The Society of Missionaries of Africa has fostered a renewal of the Christian approach to Muslims. This year marks the 150th anniversary of its founding

Last update: 2022-04-22 09:59:38

The recent trips of Pope Francis to Abu Dhabi (February 2019) and Rabat (March 2019) can only challenge us on the historical depth of relations between the Catholic Church and Islam. But if the Argentinian Pope inscribed his approach in the footsteps of Saint Francis, commemorating the 800th anniversary of his meeting with the Ayyubid sultan at Damietta in 1219, another anniversary deserves our attention: the 150th anniversary of the founding both of the Society of Missionaries of Africa commonly known as the “White Fathers” and the creation of the Missionary Sisters of Our Lady of Africa commonly known as the “White Sisters,” whose work and history have contributed to a complete renewal of the Christian approach of Islam and Muslims.


Founded just a hundred and fifty years ago by the Archbishop of Algiers, Mgr. Charles Lavigerie (1825-1892), created Cardinal in 1882 and “Primate of Africa” in 1884, this religious family was one of the great cogs of modern evangelisation of the African continent. If the fate of this missionary work goes beyond the Maghreb space, the relationship to Islam and to Muslims in North Africa has nevertheless remained one of its foundations since its creation and remains the focal point of our subject, namely the relationship of the White Fathers to Islam.


Thick with a century and a half of history, the relationship to Islam has been evolutionary, diverse and contrasted for the Society and its members. Therefore it is first necessary to question the legacy left by the founder, Cardinal Lavigerie. Because this heritage was not without ambiguity, the elaboration of dialogue actually took place only in the first part of the twentieth century after an important period of maturation. With the end of colonisation and since the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), the White Fathers appeared more and more as guarantors of the dialogue between the Church and Islam.


An Ambiguity as Legacy

The figure of Lavigerie emerged in the Maghreb in the heavy context of the French colonisation and of the creation of a new Catholic framework. Until the nineteenth century, indigenous Christian communities were inexistent in this part of North Africa; the missionary orders focused mainly on Christian prisoners[1]. With the conquest of Algeria, however, a new Catholic breath came from the French coasts; the bishop of Marseille was for instance delighted by the initiative of the Bourbon King[2]. In 1830, some accents of Crusade were heard in circles close to Charles X who sought in the conquest of the Regency of Algiers an escape from the social disaster that his reign was undergoing. For example, in the draft of surrender agreement that he addressed in 1830 to the bey of Algiers, the commander-in-chief of the French expeditionary force affirmed he wanted to respect the free exercise of the Muslim religion while he facilitated the celebration of a Te Deum and declared to his troops:

You have reopened with us the door of Christianity in Africa[3].

Soon, mosques were transformed into churches. In 1835, as cholera spread, “nuns land [...] and report to the natives by their dedication. Three years later, a bishop is appointed in Algiers”[4]. The monastery of Our Lady of Staouëli was founded in 1843; in 1854, the abbot Dom François Régis (1808-1881) was immortalised by the orientalist painter Horace Vernet (1789-1863) celebrating mass before the French imperial army in Kabylie[5]. However, Bishop Antoine-Adolphe Dupuch (1800-1856), a bishop of Algiers who, following the constant desire to convert him to the Christian faith, established a dialogue and friendly relations with the emir Abd el- Kader via Abbot Suchet[6].


Under the Second Napoleonic Empire (in its first part at least), religious congregations were encouraged to settle in Algeria to meet the need for education. But, faced with a slow, difficult, and questionable conquest, the political power and the army also showed a certain hesitation, and some Freemasons expressed a categorical refusal of Christian missions. Actually, as under the General Government of Bugeaud (1840-1847), the French ruling circles also feared that an ostentatious proselytism could cause a massive rejection of the French presence by the native Muslims. A period of tension followed with Bishop Lavigerie who founded the Society of Missionaries of Africa in 1868, followed by the creation of the feminine branch in 1869, the “last notable episode in the apostolic mission to Muslims before the inter-war period”[7].

