Our Lady of Africa
by Zsolt Aradi
The first Bishop of Algiers, after the conquest of the country by the French at the beginning of the nineteenth century, was without a church or residence. He was also without funds and surrounded by Moslems whose hostility was evident and whose friendship had to be won. The Bishop returned to Lyon and related his distress at the Convent of the Religious of the Sacred Heart; his appeal was spread and he did not have long to wait before he was offered, by the Sodality of Our Lady, a bronze statue of the Immaculate Conception. It was the express desire of the donors that this dark-hued statue should be considered the Protectress of the Mohammedans and the Negroes. When he returned to Algiers, the Bishop gave the statue into the custody of the Trappist Fathers, also recently arrived, who according to their severe rules were beginning to cultivate the barren African soil. Bishop Dupuch was not to see his plans for the construction of a church realized; however, his successor, Bishop Pavy, laid the cornerstone for the present Basilica in 1858, on a hill overlooking the Mediterranean. This Basilica, which recalls the Cathedral of Our Lady of Fourvieres in Lyon, was consecrated in 1872 by Cardinal Lavigerie, famous for his activities to spread the Catholic faith in Africa. When this appropriate shrine was ready, the Bishop asked the Trappist Fathers to return the statue, which had previously been placed before the entrance of the Trappist monastery. The Trappists, however, had become so attached to this precious statue that they acceded to this request reluctantly, and only because she was to be placed in the new, magnificent church of Algiers, one of the gates to the "Dark Continent." Shortly thereafter, the image became known as Our Lady of Africa, Consolation of the Afflicted. The poor, the blind, the crippled and especially sailors and soldiers came from all over to implore her aid and the walls of the Basilica were soon covered by great numbers of offerings which attested to miraculous cures. A lady from France, who wished to perpetuate her thanksgiving for a great favor, made a white satin gown for the statue and another lady offered a blue silk mantle.
After the donation by Pope Pious IX of a golden diadem with precious stones with which the statue was crowned, Cardinal Lavigerie placed the newly founded Congregation of the White Sisters under the protection of Our Lady of Africa, with the privilege of replacing the gown and the mantle of the statue.
Though Our Lady of Africa's abode is a Catholic church, she is venerated by Mohammedan men and women as much as she is by Christians. Every day, one can see kneeling Mohammedans who have come to ask Lala Meriem, as they call the Blessed Virgin, for her special favors.
Faithful Moslems are familiar with Our Lady and the Saviour because Mohammed speaks of them in clear and penetrating terms in the Koran. Chapter III of Sura quotes the words of Allah: "Oh Mary! Lo: Allah hath chosen thee and made thee pure, and preferred thee above (all) the women of creation." And Sura XIX is entirely dedicated to Mary, and mostly to the history of the Annunciation. The Koran accepts the fact of the Immaculate Conception, though Christ is considered only a prophet. The devotion of the Saviour to his Mother is also known to the faithful from Sura XIX where Mohammed attributes the following words to Christ: "…And (hath made me) dutiful toward her who bore me, and hath not made me arrogant, unblessed."
Thus, it is understandable that Mohammedans, who become aware of the unique position of Our Lady among Catholics and generally among all Christians, are devoted to her. There is much evidence, throughout the centuries, of this Moslem veneration of the Gracious Lady. Though they fought Christians because Mohammed, in the Koran, blames the followers of Jesus for many evils, only the savage or ignorant would have done any harm to an image of the Virgin. St. Louis, King of France, who was the prisoner of Moslems in the Holy Land, was treated generously, and received a gift, an image of the Holy Virgin, from the hands of the Sultan. This image, later enshrined in Le Puy, France, was venerated by the Moslems. The holy places in Palestine, and particularly those of Lala Meriem, are kept in greatest esteem.
At present, the veneration is extraordinary because the Moslems frequent Catholic churches. Once, the chaplain of the Basilica in Algiers approached two Mohammedans after their prayer, and asked them why they had come. They answered that they had come to ask Lala Meriem to obtain the cessation of the famine in their village. A kneeling woman cried: "I am sick and suffer so much. You must cure me, Meriem." Another woman said: "I am praying to Meriem so that she will send me a good husband," and innumerable people go by themselves to one of the chaplains if he is around and say: "I was asking Meriem for her Haraka (blessing)." Many women, with veiled faces, after having received permission from their husbands, come simply to place a candle before the shrine of Lala Meriem.
Update on Our Lady of Africa Shrine from Fides
The Basilica of Our Lady of Africa stands on a cliff overlooking the bay of Algiers. The church, the construction of which was begun in 1872, is visited by Muslims as well as Catholics. Women, young girls and grandmothers, alone or accompanied, can be seen praying here in front of the beautiful bronze statue of Our Lady of Africa clothed in a richly embroidered Tlemcen style garment. The church custodians say many Muslim visitors ask about Mary, about the Bible, why the four Gospels. They spend time looking at decoration, the Stations of the Cross, and frescoes of the life of Saint Augustine the 4th century Bishop of Hippo, born in Tagaste. Augustine is Christianity's first and most famous Algerian. Below the frescoes runs a phrase of St Augustine in Arabic, French and Cabila: “Brotherly love comes from God and is God”. Strong words in a very difficult context of the country where many kill in the name of Allah.
Algeria was Christian and Marian from the 2nd century AD. Numidia (Berbers are Numids), was colonized long before the Christian era by the Fenicians who settled along the coasts while the Berbers held the center of the country. In 200 BC the kingdom passed under the dominion of the Roman Empire for nine centuries until the Arab invasion and Islamization. However the Arab-Islamic conquest was slow and arduous because this part of northern Africa had a flourishing Christian community.
The conversion to Christianity of Roman Emperor Constantine in the 3rd century increased the Church's influence in northern Africa. Carthage became important as the city of Saint Augustine a Berber Christian and one of the most universally known Doctors of the Catholic Church. Algeria has many Christian basilicas and shrines.
But with the Arab invasion the Church of Africa was decimated and was only re-established here in 1830 with the arrival of France.
Although Islamized and shaken by bloody violence, Algeria, an ancient Christian and Marian land, a land of martyrs' is still entrusted to Our Lady of Africa. Muslims too respect the Blessed Virgin Miriam, the Holy Mother of Jesus. And along with Christians still today many Muslims come to pray and lay flowers in front of the statue of the Blessed Virgin in this great Basilica dedicated to Our Lady of Africa where underneath the main altar lies the inscription: “Our Lady of Africa pray for us and for all Muslims”. (J.M.) (Agenzia Fides 25/5/2007; righe 45, parole 632)
This item 3151 digitally provided courtesy of CatholicCulture.org