ACN Feature Story—Algeria
In the footsteps of Charles de Foucauld
The difficult challenge of maintaining a female Christian presence in Tamanrasset
By Christophe Fontaine, ACN International
Adapted by: Amanda Bridget Griffin, ACN Canada
On May 27 of this year, Pope Francis recognized the attribution of a second miracle to Blessed Charles de Foucauld (1858–1916), thereby paving the way for his canonization.
Deep in the Sahara, Charles de Foucaud was murdered in Tamanrasset, a town located in the south of Algeria. This celebrated French hermit and former cavalry officer, experienced a radical conversion at the age of 28 and went on to live a contemplative life, abandoning himself to the will of the Father and living a life centred on the Eucharist.
At the age of 32 he became a Trappist monk, then seven years later left the Cistercian life and worked for three years in Nazareth as a general handyman for the Poor Clare Sisters. He divided his time between manual work, Eucharistic adoration and meditating on Scripture, particularly on the Hidden Life of Jesus in Nazareth, deciding to imitate Him in his silence and discretion. He later felt called to the priesthood so as to reach the remotest people.
Ordained on June 9, 1901, he settled first in southern Morocco in Beni-Abbès where he built, not so much a hermitage, but a fraternity, a Khaoua, a place open to all, whether Christian, Muslim or Jew. Always attentive to the poor, ransoming slaves, offering hospitality to all who passed by, he spent long hours in prayer (especially at night), doing manual and agricultural labour and showing hospitality towards all who visited.
In 1905, Charles de Foucauld finally settled in Tamanrasset, in the Hoggar (Ahaggar) Mountains, following his desire live among the Tuareg people, isolated from the world by the vast desert. He wanted to live as a brother to all, giving freely, without preaching, respecting all and making no distinction as to their religion or origin, while living a very simple and austere life.
“Having lived in Tamanrasset for the past 20 years and more, I was filled with an interior joy on hearing of the forthcoming canonization of Charles de Foucauld, which has renewed my faith and given new life to my presence in this Muslim country,” said Sister Martine Devriendt recently to ACN recently. A member of the congregation of the Little Sisters of the Sacred Heart, whose spirituality is inspired by the saint-to-be, she added “The news of this canonization officially confirms in the Church the intuitions this man had, and the more so since these intuitions seem to me to be extremely relevant in the place we are living—prayer, austerity of life, closeness to all who are vulnerable.”
And indeed, here in Tamanrasset, no more than a little village at the beginning of the 20th century, but now grown to a sizeable city of some 150,000 souls, the vocation of the sisters, like that of Charles de Foucauld in his time, is manifested by a spirit of fraternal presence, discreet and contemplative, and a life of service in the midst of this majority Muslim country, and without any shadow of proselytism.
An Apostolate of Kindness
In the authentic spirit of Charles de Foucauld, who wrote in his Notebooks from Tamanrasset “My apostolate is to be the apostolate of kindness. In seeing me, people should be able to say, ‘Because this man is good, his religion must also be good.’ If people ask me why I am kind and gentle, I should be able to say, ‘Because I am the servant of one who is far more good than I am. If only you knew just how good he is, my Master JESUS’.”
The congregation of the Little Sisters of the Sacred Heart is one of a dozen or so religious congregations informed, as lay institutions, by the spirituality of the future Saint. Contemplative, while living in the world, the Little Sisters were founded in 1933 and settled in Tamanrasset in 1952, very close to the original hermitage of Blessed Charles, where he spent the last 11 years of his life.
An Essential Feminine Presence
As Sister Martine explained to ACN, the female Christian presence in Tamanrasset is important, because women can go into the families and thereby have access to all levels of the Muslim population, particularly the poorest and neediest—the women, the children and especially those suffering various disabilities, of whom there are very many. Their work includes counselling and supporting women, home visits, hospital visits, prison visits and even helping in administrative and medical matters or at times of funerals and festivities.
Moreover, Tamanrasset, in the far south of the diocese of Laghouat-Ghardaïa, has become a crossroads where all of Algeria and Africa meet. The local people are Harratins, Tuaregs, and they rub shoulders with other Algerians from every region of the country—Arabs, Kabyles, Mozabites… The years of terrorism (1992–2000) drove many people from the North of the country to seek a quieter life in this region, which also has many migrants from sub-Saharan Africa. Those from Niger and Mali come here to work and the “other sub-Saharans” are hoping to be able to get to Europe. Many among these are Christians and for them the Sisters are a source of comfort and spiritual support, “a mission we share with the three Little Brothers of Jesus in Tamanrasset and shortly a new priest, who is waiting for his visa. It is 15 months now and we have had no priest for the parish,” Sister Martine explains to ACN.
For the past five years, Sister Martine has been the only member of the community living here, after the older Sisters have had to return to France. It is a priority for the congregation to re-establish a real presence and spirit of Christian and feminine fraternity in Tamanrasset.
“As with many other congregations, especially in remote frontier regions, we can no longer maintain these communities on our own, owing to the shortage of vocations. We can no longer think of communities of sisters of the same congregation or the same spirituality. We now have to achieve a fraternity and diversity of the charisms of the various congregations and of lay religious women who are willing to commit themselves for a greater or lesser period,” wrote the Sisters in September 2019.
At that time, they were appealing for donations for rebuilding their existing residence in order to be able to offer a better welcome, in terms of autonomy and security, to women who might feel called to live the life of their apostolate in Tamanrasset. ACN has decided to co-fund this project.
“Your positive approval coincided with the announcement of the forthcoming canonization of Charles de Foucauld—which is Providential and which makes our project even more relevant,” writes Sister Isabel Lara Jaén, the General Prioress of the Little Sisters of the Sacred Heart. The original building, built in mud (toub) had to be abandoned due to inconvenience, difficulties with maintenance and complicated to renovate, lacking comfort (smaller rooms, lack of light and air, outside toilets…) and has now been completely demolished. The construction of four studios will provide necessary independence to women coming from different backgrounds, while guaranteeing a considerable degree of autonomy. The new building will also have a common missionary project in the form of a life of prayer and solidarity in the midst of the Muslim population and among the Christian migrants from sub-Saharan Africa.
The major work on the project is now complete; the finishing work should be done by early autumn. Alongside their search for aid in September 2019, the Sisters also launched an appeal in the Catholic journal La Croix, inviting both lay and religious women who might wish to live for at least a year in the fraternity. “Some people were due to come and see, but the Covid-19 pandemic has stopped all travel in recent months. But the appeal is still very much alive!” Sister Martine is in no way discouraged by this setback.