We Have Already Given up Our Lives
‘...We Have Already Given Up Our Lives...’
Many readers of Spirituality will recall the accounts by Fr Martin McGee, a Benedictine monk of Worth Abbey, about the Cistercian monks from the monastery of Tibhirine, Algeria, all except one of whom were abducted and then beheaded by an extreme Nationalist group – the Armed Islamic Group – in Algeria, in 1996. The 1990s was a time of great violence and unrest in this, the second largest country on the African continent. Algeria, ruthlessly colonised by the French in the late 1800s, waged a bitter war of liberation to gain independence, and then a civil war, as many groups formed with various objectives.
Spirituality more recently carried another article, also by McGee, about the Dominican Bishop of Oran, Blessed Paul Claverie, who, with his faithful Muslim driver, was killed by the same group in 1996. His death brought to nineteen the number of Catholic sisters, brothers and priests, murdered during that terrible decade, and subsequently beatified on December 8 2018 by Cardinal Becciu in Oran, Algeria’s second city.
I would like to introduce another of that group: Blessed Paul Hélène St Raymond, a Little Sister of the Assumption, who was gunned down alongside her colleague, a Marist Brother, Blessed Henri Vergés, on the morning of Sunday, May 8, 1994. Ironically, a march for peace was taking place in Algiers at the same time. The Marist Brothers had responsibility for a library, where up to one thousand disadvantaged young people would come to study and do their homework. One of the tasks of Sr Paul Hélène was to ensure that only those with genuine library cards could enter. But if the police are knocking at the front door, what should one do?
Hélène Saint-Raymond was born at Paris in 1927 into a deeply Christian family, the eighth of ten children. After graduating from the college of Sainte-Marie de Neuilly, she studied physics and chemistry at the Sorbonne and graduated as an engineer, one of the few women in that profession at the time. Her strong religious faith, meticulous work ethic and her faithfulness to her faith were appreciated, and she was a bright, intelligent and decisive young woman, ‘She scared me a little’ confessed one of her community later. One of her friends at university invited her to her religious profession as a Little Sister of the Assumption, and so she became acquainted with the Order, well known in France for their work among poor families in working class areas of larger cities in France and abroad. She decided to join them. After a ten minute conversation she was certain that this is where the Lord was waiting for her, and she entered in 1952. But first, in a way that seems characteristic, she got employment in a factory so as to become more familiar with the life and culture of factory workers. She then made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, which deeply affected her and later wrote ‘I have a deeper awareness of the invitation of Christ to share his cross at Calvary, and make him better known to others.’ She had been baptised Hélène but added the name ‘Paul’ at profession. St Paul, the great missionary and bridge-builder, was her inspiration, and she wished to respond to the call of Christ perceived at Calvary. Her full religious name became Paul-Hélène de Gethsemani.
After profession she qualified as a nurse, and moved to the community at Creil, a town a little to the north of Paris, where at that time, not very long after World War II, she encountered extreme poverty and deprivation. From there she sailed to Algeria in 1963 to work at a medico-social centre in the working- class district of Belcourt in Algiers. The Congregation had recently established itself in the Maghreb 1 area of North Africa: Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia, all three former French colonies. The intention was to be a presence among the Muslim population, especially among poor Muslim families, offering whatever service was possible; not, of course, to convert . It was not the easiest place in the world in which to live: a very different culture and history; a challenging language, and ongoing unease between the French governing class and the Algerians. A country where more than three quarters of its land mass was desert. A country where the presence of the French, as colonizers, had been intensely disliked. Then there were Berbers, with their own language and culture drawn from the desert, even if by then many had moved into the city. Her experience both in Creil and in Algiers led her later to reflect: ‘What strikes me this time round is the way Jesus Christ identifies with the poor…The poor person is one who needs others and depends on others, and if that poverty is ‘open’ through the need for others, then it is God on whom one depends, from whom one expects everything. …I must spend a long time in contemplating this identification of Christ with the poor, because it is very important for our mission and for myself to try and welcome or request help from others, to feel the need, and to let others help me as they desire. I haven’t reached that stage yet!’ Being with and living among the poor were both characteristic of the Little Sisters of the Assumption, and so for Paul Hélène this call to inner emptiness had opened up before her, in the manner of Jesus ‘who, being rich, made himself poor.’ (Phil 2:7-8)
