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History of the Church in West Africa

caravane dans le Sahara


The Beginnings.


In the mid-nineteenth century, the Church in Europe is facing hostility from the modern world. Religious congregations are being suppressed and even chased away from France. It was also the time of "discoveries" of African territories by explorers. It is in these circumstances that the 19th Century became a period of Evangelisation and colonization, both activities being often parallel and intermixed.


It is therefore a good thing to make a few observations about North Africa, specially Algeria, because it is from there that the great Evangelisation project of Central Africa has taken place with Cardinal Lavigerie, founder of the Missionaries of Africa and Sisters of Our Lady of Africa.


le chef arabe Abd El KaderIt is also common knowledge that Algeria, like most of North Africa, was Islamic since the conquest in the 7th century. In 1827, the Dey of Algiers having hit a French Representative, France used the pretext to start the conquest of Algeria. In 1830, Algiers was seized and the whole of Algeria became a French colony in spite of the resistance of the Arab Chief Abd El Kader. Many French settlers came to Algeria that was then ruled by Governors General.


After lots of discussions with the French Government, at that time rather hostile to the Catholic religion, Rome finally instituted a Diocese of Algiers in 1838. The first bishop was Dupuch, followed in 1846 by Bishop Pavie. By the time of his death, in 1867, he left a minor and major seminary, 187 parishes and 273 priests. In 1867, Algiers had become an Archdiocese with two other dioceses, Constantine and Oran. This is the situation that Bishop Lavigerie took over when he arrived in 1867 as Archbishop of Algiers.


Le pape Pie IX Le pape Léon XIII When Bishop Lavigerie was appointed Archbishop of Algiers, in 1867, Algeria had been under French rule for 40 years. The Pope was Pius IX. He was succeeded by Pope Leo XIII in 1878. Both Popes had high regards for Lavigerie.


Lavigerie had a far reaching vision. He had accepted the see of Algiers because, over and above the Archdiocese, he was aiming at the entire African continent. Algeria, for him, was the "open door to a continent of 200 millions souls".


In the time of Lavigerie and the first Vatican Council, most of African costal regions have had missionaries.

Franciscans in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt.
Lazarists in Abissinia (now Ethiopia).
Spiritans in Senegal, Gambia and Congo.
African Missionaries of Lyon in Costal Guinea and Dahomey.
Jesuits in Madagascar and Zambia


There was also diocesan clergy from Ireland in Cape Colony, from Portugal in Angola, from Spain in Morocco, and from France in Algeria. However, if all costal regions of Africa had been more or less evangelized, it was not the same for Central Africa. It is therefore towards the interior of the continent that Lavigerie decided to intensify his missionary activity.


Missionaries for Africa.


To implement his grand project, Lavigerie founded, in 1868, the Society of Missionaries of Africa which will be better known as The White Fathers. Aware that evangelization of women will only be really made by women apostles; he also founded, in 1869, the Congregation of Missionary Sisters, known as The White Sisters. To all of them, Lavigerie will give missionary orientation in principles and method. Missionaries will have to adapt to ways of living of the peoples they meet in clothing, housing, food and language. But he insists that Africa will only be evangelized by the Africans themselves, "once they have themselves become Christians and apostles". This implies a progressive pastoral initiation based on the cathechumenate.


Lavigerie avec son premier orphelinIn the beginning, missionaries worked in Algeria. At that time, in 1867-1868, there was a great famine in Algeria that left many orphans. Lavigerie asked for "the right to bring-up those children who had no fathers nor mothers nor tutors". This was the first task to which he employed White Fathers and White Sisters.


Then were started the first missions in Kabylie in 1872-1873. But, as everywhere else in Moslem dominated countries, Lavigerie forbade all direct catholic proselytism. Missionary work had to be restricted to school and medical care. In this way, he also started missions in the Sahara and Tunisia in 1875. In so doing, he was mainly aiming at setting a starting basis for caravans that would eventually go south over the desert… for he always kept to his original plan.


