From Nanterre to Alger: on the footsteps of the Martyrs of Algeria
The Bishop of Nanterre, Matthieu Rougé, wanted to plan a pilgrimage to Alger on the 6th-7th-8th of December to celebrate the Beatification anniversary of the 19 martyrs of Algeria. He was proud that one of them was a Blessed woman from his diocese. Indeed, Sr. Paul-Hélène – whose family was from Neuilly (near Nanterre) – was in school there and he wanted to do this pilgrimage on her footsteps and on the footsteps of the other 18 martyrs. He said: “these 19 martyrs were like the sacrament of the Presence of a greater Love that makes itself servant and vulnerable”. One evening, during a meal we shared in our house in Montrouge, he told us he would like one LSA to be part of the group. They asked me if I would like to, and I received this invitation as a gift!
We left on Friday the 6th: we were 21 pilgrims, including the Bishop of Nanterre, one of Paul-Hélène’s nephew and a close relative of Christian de Chergé. We arrived at the diocesan house in Alger in a bus escorted by a police car – with its sirens and flashing lights on, which was the case for each of our travels, sometimes with a car before us and another one behind
The Archbishop of Alger, Paul Desfarges, was just concluding the celebration of a Eucharist for the Diamond Jubilee of a religious sister and the diocese was also celebrating the 150th anniversary of the White Fathers’ Foundation: thus we were introduced to the parishioners in a festive and warm atmosphere as the “pilgrims from Nanterre”, then we shared with everybody an Algerian couscous.
In the afternoon, the Archbishop of Alger shared with us the meaning of the presence of the Church in the Islamic Land. He made a deep impression on us with his serenity, hope, and love for this Algerian people: a man of peace.
Going to the graveyard
From there we left – still well escorted – for the graveyard where Sister Paul-Hélène, Brother Henri Vergès and several other martyrs were buried. As we were getting closer to the graveyard, I could feel my heart beat stronger. I looked for and found our sister’s grave.
I felt overcome by emotion as I heard within me – a call -the sentence Paul-Hélène said some time before her death: “our lives are already given”.
It was an immense grace for me to be there in the name of the Congregation to celebrate this given life of Paul-Hélène and the other martyrs. All the LSAs who have lived and offered their daily life in Algeria for so many years were also present with me in spirit; as I was thinking of them, I was feeling very small.
I took time to talk to Paul-Hélène about the Congregation, the young in formation, our sick sisters, the Church. Jean, Sister Paul-Hélène’s nephew, who was with us, made this moment even more moving. Then I went to see Brother Henri’s grave; Christian de Chergé said of him: “To me he belongs to the category I would call “the martyrs of hope”: they are the ones about whom no one ever talks because it is in the patience of daily life that they shed all their blood”.
At the end of the afternoon we were invited for a walk uptown to admire the beautiful view of the bay of Alger and at the very moment we heard the Muezzin call for prayer from the Mosque. All this seemed to me an evocation of God, of His greatness, His beauty.
Then, we came back to the diocesan house where we met for the Eucharist where the lives offered by our martyrs mingled with Christ’s, the shared bread .
On Saturday morning the 7th, we went for a cultural visit to the Bardo Museum, giving us an overview on the culture of this people, on the beauty of their art. Then we went to the Basilica of N.D. d’Afrique: there again the greatness and beauty could be seen. This site is the cradle of the White Father’s foundation, and it is also a place where Muslims and Christians gather together around Mary. Above the choir the following words are engraved: “N.D. d’Afrique priez pour nous et pour les musulmans” (Our Lady of Africa, pray for us and for the Muslims).
We felt the presence of the memory of our 19 martyrs and we discovered the beautiful mission of the White Fathers and White Sisters. We celebrated the Eucharist in the small chapel of their foundation, confiding to Our Lady of Africa the whole Algerian people and all the efforts made to pursue fraternity between Christians and Muslims.
After a good “couscous” (once again) thanks to the White Fathers hospitality, a guide accompanied us to the Casbah, which is the historical center of the town of Alger and the symbol of the Algerian culture, he gave us an insight of this reality, with its history, its evolution, its challenges.
The Ben Cheneb Library
At the end of the day we went to another sacred place: the Ben Cheneb Library where Brother Henri and Sister Paul-Hélène were assassinated. Once again it was a very moving moment and I felt that I was on sacred ground. An Augustine Missionary Sister has taken the helm for the last 20 years in order to continue this beautiful mission among the young Algerian boys and girls. She shared with us the story and mission of this Library at the service of the Algerian youth. We were feeling very small, while being called to keep on building this fraternity without exclusion, wherever we live.
When we were back at the diocesan house late that day, the Bishop led us into a time of prayer, allowing us to think back in serenity about what we had just lived, so as to place it in into the Lord’s hands. Then we read Christian de Chergé’s testament – he was the prior of the monks of Tibhirine – to prepare ourselves for the meeting of the next day.
On Sunday 8th, anniversary of the beatification of the 19 martyrs and Feast of the Immaculate Conception, we left at 7 a.m. for Our Lady of Atlas Abbaye in Tibhirine – 2 hours from Alger – , always well escorted by the police with sirens and lights on in order to go through the traffic jam. We prayed lauds in the bus to help us prepare our hearts. When we arrived, we were warmly welcomed by Father Eugène, Superior of the Chemin Neuf community – who has taken the helm in this Monastery.
Here too, I was deeply moved to walk on the footsteps of the monks
Father Eugène and his community told us about the history of the Monastery from the beginnings up to the present day, including the events with the 7 monks who were kidnapped and then assassinated – this encounter led us in this atmosphere of lives that were offered. Even if it was raining, we went out to pray by the 7 graves. An intense and blissful moment. The Mass in the chapel where the monks used to pray every day was a meaningful Eucharist.
After a fraternal meal, we went back to the airport
My heart was full of joy, and a Magnificat burst out as a thanksgiving song. I have witnessed the Lord’s wonders, these links of brotherhood between Muslims and Christians, to the point of giving one’s life out of love.
It is a call to risk, to weave bonds of fraternity in order to be, in our turn, witnesses of Christ’s love and to be able to announce the Good News.
During these 3 days I had the opportunity to realize the perseverance and faithfulness of these 19 religious was in the middle of violence.I came back strengthened by their testimony, strengthened in the “invincible hope” for the Kingdom in spite of obstacles of all kinds, strengthened in the desire to live like Paul-Hélène in what F. Pernet told us: “May your acts speak Jesus-Christ”.
Sr Micaela De Wilde, Community of Montrouge