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July 9, 1830, the news of the taking of Algeria by the French army reached Marseilles. This military coup was a bid to put an end to the piracy that was an ongoing threat to merchant shipping on the Mediterranean and to the trade disputes between the dey of Algeria and France.
Father de Mazenod and the Oblates in full accord with popular opinion in France and Marseilles’ opinion in particular reacted favourably to this event. Already on April 27, 1830, Eugene de Mazenod on behalf of his uncle Fortuné had published a pastoral letter in which he decreed “public prayers for the success of the war in Africa.” Among other things, he said: “We are gratified to see a number of our priests [...] requesting the privilege of being the first to bring to them a knowledge of Jesus Christ in order to form a Christianity which they are on fire to make fruitful through their sweat and their blood.”
On July 9, Bishop Fortuné de Mazenod wrote a letter to the parish priests, asking them to ring the church bells and he published a pastoral letter which decreed a Te Deum of thanksgiving. On July 11, he wrote a letter to the prince de Croy, archbishop of Rouen and grand chaplain to the king to tell him that “the happy news of the taking of Algiers has aroused in the hearts of all the missionaries in my diocese [the Oblates], the most ardent desire to go to water with their sweat this waste land.” He wrote the same kind of letter the next day to the prince of Polignac, president of the council of ministers.
At the time, Father Eugene de Mazenod was ill and on his way to Switzerland where he was to rest. He learned the news on July 13 and from Grenoble, he wrote to Father Tempier: “I was [...] ecstatic with joy... I admire the promptness of the resolutions of our very dear Bishop.” (Oblate Writings I, vol. 7, no. 348, p. 199) A few Oblates, among whom were Fathers Tempier and Honorat as well as the scholastic brother Pascal Ricard, wrote to the Founder, asking to be among “the first group going overseas.”
After a few days, the Founder regained his prudence and tempered the apostolic ardour of these few Oblates. July 26, he said that he was “frightened” of the small number of members and, on August 2, he learned that king Charles X had been overthrown by the Revolution of the 27-29 of July. Louis Philippe, proclaimed king on August 7, was surrounded with a government that was initially very anticlerical. Accordingly, for a time, Father de Mazenod ceased talking about Algeria, but his interest for sending missionaries and his concern for the Church in that country continued unabated.
Negotiations with the Congregation of the Propaganda, 1832-1833
The Revolution of July 1830 put an end to the preaching of parish missions. The Oblates suffered because of this. At the General Chapter of 1831, a motion was unanimously adopted which expressed the wish “that some of our members should be sent to the foreign missions.” The Superior General tried in vain to send some Oblates into the Sardinian states, then to Rome and once again to Algeria in 1832 and 1833. In this regard, he wrote to Cardinal de Rohan in Rome at the beginning of 1932, got Father Tempier to make an intervention and even met personally the Prefect of the Propaganda when he was appointed Bishop of Icosia and on this account made two trips to Rome in 1832 and 1833. They praised his zeal, but initially in 1832 responded that “two holy priests have just been dispatched and have left.” Then, in 1833, aware that Louis Philippe was unhappy with his appointment as Bishop of Icosia without the government’s knowledge, the Propaganda responded saying that they feared that the government would npt accept the services of a congregation not approved in France. Consequently, the Pope conferred the task rather on the priests of the Missions.
Requests for the Setting up of a Diocese in Algiers, 1837-1838
From 1834 to 1838, Bishop de Mazenod’s interest in Algeria did not flag, less at the time with regard to the conversion of the Moslems rather than to bring spiritual aid to the Catholic colonists and the soldiers left practically without chaplains in the wake of the July Revolution. We know that in 1838, there were in Algeria 60,000 soldiers and 25,000 colonists, a goodly number of whom were from the city of Marseilles.
In 1837, Bishop de Mazenod spoke of Algeria and its religious needs to General Denis de Damrémont who was appointed governor general and to the king Louis Philippe whom he met in Paris on December 8. Among other things, he told him that “if he wished to keep the colony going, no other measure would be quite so apt to make religion prosper and draw from it all the advantage that one can expect of it than to establish a bishop in Algiers and to set up, first of all, one diocese, then several, on the model of those in France. The king [...] was highly appreciative of my ideas,” the bishop wrote in his diary that day. August 25, 1838, Bishop A. A. Dupuch was, in fact, appointed bishop of Algiers.