Archbishop of Algiers from 1867 to 1892, Mgr. Lavigerie paid particular attention to the Muslims living in his diocese, as soon as he was enthroned.

The White Fathers appeared more and more as guarantors of the dialogue between the Church and Islam

Bishop Lavigerie had some knowledge of the Muslim religion before arriving in Algeria, which made Joseph Cuoq say that “of all the French bishops, Lavigerie was certainly the best prepared to occupy the siege of Algiers”[8]. In 1851, he was appointed director of the Œuvre des Écoles dOrient. In Syria, he wove his first links with Muslims including Emir Abd el-Kader who arrived in Damascus in 1855 and who protected the Christians during the 1860 uprisings. From this first oriental experience Lavigerie extracted the following lesson: there could be no forced conversion of Muslims, too rooted in their faith – even if he found on his arrival in Algiers that Algerian Islam was significantly different from that practiced in Syria. Should we nevertheless deduce that Bishop Lavigerie had abandoned all proselyte aims? It remains in fact a certain ambiguity. Because during famines or epidemics – regular in this period in Algeria – the orphans who were collected were also baptised. Two Catholic villages were even created in the Orléansville area: Saint-Cyprien des Attafs and Sainte-Monique, thus making a clear reference to the pre-Islamic past of this North African land. Did the charitable enterprise then hide missionary activity and proselytism? For the French colonial administration, which feared that proselytism could cause unrest among Muslim populations, the answer was clearly positive: conversions of Muslims to Christianity had to be avoided. Faced with the colonial order and the criticisms formulated by the “Bureaux Arabes” (Colonial Arab Offices), Mgr Lavigerie was obliged to defend himself. He stated as follows:

Instead of parking the natives, by the fear of a largely imaginary fanaticism, in barbarism and in their Koran, which keep them separated from us by an impassable abyss, we should assimilate them: children, by the French schools; adults, by a discreet preaching, prepared by a wide diffusion of the benefits of charity.[9]

The Archbishop of Algiers also placed the fight at the level of the freedom of the Church: if the colonialists had the freedom to undertake new business, the Church had the freedom “to practice charity towards the poorest, as it had done since the beginning”[10]. It was in this spirit that he founded the Society of Missionaries of Africa in 1868. With its mother-house in Algiers, this new society intended to send on mission not only in North Africa but also beyond the Sahara which, being now conquered, allowed France to connect the Mediterranean to Black Africa. For the Roman Catholic Church, Bishop Lavigerie could now pretend to be recognised “Primate of Africa”.


Close to the Muslim populations, the White Fathers were at the same time respected for their actions of health and teaching, and objects of mistrust suspected of wanting to baptise the weakest and most isolated. The prescriptions of the founder evolved however. Regarding, for example, the apostolate with the Kabyles, Mgr Lavigerie forbade crucifixes in classrooms, prayers and signs of the cross at the beginning and at the end of the lessons: recommendations too difficult to follow for the Jesuits who were replaced in Kabylie by the White Fathers in the summer of 1873. Bishop Lavigerie indeed invited the White Fathers to “beware of all proselytism; never speak of religion to the Kabyles, except for the dogmas they admit and their ancient Christian traditions; to confine oneself to treating the sick and to schooling the children,” “to win the hearts,” to practice “the historical method” as a catechism, and especially to “adapt”. The duty of adaptation to the environment was clearly put forward by the founder of the Society of Missionaries of Africa as “a true apostolic asceticism”. The duty to study languages (Arabic, Berber, etc.) quickly followed, in order to respect the original cultures and African identity in all its diversity, in short a new attitude to adopt towards colonised populations at a time when the mainstream was more about an assimilation of the colonised population to the Western civilisation.


