Patroness of Africa – Mother Behold Thy Son
North Africa, the land of Saints Monica, Augustine, among others, as part of Roman Empire began to become Christian in the 3rd century under Emperor Constantine. It remained Christian until the Arab invasions in later centuries. The French re-established themselves early in the 19th century.
The first bishop, Bishop Dupuch found it impossible to build a church because the local population was hostile to the French. He went back to France for assistance. The Sodality of Our Lady in Lyon offered to the bishop a bronze statue of the Immaculate Conception with the understanding that she would be the Protectress of both the Mohammedans and the natives. It was brought from France in 1840 and was entrusted to the Cistercian monks of Staueli. Later, Cardinal Lavigiers, founder of the White Sisters, enshrined it in the new basilica at Algiers, where in 1876 the image was crowned. This bronze statue, very dark in colour, is known as Our Lady of Africa.
Pilgrims began to come to venerate the image where the lame, the blind, and the crippled were miraculously healed, and sailors came also to beg for protection of their long and perilous voyages. At this and other North African shrines the veneration given to Mary by Mohammedans is very marked. This feast commemorates the crowning of the Algiers statue.
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 favour, 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.
Commentary (We say this special prayer)
Pray to Our Lady, Mother of Africa.
Our Lady of Africa, in whose maternal and immaculate heart the whole human race finds refuge, look with favour upon the Muslims, who honour you as the mother of Jesus and the most blessed among women. Obtain for them the grace to seek the fullness of Light and Truth, until we may all share, as one people of God, the revelation of His infinite Love for all men, made manifest in the sacrifice of His only Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. And since you are the Mother of the Church, preserve the local Churches of Africa as true and fruitful Messengers of the Word, proclaiming it always, in perfect communion with the universal Church under Peter. Obtain for them and for our Society an increase of dedicated workers. Sharpen our vision to discern and our resolve to respond to new and pressing apostolic needs.
Help us, O Lady and Queen of Africa, to be effective witnesses to the Gospel. Thus, may we come to be worthy of our calling and, as the Most Holy Name of God, Father, Son and Spirit, was glorified in you, O Mary, so it may be in us, forever and ever. Amen
O Mary, Mother of Jesus, Mother of Christians, Mother of the Church and Mother of Africa, intercede for your children scattered over the African landscape and beyond who pass through hunger, oppressive governments, hate for Christianity, trafficking and all forms of evil. Pray to Jesus your Son again for us and may we go with the blessing of Almighty God, the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen!