must treat themselves as such, whatever their origin and colour. Have you, Catholics of Sicily, forgotten the rule of Christian solidarity? Do you no longer know that when one member suffers in the immense body of humanity, all the others owe it to him to sympathize?”

The Cardinal increased his interventions with the political authorities and pointed out to them that the measures they took “were insufficient because they reached only those who sold, and not those who bought”. He assures that he could give names and, comparing the sufferings of slaves to Christ’s passion, he continues: “There is nothing missing, neither Herod nor Pilates, nor Judas, nor the cruelty of floggings nor cowardly insults, nor the cross.” (…) Lavigerie has always had a great respect for African people, languages, cultures and traditions; his action was to restore their dignity to Africans. In this also he was the disciple of Christ who gave a place to the excluded of Jewish society of his time. Today, we are called to do the same, in another time and in the face of other tragedies. This is why: A missionary from Africa cannot be racist, whether in welcoming foreigners in community, in conversations or reactions in front of television, in the choice of newspapers or publications to which he subscribes or subscribes the community. A missionary from Africa must have a positive look at the men and women of the Third World, whether they are ‘there’ or ‘here’. He must be attentive to their sufferings, to their hunger for bread and friendship, to understand their aspirations to take control of their own destiny and the legitimate means they give themselves to achieve it.

(Letter from the Provincial Council of France to the French confreres, in Le Lien, May-June 1985)

Text prepared by Jean-Claude Ceillier
Published in the Mini-lien nr 475

Publications of Confreres (PE nr 1090 – 2018/04)

Karlijn Demasure, Stéphane Joulain & Kenneth Phillips, Perspectives and Challenges in Pastoral Care for Child Sex Offenders, in Counselling and Spirituality 35/2, St Paul University, Ottawa (2016), pp. 51-73.

Stéphane Joulain, Combattre l’abus sexuel des enfants. Qui abuse ? Pourquoi ? Comment soigner ? Paris (Desclée de Brouwer), 2018, 294p.

Adriano Mamadou Sawadogo, Solo Dio è vincitore. La mia conversione non è une vittoria né una sconfitta, ma opera di Dio, 2017, 71p.

Mamdou Adrien Sawadogo, Dieu seul l’emporte, Témoignage, Edition Croix du Salut, 2017, 60p.

Adrien Sawaogo, Gott hat mich ergriffen. Von Islam zum Christentum. Weder Sieg noch Niederlage, Media Maria, 2017.

Frans Bouwen, L’oecuménisme à Jérusalem et en Terres sainte, in Proche-Orient Chrétien, Tome 67, 2017, fasc.3/4, pp. 294-310.

Serge Desouter, Maansverduistering over het Avondland. Mogelijkheden en Onmogelijkheden van de multiculturele Samenleving, (Éclipse lunaire sur les pays du crépuscule. Possibilités et impossibilités d’une société multiculturelle), s.l., 2018, 236p.

Dominique Arnauld, archivist

Looking to the future with hope : a common recollection

Extract frome the common letter of the two superior general of the Lavigeie Family.

We have entered the third year of preparation for our 150th anniversary of foundation. We know that many plans have sprung up here and there, some very simple, some very ambitious, all with the desire to mark this great event for our Missionary Institutes. However, these plans should not take us away from the in-depth spiritual preparation we need so that the anniversary may have a lasting effect on us individually and as a group. Continue reading “Looking to the future with hope : a common recollection”

Calendars 150th

We are aware of three calendars published especially with the 150th anniversary of the founding of our Society in mind … Have we missed your initiative? Let us know.

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Jub 150 : Remain faithful to your charism

Thank you to our Swiss confrere Roman Stäger, who published this article in German in the «Schweizer Kirchenzeitung» of January 18, 2018.


Jubilee of 150 years of “Missionaries of Africa” and “White Sisters”.

It was in an emergency that the Missionaries of Africa were founded: the priests and the Brothers on October 19, 1868, the Missionary Sisters of Our Lady of Africa a year later (September 9, 1869). The then Archbishop of Algiers, Charles Martial Lavigerie (1825-1892), had to take care of hundreds of orphans, who, victims of a widespread famine Continue reading “Jub 150 : Remain faithful to your charism”

Celebrate the 150th in sobriety?

In 1968, the General Council of the time asked the question: “how to celebrate the Centenary of our Society”. We excluded a hulde zitting (tribute session) in Rome, expensive and without a future. The suggestion of Fr. Robert Chaput (always “down to earth!”) was chosen: give each confrere 5 dollars to celebrate the centenary in his community! I recall this fact which could inspire the current General Council to do something similar. It would cost less than in 1968, since our number has declined considerably!

Just a souvenir sent with my best regards!

Waly Neven, survivor of the council 67-81.

Webmaster’s note: Inflation must be taken into account! According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, prices in 2017 are 603.4% higher than prices in 1968. Therefore, the $ 5 graciously offered to confreres in 1968 would now be equivalent to: 5 x 603.4: 100 = 30.17 USD or 25 €