Liturgical Arts Shine in Africa at Notre-Dame-de-Lourdes (Archdiocese of Libreville, Gabon)

For years I have been following the exciting developments from the wonderful French-speaking mission parish of Notre-Dame-de-Lourdes in the African city of Libreville, in Gabon.   This community is a foreign mission effort under the auspices of the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest (in French: Institut du Christ Roi Souverain Prêtre or ICRSP), a French traditional order set up as a society of apostolic life of pontifical rite.  The parish offers a beautiful Solemn High Mass every Sunday and it has become a popular tourist destination for many who visit Libreville.  Photos can be seen here.         

The members of the Institute are secular canons.  They were founded in Gabon on September 1, 1990 by Mons. Gilles Wach and his colleague Canon Philippe Mora.  Monsignor Wach was Vicar General of the Diocese of Moulia in Gabon from 1989 until 1995.  Today he remains Prior General of the Institute.  From the beginning since its official founding in Gabon the Institute has had a continuous presence in Gabon, where many of the their priests and seminarians have served in various apostolates as part of their formation.  

When Mons. Wach first sought to establish his own religious community, it was not easy to find a bishop in his native France that was favorable - given the political climate at that time.  This is because he wished to establish a community of priests who would dedicate themselves exclusively to the celebration of the EF.  Providentially, in 1989 he met in Paris His Excellency Bishop Cyriaque Obamba, then Bishop of Mouila in Gabon.  The Bishop expressed his need for future priests to serve as missioners in his diocese.  The match was perfect.  Mons. Wach agreed and the bishop agreed to canonically establish the new Institute in French-speaking Gabon.  

The Institute's main mission in Africa is the parish of Notre Dame of Lourdes in Libreville.  This is their flagship parish in Gabon, a new church that took two years to build, located on a hill above the city.  The superstructure and church belfry were completed in 2015, constructed with funds from generous benefactors and built in the style of Portuguese Baroque, a type of architecture that flourished during the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. 

The project was led by the Vicar General of the Institute, Monsignor Rudolf Michael Schmitz of Germany, with the help of a clerical oblate brother in the Institute, Abbé Alexander Willweber, an artist recognized for his work, having been a recipient of the "Bene Merenti" award in 2008, and Canon Bertrand Bergerot, the young parish priest of the parish.

The solemn blessing ceremony for the façade was held on Saturday, August 15, 2015.  The completion was made possible thanks to a personal donation from the Head of State, His Excellency Ali Bongo Ondimba, who wanted to contribute to the construction of a masterpiece of sacred art in the heart of the Gabonese capital.  The ceremony was led by Monsignor Basile Mvé Engone, Archbishop of Libreville, in the presence of Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke and Monsignor Gilles Wach, Prior General of the Institute.  After the celebration of the Solemn Mass which ended with a papal blessing from Pope Benedict XVI, the Head of State and his wife were invited to unveil the inaugural plaques commemorating the event.

The community is booming and the parish offers a full liturgical schedule and it operates its own school, with many altar boys being educated there.  Donations are still being collected to finish the interior and ceiling decorations of the new church.  The front exterior is covered in custom hand-painted glazed ceramic tiles imported from Portugal, designed specifically for this church in a rare and delicate style.  The tiles number more than 12,000, made using the "azulejos" technique - form a composition inspired by the principles of the great Roman architect Vitruvius, who lived in the 1st century before Christ.

The azulejos tiles on the façade tell of major historical lives and saints in the life of Christian civilization.  The top image in the pediment or triangular upper part depicts the Annunciation.  The main image in the center register depicts the Adoration of the Wise Men.  Four saints are depicted on either side, including St. Benedict and St. Thomas Aquinas on the left and Francis de Sales and St. Thérèse of Lisieux on the right.  The belfry depicts images of Our Lady.  The lower images depict the Angels, the Crucifixion, and the Resurrection.  The Latin motto on the front of the church is taken from Ephesians 4:15: Veritatem Facientes In Caritate ("Speaking the Truth in Charity").  The coat-of-arms above the central portal is of the Institute.  

The parish also has a small outdoor Lourdes grotto and gardens.      

The pastor is our good friend Canon Bertrand Bergerot.  I remember him well from his seminary days in Italy during my studium years at the Angelicum.  He was ordained priest on July 7, 2011 and has labored in Gabon full-time since then.  He is responsible for the Libreville parish and the missions of the Institute in Gabon.  Canon Bergerot is a wonderful priest and a dedicated missionary.  I was privileged to visit his parents once quite by accident in their shop in Paray-le-Monial, also called the "city of the Sacred Heart" where St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, a Visitation nun and mystic experienced visions of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. 

Some of the missions of the Institute in Gabon are located in cities such as Libreville or Mouila.  Others are located in the middle of the jungle.   The missioners have been busy from day one in 1990 and they have restored and constructed several churches, chapels, schools, and medial dispensaries.  The local native population is very attached to the missioners and through proper catechesis and liturgical formation they are deeply rooted in the universal patrimony of the Classical Rite.  This gift is offered by the Institute as part of their official mandate, brining a little piece of Rome to every corner of the world.  

Mission work in Africa is difficult.  The climate is murderous with ever present malaria.  That being said, the satisfaction that is given to the missioners by the openness and enthusiasm of the African locals is worth its weight in gold.  There have been hundreds of conversions and baptisms, the joy and reward of mission work.  It is equal to the strain on health and jungle hardships that are endured by the tough missionaries.  The parish missions inspire patrons from all over the world who give generously to keep the mission going.  Benefactors understand well their crucial role.  Some go by giving to the missions.  To read more see here.  

The parish community is set up under a nonprofit called Jeunes Missionnaires Afrique (JMA).  This is a new missionary association that aims to support the missions of the Institute existing in Gabon for over 30 years.  The association is vital to the missionary effort, financially supporting both the humanitarian and apostolic outreach efforts of the Institute.  It also helps support a network of young volunteers that devote themselves for a year at a time laboring in the missions.  Donations can be given in Euros and are tax-deductible.   An annual letter is sent to benefactors.  In 31 years, 9 churches have been built, 3 schools have been built, 97 volunteers have traveled to Gabon, and 375 students are supported in local Catholic schools sponsored by the mission.  I encourage readers to be generous and to make a generous contribution.       

The parish is active on social media with Instagram and Facebook accounts that document the community's life with photos and videos.  The faith of the local people is real source inspiration.  The parish is growing and the bishop sometimes visits for special occasions.  Meanwhile, the liturgical arts are flourishing here as one might expect, a parish community under the banner of the ICRSP priests and seminarians.  

Libreville is the capital city of Gabon, a busy port city in Central Africa.  The French acquired this beautiful land in 1839 and it was part of French Equatorial Africa from 1910 until 1960 when independence was granted.  Pope John Paul II came to visit in 1982.  The Archdiocese of Libreville is the Metropolitan See covering all Gabon, originally established in 1842 as an Apostolic Prefecture, then part of the vast West African mission territories.  French missioners have been laboring here since that time, educating youth and maintaining strong parish communities.  

God bless this wonderful community.  The Church exists to evangelize.  It is a breath of fresh air to see such a successful and permanent mission endeavor that has been established and is being faithfully continued, bringing the beauty of the Roman Rite to the Catholics of Gabon.  May God continue to reward the missionary priests and seminarians and grant them every blessing for their courage and generosity.  And may new donors continue to give regularly and monthly to help bring to completion this wonderful new church that is still under construction.  

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