The great successors did not lack: Bishop Livinhac and Father Voillard in Black Africa, for- example. But the orientations initiated by the founder started to be practiced in quite varied, not to mention contradictory ways, following his own hesitations. This prompted the 1912 Chapter to recall the principles of the Founder[11]. During this meeting, Henri Marchal was elected as assistant to the superior general. However, because he was re-elected to this post until 1947, it is not wrong to say that it is largely thanks to the directives and the work of these other French missionaries that the White Fathers made the choice of the dialogue with the Muslims.


The Elaboration of Dialogue

In a position of authority and responsibility within the Society of Missionaries of Africa, Henri Marchal was obliged to “translate into practical guidelines the main orientations given by the Founder to his Missionary Society for the Apostolate in Africa in general, and for its implications in the Muslim world, in particular[12]”. In reality, he developed a true “apostolate technique for Muslims[13]” when the Catholic Church began to become aware of the deadlock in which his missionary project was located. If the Western Christian triumphalism was expressed with pomp in 1930 during the Eucharistic Congress of Carthage and on the occasion of the centenary of the colonisation of Algeria, gradually an alternative model of mission emerged under the light of often solitary stars: Charles de Foucauld (1858-1916) at the crossroads of contemplation, Louis Massignon (1883-1962) on the roads of Orientalism, and Jules Monchanin (1895-1957) outside the Islamic world.


Now the moments of crises were also favorable moments for Henri Marchal, it was appropriate to recover from the intuitions of Cardinal Lavigerie[14]. In the Grandes Lignes de l’Apostolat des Pères Blancs en Afrique du Nord, published in 1938, he insisted, like Lavigerie before him, on the adaptation of the apostolate to the public targeted by the conversion policy and especially on the importance of the caution for missionaries vis-à-vis the French authorities and Muslims. For Henri Marchal, the heart of the apostolate laid in the “essential truths” to be observed more than in the sacrament of baptism: the most important and necessary was the “conversion to God,” conversion to Christianity was less so. The mission was also functioning by “radiation” according to his book Les rayons (1936). The first aim remains the “défanatisation” not only through spiritual works but also through secular activities. The missionary had to show by his example that he was a “man of God”, which, on the one hand, would distinguish him from colonial settlers and authorities and, on the other hand, would attract many Muslims to the Christian faith. Henri Marchal therefore elaborated a method following the “preaching of Christ”: it was first and foremost for the missionary to be accepted by the Muslim populations “in the logic of the Incarnation,” then to engage only on the path of conversion, giving priority to the abandonment of his life and his person to God, thus putting into practice a dogma common to Islam and Christianity. Finally, the conversion to Christianity as a religious system was almost abandoned in the short term.

from one pole to another of Christian Islamology, the White Fathers contributed in the years 1950-60 to the definition a new Catholic orientation towards Islam

Progressively, led by Henri Marchal, the White Fathers were thus led to think of their presence in North Africa alongside Muslims, as “an accompanying relationship,” whose objective is not to convert Muslims, but to help them live an open, “Christianised”[15] Islam. The diffusion of the Marchalian method was observed first of all on the occasion of the Chapter of the Society of 1926 when he succeeded in establishing a project for a center of Arab studies intended for the linguistic and cultural training of the religious and nuns who would go and live in Islamic lands. Created on November 18, 1926 in Tunis, this House of Unity and Effort directed its students to the knowledge of literary and dialect Arabic. The first shelves of a library were devoted to what touched Tunisian life, the Muslim religion as well as Arabic literature[16]. The goal was, however, the meeting of the other more than a learned knowledge that will take in hand rather the Dominicans in Cairo. But not without recalling the doubts provoked by certain positions of Cardinal Lavigerie on the question of conversions, the project carried by Henri Marchal met reticence among his colleagues. For if the new Tunisian creation was, according to him, to be a means of gaining the sympathy of the local population, the White Fathers Roberto Focà and Joseph Sallam who were first in charge of it provoked “deliberately apologetic polemics to show Tunisians the weaknesses of their Muslim faith”[17]. However this approach of intellectual controversy was not completely shared by all students, especially the young André Demeerseman. Furthermore the organisation of the Eucharistic Congress of Carthage in 1930 accentuated the disagreements at the interior of the community. And in January 1931, Henri Marchal managed to impose André Demeerseman to direct what became the Institut des Belles Lettres Arabes (IBLA): a research center, it allowed the White Fathers living in Tunisia to engage in a rich history of scholarly cooperation with Tunisian universities, including the Zeituna, and it promoted a history of Muslim-Christian friendship even during the national struggle against France. In short, if he didn’t speak explicitly of it because he remained also a man of his time, that of colonisation, Henri Marchal clearly committed the Society of Missionaries of Africa on the path of dialogue with the Muslims.