Trip to Algiers (October 22 to November 13, 1842)
In 1842, Bishop de Mazenod was offered an opportunity to travel to Algiers. Bishop Dupuch invited him along with other bishops to participate in the transfer of a relic of saint Augustine kept at Pavia and brought to Algiers. With great pleasure and great interest, the bishop of Marseilles made this trip outside of Europe and of Christendom. He was accompanied by Father Tempier and Canon Jeancard. Upon his return, he jotted down his rememberance of the trip in pages that were filled with good humour and spontaneity. (See Écrits oblats, I, vol. 21)
He visited Bône, Hippone, Draria, Blida, Boufarik and Algiers. According to his reflections, we can see that he looked favourably on the colonization of the country, judged Islam harshly and believed in the possibility of making converts and bringing back to the Church a population that was once Christian. July 22, 1844, he wrote once again to the parish priest of Mascara to encourage him to concern himself with the conversion of the Arabs “even if we must initially begin only with the children. From the time of the establishing of Christianity,” he added, “it has never been countenanced that the minister of the Gospel remained speeechless when it was a matter of being faced with error and of souls which had to be converted.”
The Oblates of Mary Immaculate in Algeria, 1849 to 1850
In 1848, we do not know the circumstances, Bishop de Mazenod reached an understanding with Bishop L. A. Auguste Pavy, bishop of Algiers from 1846 to 1866, with regard to sending some Oblates to Algeria. In December, Father Tempier went to negotiate the agreement on location, and by February of 1849, Fathers Dominique Pulcani and J. B. Bellanger, under the leadership of Father Jean Viala went to Algeria. Father J. B. Sabon and Brother Augustin Chalvesche soon joined them. In a January 5, 1849 letter to Bishop Pavy, the Founder stated that the Oblates were “at the disposition of the Bishop.” He could use their services as he saw fit on the condition of allowing them “to live according to their rule in community.” But, he added: “I hope the day will come when you will be able to use them for the conversion of the Arabs. I have never thought that the conversion of these poor Moslems was any more difficult than that of the Chinese. It will be up to you to give the signal when that time comes.” (Oblate Writings I, vol. 4, no. 3, p. 165)
According to the agreement reached by Father Tempier and Bishop Pavy, the Oblates were to live in community, to be given the pastoral responsibility of the parish in Blida and of religious services in the town’s hospital. When they arrived, none of these conditions were respected. They had to take up residence at the town gates and to serve the pastoral needs of the Catholics scattered around in seven villages lacking a church. This situation had a strong impact on Father Viala who did not see eye to eye with the bishop and fell ill. He returned to France at the end of summer. As replacement, the Superior General immediately sent Father Joseph Martin as superior, along with Father Ferdinand Grenier. A second missionary centre was subsequently opened near Philippeville where the Oblates were given the pastoral responsibility for the Catholics of five villages, Catholics that rarely practiced their faith.
The project of evangelizing the Arabs always remained on the front burner for the Founder. In every one of his letters he says something about it. At the end of the month of November in 1849, along with Fathers Martin and Grenier, he sent once again Father Tempier and outlined for him his course of action. “It is basically a question of finding out whether we can stay at Blida which is really the spot which suits us since it is quite near Algiers and within reach of the Atlas where we will have to penetrate later in order to work at the conversion of the Arabs.” (Oblate Writings I, vol. 4, no. 11, footnote 16, p. 172) Already on September 25 of that year, Father Tempier had written to the Central Committee of the Propagation of the Faith in Lyon to ask for substantial grants in view of sending three priests to the Arabs. With regard to this matter, he wrote again and with the same lack of success on October 23 of 1849 and February 22 of 1850.
During the course of this second trip to Algeria, Father Tempier noticed that community life was suffering because the priests were scattered around like ordinary parish priests throughout the small villages and he noticed as well that the civil authorities were opposed to the evangelization of the Arabs. He also saw that Father Bellanger, more because of contrariness of spirit than through malice, had squandered the Congregation’s financial resources in Algeria. On February 4, 1850, he was expelled from the Congregation. But he left behind debts and made the Oblates’ situation a difficult, if not an impossible one. Father Pierre Eymère, chosen to replace Father Bellanger, left on February 10 and, upon his arrival in Algeria was struck down by an accident which initially seemed to be fatal. It was at that point that the Founder received a March 27 letter from Bishop Barnabò suggesting that the Congregation take on a new vicariate in South Africa. The Founder took this as a sign from Divine Providence and decided to recall his missionaries from Algeria to send them to South Africa. On April 1, he gave an affirmative response to Bishop Barnabò and, on June 20, he recalled to France the Oblates in Algeria.
Yvon Beaudoin, o.m.i.
LAMIRANDE, Émilien, “Les Oblats en Algérie (1849-1850)...” in Études oblates, 14 (1955), p. 154-183.
BEAUDOIN, Yvon, o.m.i., “Mgr de Mazenod et les musulmans” in Vie Oblate Life, 57 (1998), p. 467-499.