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