The Guarantee of Dialogue

Since the late 1950s and the time of decolonisation, the role of the White Fathers could be portrayed as that of “guarantor” of the dialogical relationship with Islam. Yet the decolonisation process meant painful choices for the Society of Missionaries of Africa, foremost among them the removal of the Mother House from Algiers to Rome. But this relocation to Rome was also an opportunity for fruitful cross-fertilisation with other missionary families engaged in the relationship with Islam, not only in Africa but also in the Middle East, South Asia and Europe. The meetings of the Journées Romaines organised at the Mother House of the Society from 1956 allowed the White Fathers to open up to the vast and plural measure of the Islamic world[18]. Even within the Society of Missionaries of Africa, it must be said that two traditions coexisted and often ignored one another: North Africa on one side and Sub-Saharan Africa on the other. It was not until the years 1950-60 and the improvement of the means of communication that the knowledge and experiences were really and mutually enriched. In charge of a new information office on Islam within the Society, Father Jacques Lanfry (1910-2000) made for instance several trips in East and West Africa to collect information on the different Islamic realities and the diverse experiences of encounters between the members of the Society and the Muslims.


The relocation in Rome became also a great opportunity for the White Fathers to stand at the helm of Islam-Christian dialogue just as the Catholic Church was entering into a new relationship with the World Religions. Like the Dominicans in Cairo and the supporters of an open Thomism, the White Fathers like Jacques Lanfry and Joseph Cuoq (1917-1986) fought against both the passionate excesses of a dialogue on the one hand, and against dangerous absurdities of an anti-Muslim Catholic fundamentalism[19]. In short, from one pole to another of Christian Islamology, the White Fathers contributed in the years 1950-60 to the definition a new Catholic orientation towards Islam. In 1964, the School of Arabic Language was transferred from Tunis to Rome: based and connected with IBLA, the new Pontifical Institute for Arab Studies (which would be known as “Pisai” from 1981) would reinforce the role and the influence of the Society in all the matters concerning Islam. For example, Robert Caspar (1923-2017) collaborated to the drafting of the third paragraph of the conciliar Declaration Nostra Aetate in which the Catholic Church affirms that it regards the Muslims “with esteem”[20]. And Joseph Cuoq took over the responsibility of the Islam Section within the Pontifical Secretariat for Non-Christians created in 1964. Because it has often been linked since the Second Vatican Council to important pastoral or pontifical tasks, the passion for dialogue of White Fathers such as Jacques Lanfry, Michael L.Fitzgerald and Etienne Renaud became a pillar of authority. Back to France in 1977, Jacques Lanfry published remarkable studies on the Berber language[21] and accompanied the activities of the Service of Relations with Islam of the Conference of Bishops of France – Service which had been founded by another IBLA White Father Michel Lelong. Michael L.Fitzgerald (born in 1937) was appointed Secretary of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue in 1987, and then President in 2002.