Marché et mission de Tombouctou en 1895In June 1975, Bishop Lavigerie thought the time had come to establish the mission among those populations, in the country called at that time Sudan. (This was the name given in colonial times to territories that are now Mali, Ghana, Burkina Faso and Guinea). The aim was to reach Timbuktu across the desert. He sent a first caravan of three missionaries; friendly Touaregs had proposed to guide them. The caravan left on the 15th January 1876. But, the missionaries were killed by their Touareg guides. For Lavigerie, it was a terrible shock; when he gave the news to the missionaries in Algiers, all of them asked to be sent to replace their brothers martyrs.


In 1878, Leo XIII became pope and he began his Pontificate by entrusting Lavigerie and The White Fathers with the responsibility of missions in Central Africa, vast territories, much larger than the actual Congo, that are now called the "Great Lakes Region".


Also in 1878, a caravan of 10 missionaries penetrated the Continent from Zanzibar to Uganda: a then months journey! In 1879, a second caravan of 18 traveled the same way; this was the beginning of the equatorial mission (also called Central Africa or Great Lakes). Uganda will soon know persecutions and the marvelous history of the "Ugandan Martyrs" (1886).


At the time when the first caravan was leaving for East Africa, The White Fathers, in Tunisia, were contemplating the possibility of reaching the Sudan from Tripoli (now Libya). On the 18th of December 1881, after serious feasibility studies of crossing the Sahara, three Fathers left Rhademes for the Sudan. Unfortunately, three days later, they were also killed by their Touareg guides. It was then necessary to abandon the idea of crossing the Sahara.


In 1890, the Apostolic Prefecture of the Sahara-Susan had become the Apostolic Vicariate under the responsibility of cardinal Lavigerie. When he died, he was succeeded by one of his spiritual sons, Bishop Toulotte, who became Vicar Apostolic.


However, the onward movement of French penetration on the Niger and Sudanese regions from Senegal gave Bishop Toulotte the idea of investigating the possibility of reaching by that way the territories under his care.


Première caravane vers le Soudan. Mgr Hacquart au centreHe therefore appointed Father Augustin Hacquart to lead the first caravan to Timbuktu, starting from Senegal instead of crossing the desert. Father Hacquart reached Segou on the first of April 1885 and Timbuktu on the 2nd of May 1885. There he started a mission station where he remained himself for three years. This mission was closed 15 years later: there was no serious possibility of success. However, the mission was better established in Segou, January 1899. During that time, Bishop Hacquart had been nominated, since a year, as Vicar Apostolic of Sahara-Sudan. It is with this authority that he went around the immense territory comprising the whole of West Africa without the costal areas.


We must take note that the Spiritan Fathers, in Senegal since 1843, had already established the mission of Kita in 1888 and, also, Kayes in 1892 (now in Mali) (Those two missions have been taken over by The White Fathers in 1901 when came the division of the Sahara-Sudan Vicariate).


caravane de 1898 vers les SoudanIn January 1899, Bishop Hacquart founded Segou where he had been 4 years before. Immediately, he went on in his travels to Moogo, in Mossi country. He traveled through Ouagadougou in 1899 without stopping there. He thought that Koupela was more promising and it is there that the first mission was established and has become, later, the country of Burkina Faso. This was in 1900.


P. Augustin HacquartUnfortunately, on the 4th of April 1901, Bishop Hacquart died accidentally, drowned in the river Niger in Segou. In the same year, his immense Vicariate was divided in two: Sahara and Sudan. Bishop Bazin is appointed Vicar Apostolic for Sudan. Also, it is in the same year, in June 1901, that the mission of Ouagadougou is founded. Its first superior was Father Templier.


Thus, in 1901, the Bambaras were evangelized from three missions: Segou, Kati and Kayes. The Mossi were also evangelized by Koupela and Ouagadougou. The mission of West Africa has started…


You will find more information on the development of the Church in West Africa, Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso), Mali, Niger, Ghana, Nigeria and Ivory Cost by visiting those countries mentioned in our general plan.


Reference: The book of Father Georges Salles, M. Afr. "FROM JERUSALEM TO OUAGADOUGOU", Part III: contemporary period, vol. 6, pp. 30-62.