Remembering the Blessed White Fathers of Tizi-Ouzou

How do people remember them today?

Founded in 1874, six years after the creation of the Society, the community of Tizi-Ouzou remains our oldest still active community. It was in this community that our four confreres, Alain, Charles, Jean and Christian, Missionaries of Africa, were murdered on 27 December 1994. They were courageous and zealous missionaries who devoted their lives to the end; they are now counted among the greatest martyrs of love. They were beatified on 8 December 2018 in Oran, Algeria, along with 15 other people. They were respected because of their dedication to the mission and love for Algeria and its people. We know the privileges and challenges of living in this same community.

A feeling of gratitude and recognition

It will be precisely 30 years, on 27 December 2024, since our confreres were murdered in their community home, but people still talk about them as if it were yesterday. We know that Blessed Alain, Charles, Jean and Christian were firmly committed to Algerian society when schools and training centres were still under non-national charge.

Charles Deckers, the most emblematic of the four, trained several students who passed through the vocational training centre he was in charge of. These students, now managers and senior officials in the Algerian government, never cease to remind us that Charles Deckers trained them; some are already retired. Some of these people are writers and have devoted dozens of pages to Charles Deckers in books published at some point in their careers. We are still in close contact with these people.

Charles Deckers left his mark on the town of Tizi-Ouzou through his service and generosity: the vocational training centre he ran produced hundreds of students who subsequently became leaders at all levels of the Algerian nation. The people, including those in the surrounding towns and villages, knew and appreciated Charles. He became a national of Algeria in 1972, with pride in his roots there.

Jean and Alain were engaged in pastoral visits to families, especially in the mountains of Kabylia. We still receive testimonies from some people recalling their family memories of the Blessed.

We don’t hear much about Christian, though. He was the youngest of the four; we know he was behind the library project, which, unfortunately, he did not see through to completion. Today, dozens of people have subscribed to the Library: Algerian professionals, students and researchers in medicine, linguistics and other subjects, although there has been a decline in subscriptions in recent years.

Annual celebration

We issue an invitation every 27 December to commemorate the anniversary of their assassination, and the feedback is always positive, with many people visiting the cemetery to commemorate them. Algeria is a country that celebrates its martyrs, and our confreres are among them.

Thanks to all the life testimonies we receive, we think their memory is still alive. People are thankful and have never forgotten the actions of our martyrs. Their gratitude is also expressed in the fact that they still maintain links with the present-day community of the White Fathers in Tizi-Ouzou.

The challenge of living in the footsteps of the Blessed

The missionary activity of Tizi-Ouzou dates from 1874 to the present day. It has been the work of several generations. Today, our presence is still worthy of appreciation, albeit from a different perspective than that adopted by our predecessors, adapted to the current socio-cultural context and the needs of those around us.

We often face the challenge of comparison. Some people compare how the Blessed lived with how we live today. This is an encouragement to do our best and imitate their footsteps, even though we know their opportunities were not the same as those we have today. On the other hand, comparing their lives with ours today forces us to live in the shadow of our predecessors.

Besides the above, today, there is the question of the origin of our confrères on the spot. Twenty years ago, people were still used to seeing only European confreres, whereas for the last ten years or so, we have been of African origin and younger than our predecessors. It sometimes brings misunderstandings and questions for some since they link the membership of the White Fathers to the question of colour. Some people even say that there are no more White Fathers here in Tizi-Ouzou. It’s a challenge we’re trying to meet through our dedication to the mission and heritage bequeathed to us by our elders.

We are responding to this challenge thanks to the encouraging testimonies of some former friends and pupils of the White Fathers. For example, a former pupil of the White Fathers gave a striking and encouraging testimonial after celebrating the 29th anniversary: “I saw Father Philippe dressed in a gandoura at the cemetery! It reminded me of the old days when the White Fathers dressed in the gandoura. They were all white. But when I saw Father Philippe dressed in white, even though he is not white, I understood why they are called the White Fathers: not because of the colour of their skin, but because of their white garb. I hope that all the White Fathers will wear their white gandoura at the next commemoration.” Here’s another testimony from an elderly man: “This is a place of pilgrimage! We have come to commemorate those who gave their lives for the good of all, and we are happy to meet the White Fathers who now live in this house; they remind us of the dedication of the four White Fathers.”

From commemorating the four White Fathers to remembering the former White Fathers

Some of those who attended the commemorations never knew any of the four White Fathers. They came to the commemorations of the four White Fathers to remember also those who preceded them. The names of Fathers Louis Garnier, Jean Robichon, and Georges Rogé are recurrent in the testimonies of all those present. The three are buried in the Tizi-Ouzou Christian cemetery, along with three of our four Blessed.  

By: Benoît Mwana Nyembo, M.Afr. & Philippe Dakono, M.Afr. 

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