Editor’s Note: On Dec. 8, Anne-Marie Gustavson of St. Anthony of Padua Parish, Hightstown, witnessed the beatification of her brother, Bishop Pierre-Lucien Claverie, in the Basilica of Our Lady of Santa Cruz in Oran, Algeria. Bishop Claverie, then-bishop of Oran, and his friend, Mohamed Bouchikhi, were killed Aug. 1, 1996, by Islamic fundamentalists. Gustavson, her husband, Eric, and daughters Celine and Ingrid traveled to Algeria for the celebration, in which 18 other martyrs were beatified. Following is her reflection:
By Anne-Marie Gustavson | Special Contributor
On Dec. 7, we arrived in Oran, Algeria, to honor the 19 religious, including my brother Pierre, a priest from the Dominican order, who died during what is called “the black decade” of the 1990s, when Algeria, a Muslim country, was engulfed in a civil war that killed 200,000 Algerians. My brother was bishop of Oran from 1981 to 1996.
Once in Oran, we met with the other relatives of the deceased and members of their religious orders, around 400 people altogether. We were transported everywhere in special vans with police escorts who cleared the way wherever we went and assured our security. Every Algerian we met during our stay went out of his/her way to make us feel welcome.
That evening, St. Mary’s Cathedral was full of people who came for a vigil, which was enhanced by the beautiful songs of the parish choir composed of young Christians from Sub-Saharan Africa who are studying in Algeria, and of Muslim singers. The most moving moment came at the end of the evening, when everyone in the church was given a small candle to bring to Pierre’s tomb, situated at the back of the church. Portraits of him and of Mohamed Bouchikhi, the young Muslim who died with him, are on permanent display there.
The morning of Dec. 8, the relatives of the 19, Mohamed’s family and the dignitaries of the Catholic Church were invited to the Grand Mosque of Oran to honor 114 imams who also lost their lives during the civil war in defense of a moderate form of Islam. Young girls in traditional dresses offered a rose to each of us, and 50 or so imams from around Algeria were in attendance. After the ceremony, a reception with tea and pastries allowed us to converse with our hosts.
Later, we were taken to the newly renovated shrine of Notre Dame de Santa Cruz, suspended between heaven and earth high on the hill that dominates the city of Oran and the Mediterranean Sea. The beatification ceremony took place outside in the vast courtyard and 1,200 people attended the event: Algerian dignitaries, diplomats, Catholic and Muslim religious, the local and foreign press, families of the deceased and more.
I was seated in the front row with Mohamed’s mother, she in her long dark red robe and her white head scarf and I bareheaded in my Western-style clothes. Up to that moment, we had gone everywhere together, arm in arm, just like we always do when we meet in Oran. This physical closeness brings us solace and helps us control our emotions.
The ceremony took place under the clearest blue sky and with the participation of the African choir singing in several languages. There were many moving moments: Bishop Jean-Paul Vesco, current bishop of Oran and grand organizer of the event, opened with a reading of Mohamed Bouchikhi’s testament. Later, an immense banner with the pictures of the 19 was unfurled. But the most heartwarming moment came when all the guests stood up to applaud their Algerian hosts, and the Algerians in turn stood up and applauded their guests.
That evening, we attended a play called “Pierre and Mohamed,” which has been shown for years throughout the French-speaking world since its creation in 2010. Written by Adrien Candiard, a young priest from the Dominican order, it evokes the last few hours of Pierre and Mohamed’s lives.
My family and I felt a deep sense of joy throughout these two days in Oran, and if there were tears at times, a smile was never far behind. We pray that the love Pierre and his companions offered their Algerian friends will conquer hate and division and will continue to bear fruit in Algeria; in France, the birthplace of most of these religious, and in the rest of the world as the 19 are now recognized as examples of unconditional love.