Cardinal Lavigerie

By Denis Starkey W.F.


1992 was an important year for White Fathers and White Sisters, it was the centenary of our founder's death. During the year the two missionary societies remembered an extraordinary man and the way he changed the history of Africa.

Although little is known about Cardinal Lavigerie these days he was a well known figure even in Britain in the 1880's because of his involvement with the anti-slavery movement.

During the coming year we intend to present a number of articles showing various aspects of his life and the influence he has had on missionary activity up until this present day.

This first article gives an overall view of the major events of his life and the founding of the White Fathers and White Sisters.

Cardinal Lavigerie was born in Bayonne, France, in 1825. He was the eldest of four children and the son of a Customs and Excise officer. He went to school in Bayonne and while a child played at being a priest and missionary. Even at the time of his first Holy Communion he expressed the wish to become a priest, although his religiously indifferent parents had other plans for him.


However his strong determination eventually saw him at a seminary in Paris. After his ordination on 2nd. June 1849 he obtained a Doctorate in Literature and was made a professor of History at the Sorbonne University.

Yet, a purely academic life as a University Lecturer proved to be insufficient for him. He hankered for a more active lifestyle and was delighted when he was given the task of heading 'The Work of the Oriental Schools' in 1857. The aim of this organisation was to bring unity between the Christians of the East and West.

Suddenly, circumstances erupted which changed the whole purpose of Fr. Lavigerie's life. In 1860 the Druses attacked Christians in Syria, killing around 200,000. Thousands of others were left homeless and starving. Fr. Lavigerie decided to help the survivors. Throughout France and other European countries he managed to raise money to alleviate the terrible hardships of the survivors of these attacks and then he went in person to help them. Here he discovered his missionary vocation.

Eventually Fr. Lavigerie's work with the Eastern Christians led to his being called to Rome as a part-time Consultant on Oriental Affairs to the Sacred Congregation of Propaganda. His full-time work was as a member of the Sacred Congregation of the Rota - a Court of Civil and Canon Law. Although Fr. Lavigerie was unhappy with his desk job at the Rota it did bring him into contact with a great number of people who would be of help to him later: he learnt about the workings of Vatican Diplomacy; he experienced Canon and Civil Law from the practical side; he met and became known by many political leaders from around the world; most importantly, he came into close contact with Pope Pius IX.

To the surprise of some, Fr. Lavigerie was made Bishop of Nancy, France, in 1863 at the early age of 37. He spent five years there and during that time was a tremendous animator of both the spiritual and physical aspects of the diocese. His organisational capabilities brought him to the attention of the French Government who pressed for his appointment as Archbishop of Algiers. Those who proposed his name saw him merely as the pastor of a few thousand colonial settlers. Bishop Lavigerie had other ideas and saw himself as being the pastor of all the people living in Algeria. The French authorities were not pleased at all! Nevertheless, he took up his post in January 1867. lav302b

Soon after a cholera epidemic killed more than 100,000 people throughout Algiers, followed by a two-year drought and also a locust plague. The French Colonial Authority did nothing for the starving Arab population and it was left to the Archbishop, his clergy and Religious to try and alleviate their suffering, despite the Government's opposition.

Archbishop Lavigerie saw Algiers as the gateway to the African Continent and believed that his Algerian clergy were called to start this immense task. In 1868 the Archbishop was appointed Apostolic Delegate for the Sahara and the Sudan and it was in this same year that he founded the White Fathers to work among Muslims. He recruited members from among his own diocesan priests and opened a seminary and novitiate where his future missionaries, priests and brothers, would receive their training.

In 1869 he appealed in France for young women to form the basis of a new Missionary Congregation to be women apostles for the women. Eight young women from Brittany responded: the first White Sisters.

In 1878 a secret declaration in Rome gave Archbishop Lavigerie the responsibility of organising the apostolate to Equatorial Africa. In that same year the first White Fathers took up residence in Jerusalem. Eventually, in 1882, Pope Leo XIII created Charles Lavigerie a Cardinal. By this time the area of his responsibilities also included the vast territory of Tunisia which France had added to her Empire in 1881.

One of the last important activities of Cardinal Lavigerie was his assault on the terrible slave trade that meant incredible suffering for a great number of Africans. He crossed Europe speaking everywhere against this awful situation. He was heard in the Prince's Hall in London and was described in the 'Times' as a great friend of Britain. He addressed the Anti-slavery Society which was comprised of many distinguished people, including Cardinal Manning, Archbishop of Westminster.

Not surprisingly, a life of hard and relentless work left its physical toll. Chronic arthritis and a stroke, plus tremendous political pressure against him during the latter years, brought about his death on the morning of 26th. November 1892. He was buried in the crypt of Carthage Cathedral in Tunisia.


The pictures are from the White Fathers' archives.
Picture one: Cardinal Lavigerie when he was Bishop of Nancy, France.
Picture Two: The Cardinal when he went to Syria in 1860.
Picture Three: Cardinal Lavigerie, then Archbishop of Algiers, with famine victims.

This article first appeared in "White Fathers - White Sisters" (UK), issue 302, of February-March 1992.
It may be published freely with due acknowledgements to the "White Fathers - White Sisters" magazine.

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Cardinal Lavigerie in Britain

Bought Out of Slavery - Adrien Atiman Part One

An Ex-Slave - Adrien Atiman Part Two

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