Algeria, led by a group calling itself the FLN — the National Front for the Liberation of Algeria — waged a tactically clever but murderous war of Independence from France from 1954 until de Gaulle agreed to referendums in Algeria in 1962, barely a year before Paul Hélène arrived there, and about 98% voted for independence. There had been thousands of atrocities on each side. But even after a new constitution was adopted that allowed the formation of political associations other than the FLN, violence continued. Several more extreme violent groups emerged, one of which was the Armed Islamic Group (GIA). Foreigners, especially those with any suggestion of support for the former French leadership or ‘intellectuals’ were gunned down. The GIA then issued a decree that all foreigners must leave the country by December 1, 1993 under pain of death. By the end of that year the majority of French people living in Algeria had left, and many Algerians too, emigrated. Religious were discerning their future in the country. Monsignor Tessier, bishop of the diocese of Algiers, visited them frequently to warn of the dangers. On one occasion Paul Hélène spontaneously said to him, ‘But Father, we have already given up our lives.’ Later it became clear from memories shared and writings discovered that all the missionaries shared this deep conviction and dedication to the people honed from deep prayer and surrender to God. This place was the location of their call and mission.
Paul Hélène had a very deep faith, and real commitment to the poor, as noted above. She always sought to understand more deeply the faith of the other and to respect it. Dialogue was part of the mission, a dialogue that never wished to dominate, but to reach out, and, wherever possible, to ‘walk in the other’s shoes’, to listen and to befriend. Martin McGee, in Dialogue of the Heart2 describes ‘the four distinct kinds of interreligious dialogue’ as dialogue of life (in everyday relationships); dialogue of action, when people of different faiths cooperate for the common good; dialogue of theological exchange, and dialogue of religious experience, these last two bringing friendship to a more profound level.
She had a difficult temperament, and some found her challenging to live with. She was very aware of this, and suffered a lot as a result, always bringing her difficulties to prayer. So in 1974 she was sent to Tunis, and then to Casablanca, in Morocco, where she became responsible for a service for premature infants, working with a team which was entirely Moroccan. The year 1984, was a difficult time for her, and she returned to France for a long rest ‘I was disoriented and engulfed in a storm’, she wrote later in her journal, but after appropriate support and a series of helpful conversations she eventually returned to Algeria, to a town on the edge of the desert, Ksar el Boukhari. But as a nurse, life was becoming more challenging since, being a foreigner, her work became subject to more and more restrictions to the extent that she was obliged to find other employment. After this return she wrote: ‘I think I am better able to accept myself, and have grown in freedom and ability to accept what is real…I need to come back to this from time to time…and I remain with my temperament and my past, (but) I must carry on this struggle with myself, accept myself and find freedom in Jesus Christ…Then we will be effective signs of God…’
Her determination to keep faithful to her vocation, to keep faith with God and with the people is evident in all her journal reflections. For example, in 1987 she wrote: ‘in the day to day mission we are connected to the entire world, invited to ‘‘incarnate’’ / ‘‘make’’ the Word through concrete actions. That requires a living faith and it is difficult at the present time. To express the tenderness of God in a pitiless world, in difficult and ambiguous situations... But God awaits us there. It is there he asks us to awaken with the ear of a disciple…’
In a spirit of faith, she bore painful inner struggles, desiring to overcome difficulties, misunderstandings, episodes of ill health, spiritual darkness. She continued faithful to personal and community prayer and spent prolonged times in the chapel, agitated or calm, with her hands open… her entire body seemed to be a cry to God: ‘...discover God at work in others. Believe that God is acting even when everything seems to prove the contrary. We are tempted to stop being witnesses to hope. But at the end of the tunnel we see the Resurrection’ (1987)
In 1988 she was back in Algiers, and went with a few companions to live in the Kasbah, the old quarter of the city, with its busy, noisy, narrow streets and crumbling high buildings housing many families. Shops were found on ground floors. Paul Helene went to assist in the Marist run library under the direction of the gentle Brother Henri Vergès. One of Paul Hélène’s task was to ensure that everyone entering the building held a library card, so her desk was close to the entrance. Although living in the area she described how she had to change her route to and from work according to how events were evolving. Everyone had to be on the watch. But, she wrote, ‘we have been called to dwell in this house of Islam and are very aware of the precariousness of our mission, and at the same time of the richness of the gift God has given us.’ There was always the possibility of being attacked. Yet in her letters home she always sought to be reassuring: ‘I hasten to tell you’, she wrote in 1993, the year before her death. ‘we are continuing to go normally to work, do our shopping, pray, but we have had to stop going out for a stroll in the evening. Pray for us and for all those around us…Where we need to pay attention is in the place where one is not known. We carefully choose where to do our shopping…’ And again: ‘Pray for our people who are going through such harsh trials and see no way through. May the Spirit of peace, love and reconciliation watch over us.’
