By Dorothy K. LaMantia | Correspondent
On Aug. 1, 1996, the day Pierre-Lucien Claverie died, his sister, Anne-Marie Gustavson and her husband, Eric, were moving furniture in their Hightstown home. When a portrait of Pierre fell from a shelf and landed on the floor behind a bookcase, Gustavson scrambled to see if it had broken and was relieved to find it undamaged.
The next day, French authorities called, informing her that Pierre – Bishop of the Diocese of Oran, Algeria – and his aide, Mohamed Bouchikhi, had been killed by a bomb set by Islamic fundamentalists.
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Afterward, the sight of the intact photograph assured Gustavson that though her brother died – his spirit lives on.
On Dec. 8, the Gustavsons, parishioners of St. Anthony of Padua Parish, Hightstown, and their daughters, Ingrid and Celine, will witness the Church honoring Bishop Claverie when he is beatified along with 18 clergy and religious martyrs who were killed between 1993 and 1996 while Algeria was locked in a 10-year-long armed conflict between government forces and extremist Islamic rebel groups. The conflict left tens of thousands of people dead.
The beatification will take place in the Basilica of Our Lady of Santa Cruz in Oran, not far from the cathedral where Bishop Claverie is buried.
“He was vivacious, ready to laugh, quick to understand, joyous, and knowing how to live in the moment and love people,” Anne-Marie Gustavson said. “Those traits made up the core of who he was throughout his life.”
Social Justice Champion
The siblings were born to Etienne and Louise Claverie, third-generation descendants of French settlers in French colonial Algeria. The family, which considered themselves Algerian, moved to France in 1962 at the end of the Algerian war of independence when the situation grew dangerous for the French minority.
While in France, Bishop Claverie enrolled in a Dominican-run school and felt a call to the priesthood. His studies with the Dominicans, who supported the movement for Algerian independence, made him realize he lived in a “colonial bubble.”
After he was ordained a Dominican in 1965, he studied the history and culture of Algerian Muslims and became fluent in Arabic. He returned to Algeria in 1967 as priest to its few remaining Catholics and a contributor to the restoration of its true culture.
“He envisioned a Church of presence where people could live together, respecting the other’s faith and exchanging ideas, with both faiths growing from the exchange,” his sister said.
Bishop Claverie ran an institute for the study of classical Arabic and Islamic culture for Catholic missionaries, which became popular with Muslims who wanted to learn about their own culture and history.
Named Bishop of Oran in 1981, he made diocesan property available for use by Christians and Muslims and led the construction of libraries, rehabilitation centers for the handicapped and schools for women. Meanwhile, he wrote abundantly about Algeria and was interviewed frequently as a champion of the people.
“He was incredibly perceptive how he looked at and understood the world,” Eric Gustavson said. “He had a coherent way of viewing and explaining the world connected to his faith and political understanding. The editor of the Middle Eastern bureau at the French newspaper ‘Le Monde’ consulted Pierre as his source.”
In 1991, the socialist government suspended the results of an election which would have turned Algeria into an Islamic state. Islamic fundamentalists declared war on foreigners, Christians and moderate Muslims.
When urged to flee, Bishop Claverie refused. Said Anne-Marie Gustavson, “We were worried, but we knew he wanted to be there in the steps of Jesus. For him and the 18 others [being beatified], they decided to be with the Algerians when they were suffering most.”
Bishop Claverie condemned the militants’ killing in the name of God. He was killed in his residence as he returned from meeting with French officials to discuss the safety of French Algerians during the unrest. The walls, spattered with his and his Muslim friend’s blood, became a symbol for Bishop Claverie’s mission of unity.
“At his funeral, Muslim mourners called him ‘Bishop of the Muslims,’” Anne-Marie Gustavson said.’”
Authorities eventually arrested and charged seven extremists with the killings. They were found guilty and condemned to death, which the Catholic Church commuted.
Role Model of Tolerance
Anne-Marie Gustavson looks forward to the December beatification, which she says will show the solidarity between Algerian Muslims and Christians. “We also remember 99 imams and 150,000 moderate Algerian Muslims died in the violence,” she said.
The family spoke of the blessings they personally received through Bishop Claverie’s life.
“Pierre opened new doors and horizons – religious, intellectual, international – for our family,” Anne-Marie Gustavson said. “When he returned to Algeria, we gained a new family of Dominicans who visited. Pierre wrote thousands of letters home. Through questions and answers, my parents grew with him. My parents were thrilled at the work he embraced.”
“Our family was not religious, but Pierre enhanced us spiritually,” she continued. “Our grandchildren have a moral compass and are open to others despite differences.”
Reflecting on her uncle’s influence, the Gustavsons’ daughter Celine, a programming specialist with Save the Children and mother of two, said, “He was my idol – dynamic, creative, fun to be with. He made you feel as though you were the only person in the room, giving you full attention.
“He gave his life for others,” she continued. “I chose my career because of him. When I was eight, I decided I would help others. I am glad that through his beatification, more people will know of him.”
Eric Gustavson edited a publication of Bishop Claverie’s letters. “Pierre is a great example of how to live your life,” he said. “He lived with a kind of radiance and brought a glow into the world. Yet he was humble. Because of him, I pay attention and respect what others have to say, then balance different points of view.”
Anne-Marie Gustavson found her spiritual expression by working with her parish’s social justice ministry, which has sponsored interfaith dialogues. “We need Pierre’s voice here and now in this time of division,” she said, “and to build relationships with other faiths to dialogue. It is the reality of Jesus to be among people.
“It is not ‘building bridges,’ but finding platforms of encounter where people can come together.”