August 28: Cultural Centre bears witness to the “universality” of the Church

Here to mark the feast of Saint Augustine is a story from his native land of Algeria, where the Missionaries of Africa have been present for more than 100 years. Their society is 150 years old this year. 

Precious volumes and photographs testifying to the history of the Christian presence, but also courses in English and French and IT: all this is found at the Cultural Centre of the White Fathers (Missionaries of Africa) in Ouargla, a city in eastern Algeria,  at the service of the local, mainly Muslim, community, in this city of the desert.

The Cultural Centre is rooted in history. In 1875 the first White Father missionaries were sent here to find only a French military garrison and a handful of Berber hovels. Besides providing religious assistance for the soldiers, the White Fathers started to learn the local languages. At the same time they collected ancient books, scrolls and took photographs.

Over the years the missionaries catalogued the growing heritage which becomes a memory for the region and for the whole of Algeria. The photographs in particular bear witness to the different stages of a Christian presence which is ever more closely linked with the local population. “From the early years of colonisation down to our day – says Fr. Aldo Giannasi, a White Father missionary who lived and served in Ouargla – the Algerians viewed the Church as a continuation of the French political and cultural invasion. Today a change is taking place: the majority of priests and other church workers are from Black Africa, which clearly shows that the Church is not connected with France or with the West, or the powerful people of the world. She is Catholic, that is universal, and at the service of all”.

Ouargla too has changed. The military base is now an important Oil hub. The small village has become a city. The Cultural Centre still stands in the qasbah. As the years passed the structure deteriorated. The windows and doors were old and the desert sand was beginning to penetrate the rooms. Shelves, tables, chairs were old and needed to be replaced. The White Fathers thought of moving to the outskirts, but decided to stay in the original place and embark on its refurbishing.

Today the Centre hosts boys and girls, mostly Muslims, who study and use the library. Here they find a patrimony of books: history, geography, sociology, ethnology, religion and Christian spirituality. However the Centre has also become a focal point for the rest of the city because students find help with research and local people take courses in French, English, IT. “Our structure – concludes Fr Giannasi – bears witness to an active presence of Catholics at the service of Algeria, committed to a cultural mission which is a fruit-bearing seed of the Gospel” (Fides 4/4/2018).

The Algerian stamps show St Augustine and a Christian inscription from his time.

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