And she added: ‘At the library in the Kasbah where I have been working for five years, the young people are as numerous as ever, we are continuing to develop material in Arabic, which is indispensable for them; the relations between the young people and our team are unchanged. The same in our house in the Kasbah, two sisters receive each week about a hundred young girls, women and children for knitting, sewing, school support. The ‘‘centre’’ is developing…’
In a last letter before Easter 1994 she described the current situation as ‘continuing to deteriorate. If last summer we were talking about a latent war, we have to say now we are in the midst of a civil war…As for day to day life. supplies are so difficult to have and so expensive that the worry of knowing what one is going to put into the pot and how one is going to get through the month, including those fortunate enough to have a salary, and one that is paid regularly – this worry fills the mind and is a distraction! Yet in the midst of despair and distress, life continues; people help one another… What does it mean to remain here in spite of everything? To remain faithful to ourselves, to our vocation in the Church, just as Jesus was faithful ‘‘unto death’’ as saviour in a sinful world. Faithful to those whom the mission has given me as partners in living, even Islamists, and even terrorists. We believe that this double fidelity is a witness of God’s fidelity to all people.’
‘Even terrorists’, she says, recalling Jesus’ love for his enemies. It’s impossible for most of us to imagine the stress of living day by day as normally as possible with such a threat of violence, and clinging on with such faith. But for the local families it was the same – perhaps worse if the breadwinner had been taken away. Even the official police had no inhibitions of bursting into a house and shooting the husband dead without any questions being asked.
Towards the end a friend recalled that Paul Hélène admitted her deep concern about the level of violence and after her death a notebook entitled ‘Violence in the Bible’ was found on her nightstand. She herself had always been joyful and self-controlled, but this was the result of much personal struggle and prayer. This friend noted that her prayer became more intense, and confessed that ‘I would kneel behind her in the oratory so as to pray better!’
On the morning of Sunday, May 8, 1994, she left as usual for the Marist Library and began her work with the students. Brother Henri was in his office. A knock came to the door, and some men in uniform stood outside. ‘Police’, they said. ‘We want to see the boss.’ Paul Hélène led them through, knocked and open Brother Henri’s office. Immediately two shots rang out. Paul Hélène fell backwards, shot in the neck. Brother Henri, shot in the face, collapsed on his desk. The noise reverberated through the area, and people began to arrive, including her companion Little Sisters of the Assumption.
Let these words of hers, which could serve as a summary of her life be the conclusion to this article.
‘All is grace…Why did Jesus choose this way of the Cross? Because he had faith in a future of life, of fruitfulness, and because he trusted his disciples.’
Afterword. God chooses those he wills. Few would have suspected that Paul Hélène de St Raymond had struggled so much to deepen her relationship with God through her missionary vocation. She had great desires, like her patron, St Paul, and gave her all to fulfil them. She was one of nineteen. Would we know of any one of these if they had not met their deaths in such dramatic ways? The richness of their inner lives was hidden in everyday contacts and actions. None of them sought martyrdom, just to live alongside their Muslim friends, in a spirit of dialogue, in efforts to understand and to build bridges. Now we have the inspiration of their lives, through occasional writings and the witness of friends. They are God’s gift to us and to the entire Church in this time of increasing global division and distrust.