, 09 July, 2020 / 9:00 PM
Sometime last year, when members of the Congregation of the Little Sisters of the Sacred Heart in Algeria wrote to the Catholic charity organization, Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) International, appealing for funds, the Congregation was in a deep state of need.
The community of Sisters that is located in Tamanrasset within the vast diocese of Laghouat in Southern Algeria had mud buildings and was in a state of disrepair when ACN stepped in to help.
“The original building, built in mud (toub) had to be abandoned, since it was inconvenient, difficult to maintain, complicated to renovate and lacked comfort,” ACN leadership reported in a communique shared with ACI Africa on Wednesday, July 8.
The building had smaller rooms and did not have light. Additionally, it only had toilets located outside and therefore, had to be demolished to pave way for a better facility.
But it was not just lack of facilities that the Little Sisters of the Sacred Heart Congregation located at the heart of the world’s largest and hottest desert battled. The Sisters have suffered less membership in a country that the Sisters say is experiencing dire shortage of vocations.
In an interview with ACN, Sr. Martine Devriendt, a member of the Congregation shared that she had, for years, lived alone at the facility.
“For the past five years, Sister Martine has been the only member of the community living here, after the older sisters returned to France,” reported ACN officials about the Congregation located in a diocese that is served hugely by missionaries, with no locals joining Religious Life.
In a past interview with ACI Africa, Bishop John MacWilliams of Algeria's Laghouat Diocese, one of the vastest dioceses in the world, said that the Diocese has only 12 priests serving a huge chunk of the Southern part of Algeria.
At slightly over 2 million square kilometers, the diocese is the largest in Africa and arguably one of the largest dioceses in the world, only rivalled by the Catholic Diocese of Irkutsk in Russia, which measures 9.96 million square kilometers.
“We have about 50 missionaries, 12 priests and a small number of brothers and then the rest are religious Sisters living in different religious communities with one or two individuals,” Bishop MacWilliams, a member of the Society of the Missionaries of Africa told ACI Africa in the February interview, adding that all the missionaries serving in the diocese are drawn from 20 different countries and none is a native of Algeria.
ACN leadership explains that Tamanrasset is the meeting point of many tribes in Algeria, some who fled terrorism from the north and also hosts people immigrants from Niger, Mali and other African countries who go to the desert country in search of jobs.
“Many among these (immigrants) are Christians and for them, the Sisters are a source of comfort and spiritual support,” the Church aid organization explains.
Sr. Martine explained to ACN leadership that the female Christian presence in Tamanrasset is important, because women can go into the families in the hugely Islam country 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 handicaps are very many,” the nun explains, adding that their pastoral work in the country includes counselling and supporting women and conducting home, hospital and prison visits.
The duties of the nuns extend to helping in administrative and medical matters and at times conducting funerals and other festivities in the diocese that experiences a shortage of ordained ministers.
For the Little Sisters of the Sacred Heart Congregation, ACN leadership says, it is a priority to re-establish a real presence and spirit of Christian and feminine fraternity in Tamanrasset, noting the challenge of maintaining “a female Christian presence” in one of Africa’s most isolated Catholic dioceses that has been set apart from the rest of the world by a desert.
It is a plea made in a letter that the leadership of the Little Sisters of the Sacred Heart penned to the charity organization last year.
“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,” the Sisters appealed.
They added, “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.”
Founded in 1933 and with a presence in Tamanrasset since 1952, the Congregation of the Little Sisters of the Sacred Heart draws its charism from the life of Blessed Charles de Foucauld, who was murdered in Tamanrasset.
On May 27, Pope Francis recognized the attribution of a second miracle to the celebrated French hermit and former cavalry officer, who at the age of 32, became a monk and then a Priest, building many hermitages in Morocco where he welcomed all, whether Christians, Muslims or Jews.
“Always attentive to the poor, ransoming slaves, offering hospitality to all who passed by, he divided his time between long hours of prayer, especially at night, manual and agricultural labor and hospitality towards all who visited,” notes ACN leadership.
“Having been living 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,” Sr. Martine Devriendt told ACN officials in reference to the May 27 recognition that paves way for the canonization of Charles de Foucauld.
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ACI Africa was officially inaugurated on August 17, 2019 as a continental Catholic news agency at the service of the Church in Africa. Headquartered in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, this media apostolate will strive to facilitate the telling of Africa’s story by providing media coverage of Catholic events on the African continent, giving visibility to the activities of the Church across Africa where statistics show significant growth in numbers and the continent gradually becoming the axis of Catholicism. This is expected to contribute to an awareness of and appreciation for the significant role of the Church in Africa and over time, the realization of a realistic image of Africa that often receives negative media framing.
Father Don Bosco Onyalla
Editor-in-Chief, ACI Africa