The trajectory of Étienne Renaud (1936-2013) is even more relevant for us today, for several reasons. First, he lived in very different Islamic contexts: in Algeria, Tunisia, Syria, Yemen, Tanzania, Sudan. Secondly, he experienced the Muslim hospitality especially in Yemen where he had been welcomed by a Yemenite family for eight years. Furthermore, he was Superior of the Society of Missionaries of Africa between 1986 and 1992. Finally, he took over the responsibility both of the IBLA and the PISAI at different moments of his life. His personal experience may then enlighten our understanding of the relations that the White Fathers have maintained in the recent years with Islam.


Étienne Renaud never hid his contempt for a naive Christian position on Islam. This is reflected in his 1987 “Letter” in which he insisted on the necessary alliance of an understanding of Islam with “the exigency of the Gospel”[22]. But since the 1970s, the growing presence of Muslims in Western Europe had made religious pluralism a massive and challenging issue as Étienne Renaud pointed out in several speeches. Likewise, he did not hesitate to say his discomfort with not only the noisy and media-rich Islamism, which was particularly noticeable during the attacks of 11 September 2001, but he did not also hesitate to critic the weakness of calls for moderation on the part of Muslim masses. Believing that “with Islam, the theological dialogue leads to a dead end,”[23] he continued to seek contact with popular Islam, in order to meet people more than a system: on the island of Pemba (off the Tanzanian coast) where he lived for several months in 2001, in Khartoum in the steps of Mahmud Taha, in the northern districts of Marseille at the end of his life. He was indeed a good watercolorist: attentive to the humanity of people he met, rooted in the Christian faith of his parents, Étienne Renaud followed the nuanced curves of the human encounter, against intransigence and amalgam, at the service of dialogue and understanding between Christians and Muslims.


In summary, at the outposts of the Christian mission in the land of Islam especially in North Africa, the White Fathers gradually became an authority, a reference within the Catholic Church in the joint field of Muslim studies and Islamic-Christian dialogue. Guarantors today of a certain nuance in the relationship to Islam, many of them continue to cultivate in various places a benevolent criticism. They represent therefore today one of the few historical links between the Catholic Church and Islam, necessary to grasp with more serenity and audaciousness the challenge posed today by the encounter with Islam.


During the 150 years of existence of the Society, these successive and various engagements in the relations with Islam have gradually drawn the portrait of the White Fathers as trait d’union, placed on a second line of the historical stage but essential to the evolution towards a better understanding. For instance, the few White Fathers mentioned here above have very rarely been leading theologians. But their experience of human encounter has fuelled theological intuitions of rare intensity. Men of their time, they were marked by the tragic of their epoch, either as direct witnesses or even victims of the different crises they crossed: like Cardinal Lavigerie upset by the massacres of Damascus in 1860, many White Fathers apprehended Islam and maintained the course of dialogue in the midst of World Wars, wars of decolonisation and post-colonial crises. In addition, their action was conducted in the light of an authentic Christian spiritual experience. Most of them were “men of God” convinced “that one can only respond to one’s vocation if one is deeply and spiritual attentive to the grace of God who acts in the hearts and solicits them to the best”[24]. In the image of incarnated Christ, Jesus of Nazareth living with the men of his time, taking into account the human depth had also become the essential condition of an “enlightened zeal” towards the Muslims according to the expression of Cardinal Lavigerie. The conviviality shared with Muslims in the Sahara, in Kabylie, in East Africa or elsewhere, the real friendships built by many missionaries with Muslims around the world allow to temper flashes that always risk sliding towards ideology, either angelic or apologetic. Finally, the relation of the White Fathers to Islam cannot be well understood without the fundamental complement lived by the White Sisters since 1869. This feminine dimension recalls the centrality of the project of Cardinal Lavigerie: to place his missionary work under the gaze of Our Lady of Africa.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation

[1] See the second part of Henri Teissier, “Histoire des Chrétiens d’Afrique du Nord”, in Henri Teissier (ed.), Mémoire Chrétienne. Paris: Desclée, 1991, pp. 65–114.

