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Br. Henri Vergès (1930-1994)

 

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A Witness to the Gospel in the midst of Islam

07/05/2014: General House

On this day in 1994, a Sunday afternoon, Brother Henri Vergès offered the testimony of blood after 25 years in the service of young people in Algeria. We recall his memory with a text of Br. Michel Voute, from FMS Message 15 (October 1994).

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He was born on 15th July  1930 in Mate­ male,  little  village  in  the  Capcir,  a beautiful but harsh region in the eastern Pyrenees at an altitude of more than 1200 metres, very near Andorra and the Spanish frontier. His parents spoke Catalan. Henri was the eldest of six children: he had  two brothers and  three  sisters. He entered the juniorate in 1942, in the mid­ dle of the Second World War. Life was difficult for everyone and those in charge had difficulty nourishing those in their care. Henri made his novitiate in 1945- 46 at  Saint-Paul-Trois-Chateaux,  in  a country liberated but impoverished. After a year's scholasticate at Notre-Dame de l'Hermitage, Brother Marie-Rodrigues (his name in religion) passed his Brevet Elementaire in Nimes in 1947 while at the same time teaching in the little school at Saint-Geniez d'Olt (Aveyron).

 

After spending two years in a sanatorium he courageously continued his studies; he gained his Bachelor of Philosophy, learned Spanish and taught mainly ... mathematics! Until 1969his apostolate was carried out mainly in the south of France. From 1951to195 6he taught in Cheylard in the Ardeche. Then he worked in Aubenas and Bordeaux. From 195 8 to 1966 he was sub-master of novices at Notre-Dame de Lacabane (Correze). He was then asked to take charge of the College of Bourg-de­Peage (Drome). He was chosen as the delegate of his Province to the XVIth General Chapter in 1967- 68. He finished his studies on the campus of the University of Montpellier in May 1968.

For a long time he had dreamed of working in the Missions and his superiors were aware of this. But he accepted various obediences which required his presence in France. Finally, in1969he was sent to Algeria to teach at the College of Saint-Bonaventure situated in the working class suburb of Belcourt. He taught for one year, while at the same time studying Arab literature, before becoming the principal (1970- 7 6). The nationalization of the schools carried out by President Boumedienne made it impossible for him, being a foreigner, to continue in charge. He applied in vain for Algerian citizenship. However, he managed to obtain a position as teacher of mathematics and French in a secondary school in Sour-El Ghoslane, 120 km to the south of Algiers. His contract was renewed annually for twelve years. He lived simply, for five years alone, without a Marist companion, in contact with the people in a cold little flat without running water. He was on good terms with his neighbours and built up friendships with his Moslem school colleagues.

In September 1988, right in the middle of the young people's revolt aimed at breaking the rule of the single Party, his bishop asked him to reopen the Library of the White Fathers in rue Ben Cheneb in the Casbah district of Algiers. For six years, aided at the outset by Brother Jesus Marcos and several Sisters, he directed all his Catalan dynamism, his ardent faith in youth, his rich experience in teaching, his love of the Arab culture and of his adopted country, to making his new place of apostolate an attractive and welcoming centre for youth, an effective aid to their study, a place of dialogue and liberty. On Sunday 8th May 1994, three extremists burst into the Library. Brother Henri and Sister Paul-Helene Saint-Raymond, an Assumptionist Sister, were shot in the head. The A.I.G (Armed Islamist Group) claimed responsibility for these cowardly and cold-blooded murders.

class=imgshadowThe funeral Mass took place on the Feast of the Ascension in the presence of Cardinal Duval, of the Bishops of Algeria, of several Ambassadors, of various Religious Communities and of a crowd of friends, both Christian and Moslem, still in shock, who filled the Basilica of Our Lady of Africa. "The hour is coming when anyone who kills you will think he is doing a holy duty for God." (John 16,2), as we read in the liturgy for the 9th May. The burying of this leaven, Henri and Paul-Helene, in the Algerian soil will be for the country a source of tolerance, of justice and of fraternity. The smiling welcome of our Brother, his competence, his sense of sharing has left its imprint on a whole generation of young people. He once wrote: "I must thank the Father, along with the Virgin Mary, for the inestimable gift of my spiritual journey which owes so much to my sharing my life in the midst of Islam."

Henri was a member of the Ribat, a group of Christian and Moslem believers who met for sharing and prayer in order to find the voice of peace and concord .Yes, Paul­Helene and Henri in following Jesus, have given their lives for their Algerian friends . They have been the presence of God in the land that they loved. They died as they lived: giving all.

It is a great loss for the young people of the Casbah and for our Marist Institute but it is also a great source of pride to have given such a teacher to youth, a religious so exemplary in his fidelity to his commitment, such a witness to the Gospel, respectful of everyone, attentive to and at the erv1c f all. "His presence represented something paradoxical, something original , something prophetic, in the name of the Gospel opening up perspectives of peace in a country of violence" (Y.G .).

 class=imgshadowIn Algiers, Henri Verges was at the peak of his vocation as Marist teacher. His life, his action and his death challenge us . "God writes straight with crooked lines” We will be forever touched by the humble and gratuitous witness of this life given daily. Only Jesus can tell us the meaning of t.his sacrifice: "He loved them to the end ..." There remains to us the shining memory of Henri and Paul-Helene, artisans of peace.

"This assassination did not surprise me greatly, it was always possible. I fear that even more difficult times await the little Algerian Church: let us keep it in our prayers. We must understand the validity of the decision of Henri and Michel to stay over there: it was necessary both for the Church and for the Institute. That they were the first to be killed says much about the importance of their presence." (Fr. J. Marcos)

In celebrating the centenary of the Marist presence in Algeria (1891-1991) Henri said: "What will this second century which we are beginning hold for us? God alone knows! It is enough to go on, like Abraham, in faith, not knowing exactly where God was leading him but from one stage to the next he went on..." 

May the dedicated lives of Henri and Paul-Helene be fruitful beyond our hopes. May the all-powerful and merciful God welcome them into his peace. May their sacrifice hasten the day of Reconciliation .

Brother Henri Verges is for us a shining example of faith, of courage, of audacity and hope. 

A Champagnat for today, such in my eyes was our Brother Henri.

__________________

Brother Michel VOUTE- companion of Br Henri
FMS Message 15 – October 1994

REad more about the Br. Henri Vergès

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