Origins of Our Lady of Africa

Origins of Our Lady of Africa

It is a tradition in Rome that the community of the Generalate celebrates the feast of Our Lady of Africa on April 30th with the White Sisters who prepare a good meal for the occasion.  This year, unfortunately – confinement obliges – the White Fathers have resigned themselves to celebrate in the Generalate chapel without the White Sisters… Father Patient Bahati, Congolese by birth but Algerian by mission, presided over the Eucharist, during which he told us the story of Our Lady of Africa. We reproduce his talk here, convinced that many of you will read it with great interest.

The history of Our Lady of Africa began in 1846 with an act of fervour by two women, Anne Cinquin and Agarite Berger, who worked, one in the linen room and the other in the infirmary, at the minor seminary in Algiers. They had placed a statue of the Virgin in the hollow of a tree (rose hip) to recite their rosary. Other people joined them and the place ended up being the place where one comes to recite one’s rosary. That is why, in 1853, Bishop Pavy, the second bishop of Algiers, decided to build a grotto in which he placed a statue of the Virgin called “Our Lady of the Ravine”, also called “Star of the Sea”.

Having become a great place of prayer and pilgrimage, Bishop Pavy decided to build a church there, inspired by the recent definition of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception by Pius IX in 1854.

In 1855, informed that Bishop Pavy wanted to build a Marian shrine in Algiers, the Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Lyon expressed their desire to see the statue of the “Faithful Virgin” (which they had offered to his predecessor, Bishop Dupuch, 1st Bishop of Algiers) honoured in this shrine.

In 1856, Monsignor Pavy, after consulting his council, changed the name of the statue “Faithful Virgin” to “Our Lady of Africa”: a bronze statue which, once dressed, the face and hands appeared black. Hence the name “The Black Madonna.”

In 1858, work began on the church. In 1866, Bishop Pavy died and his successor, Bishop Lavigerie continued the work which he completed in 1872.

In fact, Mgr Pavy had planned to found a congregation of priests in charge of pilgrimage at Notre-Dame d’Afrique, the Augustinian Canons. At his death, Lavigerie could not carry out such a project since he already had the plan to found the Society of Missionaries of Africa and the Congregation of the Sisters of Our Lady of Africa. He then called upon the communauté́ of the Prémontrés de la stricte observance of Saint-Michel de Frigolet, dedicated to prayer and ministry, on January 31, 1868, to take care of the Prayer in the church and to complete the finishing work on the church.

In 1873, Lavigerie entrusted the running of this new church to his two congregations: Missionaries of Africa and Sisters of Our Lady of Africa. Notre Dame d’Afrique became the cradle of these two congregations founded in 1868 and 1869 respectively.

On April 30, 1876, Pius IX, in the same graces of the Immaculate Conception, granted Lavigerie to crown the statue of Our Lady of Africa, and the church became a basilica: the Basilica of Our Lady of Africa. Our Lady of Africa thus radiates graces from the dogma of the Immaculate Conception and the two congregations founded by Lavigerie.

In September 1897, the running of the Basilica was entrusted to the diocesan clergy of Algiers. Our Lady of Africa, in 1930, was once again entrusted to the White Fathers. 

From the outset, Lavigerie, had chosen Our Lady of Africa as the appropriate place for the extraordinary ceremonies deemed necessary for the blossoming of religious sentiment among the Algerians. These ceremonies were carefully prepared down to the last detail.

In 1930, the faithful arrived not only from all corners of Algeria, but also from France and elsewhere, climbing the hill barefoot, reciting the rosary aloud. Pilgrims sought consolation, protection, healing from Our Lady of Africa, made a vow or came to fulfil it: soldiers would gather there before entering the field to pray to “the Mother of the God of armies”, fishermen would have their nets blessed, Muslim women would address invocations to Lalla Meryem. People went there to bring a gift after a good harvest, to renew the promises of baptisms, to have young children blessed. On the esplanade, some men would take a cool drink, others would offer a candle or a bouquet of flowers and bring holy water, and young Catholic and sometimes Jewish brides would place their wreaths of orange blossoms on the esplanade. While no miracle is a priori at the origin of the foundation of the sanctuary in this place, history however, associates it with the place of the liberation of several Christian slaves, through the intercession of the Virgin. [Calixtus of Providence, 1892]. The exvotos of the Basilica of Our Lady of Africa, most of which express the gratitude of certain people to Our Lady of Africa for having seen their vows come true through her intercession, tell us much about the extent of this devotion to the one that the Algerians call Madame l’Afrique or Lalla Meryem. This is still visible on the faces of the elders who witnessed it first hand. Even today, many people still come to confide in his intercession, by lighting a candle or making a silent prayer. This shrine remains a privileged place, as did Lavigerie, for meetings, dialogues and sharing with Muslims. 

This devotion to Our Lady of Africa, like all Marian devotions, has its origin in the recognition of Mary’s place in God’s plan, since the experience of the first Christian community. First of all, the resurrection, made the first disciples discover that Jesus was truly God, and from there on, they constituted the stories of his childhood, and this contemplation of the child-Jesus-God, shed light on Mary’s place in Jesus’ mission: She is the Mother of God. And as we have heard, under the cross, Jesus reminds Mary and us that she is also our mother. She will then remain with the apostles, maternal presence in their midst, certainly accompanies them, encourages them, advises them in their mission, as a mother does to her children since under the cross Jesus asked her to do so. Mary, in giving birth to Jesus, did not finish her role as a theatre character would, who must go behind the curtain and let the others play their roles, but she continues to give birth, to make them grow and to advise those whom Jesus gave her as sons and daughters. It was therefore necessary that she be given the same maternal task, for the missionaries who were to bring the Good News to Africa, for the Africans and for all the Muslims who already honoured her as Mother of the Prophet. Since she was also offered to us as mother under the name of Our Lady of Africa, may she accompany us Africans, we Missionaries of Africa, in our task of proclaiming the Good News to the African world. May she watch over Africa, may she intercede for all her children throughout the world and especially at this time when every frightened child would do well to seek refuge and security in the arms of his mother.

Patient Bahati, M.Afr.

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