[2] Pierre Vermeren, La France en Terre d’islam. Empire colonial et religions. xixe-xxe siècles. Paris: Belin, 2016, p. 149.

[3] Alain Brissaud, Islam et Chrétienté, Treize siècles de cohabitation. Paris: Robert Laffont, 1991, p. 163.

[4] Ibid., p. 164.

[5] Horace Verent, La première messe en Kabylie, 1854, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lausanne. The archives of the Staouëli Monastery are kept in Aiguebelle Abbaye.

[6] Abbé Suchet, representing Bishop Dupuch, met Emir Abd el-Kader on several occasions to negotiate prisoner exchanges. Alphonse-Michel Blanc in Récit d’un officier d’Afrique. Tours: A. Mame et Fils, 1892 give an overview of their meetings (pp. 118–124).

[7]Oissila Saaïdia, Clercs catholiques et Oulémas sunnites dans la première moitié du vingtième siècle. Paris: Geuthner, 2004, p. 39. On the White Fathers, see Jean-Claude Ceillier, Histoire des Missionnaires d'Afrique (Pères Blancs). De la fondation par Mgr Lavigerie à la mort du fondateur (1868-1892). Paris: Kathala, 2008.

[8]Ibid., p. 14.

[9] Alain Brissaud, Islam et Chrétienté, p. 165.

[10] Joseph Cuoq, Lavigerie, les Pères Blancs et les Musulmans maghrébins. Rome: Société des Missionnaires d’Afrique, 1986, p.15.

[11] Oissila Saaïdia, “Henri Marchal, technique d’apostolat auprès des musulmans”, in Françoise Jacquin, Jean-François Zorn (eds), L’altérité religieuse, un défi pour la mission chrétienne 18e-20e siècles. Paris: Karthala, 2001, p. 123.

[12] Jean-Marie Gaudeul, “Le Mystère de la prédication du Christ : Henri Marchal (1875-1957)”, in Id. Disputes ? ou rencontres ? l’Islam et le christianisme au fil des siècles. Tome 1, survol historique. Rome: Pisai, 1998, p. 344. On Henri Marchal, see Gérard Demeerseman, Henri Marchal, 1875-1957. Une approche apostolique du monde algérien. Rome: Société des Missionnaires d’Afrique, 2015.

[13]According to the title chosen by Oissila Saaïdia, “Henri Marchal, technique d’apostolat auprès des musulmans”, in Françoise Jacquin, Jean-François Zorn (eds), L’altérité religieuse, pp. 121–137.

[14] Ibid., p. 129.

[15] Charles Mercier, Le dialogue islamo-chrétien organisé en France de la fin des années 1960 à nos jours. Thesis unpublished, Nanterre, 1999, p. 13.

[16] François Dornier, Les Catholiques en Tunisie au fil des jours. Tunis: Imprimerie Finzi, 2000, pp. 543–555.

[17] Jean Fontaine, Points de suspension…, Tunis: Éd. Arabesques, 2008, p. 15.

[18] Maurice Borrmans, “Les “Journées Romaines” et le dialogue islamo-chrétien”, Islamochristiana, no. 30, (2004), Roma, pp. 111–122.

[19] Dominique Avon, Les Frères prêcheurs en Orient. Les dominicains du Caire (années 1910-années 1960). Paris: Le Cerf, 2005, p. 613.

[20] On Robert Caspar, see Maurice Borrmans, Quatre acteurs du dialogue islamo-chrétien, Arnaldez, Caspar, Jomier, Moubarac. Paris: Vrin,  2016.

[21] J.M. Dallet, Dictionnaire Kabyle-Français, Etudes Ethno-linguistiques, Paris, 1982.

[22] Étienne Renaud, “Lettre du père général”, Petit Écho, no. 4, (1987), Rome, pp. 208–209.

[23] La Croix, mars 2008.

[24] Gérard Demeerseman, Henri Marchal…, p. 76.