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2. Human Weakness as a source of strength
Touggourt: an extraordinary friendship
October 4, 1939 little sister Magdeleine and her companion set off for the Sahara, looking for the right place to settle. They were tempted by several oases, but finally Bishop Nouet asked them to settle in Touggourt, 6 kms. south of Algiers. About a hundred nomad families lived at the edge of this oasis in such dire poverty that they had had to group together just to survive. They lived apart form others and were despised... Little sister Magdeleine obtained a plot of ground with an old house, half-filled with sand. She hired the local people to help her fix it up and worked alongside them from morning to night. The bond of friendship began to weave itself.
Several months later her first companion left for a time and she found herself alone in this Muslim world. In a certain sense, by entrusting herself to their care, she experienced an amazing depth of reciprocal trust and friendship. She wrote about it:
Based on this experience, as she sent the little sisters around the world telling them:
"I want you to believe that there can be true friendship and deep affection between people who are neither from the same religion, race nor class...
Several months after the foundation in Touggourt two postulants presented themselves but both were frightened by the living conditions and left after a brief experience.
Little sister Magdeleine then realized that it would be necessary to find a house in France to welcome vocations and give the women an initial formation before sending them off to the Sahara.
On Christmas eve, 1940, the Archbishop of Aix en Provence offered her the realization of that dream: a house called the Tubet. Several months later the first novices moved in. Understanding that she could not become a novice mistress overnight, little sister Magdeleine asked the Dominican sisters to help with the formation of the first little sisters. Two of their sisters assumed that responsibility until 1943.
In August 1941 little sister Magdeleine wrote a short brochure entitled, "Little Sisters: Contemplatives and Nomads". It outlined her ideas about a new approach to the Muslim world in light of the life and writings of brother Charles of Jesus (Fr. de Foucauld). They would live in small groups among the nomadic families of the Sahara, sharing as much as possible their life and living conditions; same type of work, same housing
"in order that the people would feel at home when they come to visit us. "Their life of friendship without an organized apostolate would be a simple witness of the love of God offered freely to every human being, no matter what their race or religion. At the end of his life Brother Charles had spoken of an apostolate of goodness.
Little sister Magdeleine felt that such a life could only be authentically religious if it were deeply contemplative. She urged the little sisters to keep their eyes and hearts fixed on Jesus, the Only Model, and to follow and imitate him throughout his life on earth: from the crib of Bethlehem to the workshop at Nazareth, from Calvary to the Resurrection...
The torment of the war years
During the first years of the foundation little sister Magdeleine shared her time between Touggourt and the Tubet but she had no money to support her burgeoning congregation. The war only added to the shortages. She did have a short film that had been taken in Touggourt and so she traveled throughout France looking for a little financial help but mostly sharing the message of Brother Charles and about her life among her friends in Touggourt.
Travel was very difficult and hazardous under the German occupation. But in such an atmosphere of fear and anguish little sister Magdeleine's enthusiasm for the Gospel brought a note of hope and innocence. She never tired of speaking of Jesus while also speaking of the God-given dignity of every human person, especially the poorest.
With the arrival of the Allied troops in North Africa the Algerian borders were closed and little sister Magdeleine was not able to leave France. She instead channeled her energy into giving even more talks, giving more than 500 in all. During these years full of violence and hatred she kept reminding her sisters of Jesus' own words,
"Father, forgive them. They know not what they do."Then she added,
"No one will accuse me of taking sides when I preach this way after all I suffered during the last war."
During the height of the battles for liberation in 1944 she nearly got herself killed. She was near Grenoble, trying to reach Lyons where the little sisters had taken refuge when she was stopped by a group of the French resistance. They thought that she was a spy dressed as a religious sister... They finally believed her story only when they had her up against a wall where she thought she would be shot.
A daughter's love for the Church
Even before the foundation, while she worked on the Constitutions at the White Sisters' novitiate, little sister Magdeleine was delighted that Bishop Nouet had proposed sending what she wrote to be examined in Rome. Her thinking was,
"If it is all rejected I will be completely at peace knowing that it will be God's will. And if it is approved, I will have the security of knowing that I am on the right path."Throughout her life she always counted on the Church to confirm her intuitions.
By 1944 there were only about a dozen members and there had, as yet, been no official recognition of the community. In this context, little sister Magdeleine absolutely wanted to go directly to the Holy Father himself with everything that was in her heart concerning this new foundation. On December 19, 1944 she had a private audience with Pius XII who listened attentively to all she had to say. At the end of their meeting she gave him the following note:
"Our deepest desires"
In the place of the Secretary of State for the Vatican she met Bishop Montini in Rome who welcomed her with great warmth and kindness.
1945 was a difficult year for little sister Magdeleine as she did not know whom to turn to. The Archbishop of Aix had retired just as they were preparing to recognize the little sisters as a diocesan congregation and the post would remain vacant for at least a year.
Fortunately the Apostolic Prefect of the Sahara, Bishop Mercier, allowed her to consult with Fr. Voillaume. (Bishop Nouet had asked that they not have contact with one another during the first years of the foundation so that each community could grow according to its inspiration.)
Bishop de Provencheres was named Archbishop of Aix en Provence in January 1946. From their first meeting little sister Magdeleine felt that he understood her and he was a tremendous support to her until his death in 1984. He took responsibility for the foundation and extension of the community throughout the world until the congregation was transferred to pontifical jurisdiction in 1964.
In France the Community began to be known and little sister Magdeleine wrote down in "the Green Booklet" what she considered the essential points of this vocation in the footsteps of Brother Charles. She added a chapter that she called
"Leaven in the Dough, my testament and most cherished desires"in which she laid out her own personal intuitions about the life.
These pages were written only with the little sisters in mind and she passionately expressed herself in them. She wrote about the immense love that she felt and her desire, which often seemed like folly, to lead a religious life fully immersed in the world in the image of Jesus of Nazareth, the Incarnate Word, who "delighted to live among the children of this world."
This text was both roundly criticized and enthusiastically received but mostly little sister Magdeleine was upset, as it had been published without her permission. She was particularly concerned that parts of it had not been published, especially those parts where she insisted on the contemplative dimension:
"As you work, as you come and go, as you pass among the crowds, to be a contemplative will mean simply that you try to turn to Jesus -within you and to enter into conversation with him, as with the one you love most in the world."
She recommended that their contemplative life should be nourished as Brother Charles had nourished his,
"your life of prayer will be entirely centered on Jesus living and present in the Eucharist and in the Gospel."In each community, no matter how small, there would be a place for a chapel with the Blessed Sacrament.
The Suffering of the Poor and the Passion of Jesus...
Little sister Magdeleine was finally able to return to Touggourt in October 1945 along with five young sisters. As the friends there had taken care of the house and garden in her absence, they could resume their life as if there had been no interruption.
As the Community grew little sister Magdeleine was concerned that the little sisters' spiritual formation be adapted to their life-style. She came up with the idea of founding a community in El Abiodh where the little brothers of Jesus had their general house and to ask Fr. Voillaume to provide that formation. Bishop Mercier who had been consulted also encouraged this plan but asked that Touggourt be closed for a few years so as not to stretch themselves too thin. This was a wrenching act of obedience for little sister Magdeleine. The bonds of affection and friendship had grown so strong with her first friends in Touggourt and they could not understand why she had to seemingly abandon them.
In November of 1946 little sister Magdeleine went to El Abiodh to prepare for the arrival of the little sisters who would be the first to follow a long tradition of spiritual formation sessions given by Fr. Voillaume. These sessions were given every year and lasted about six weeks. Each day Fr. Voillaume spoke to the little sisters about the spirituality of Brother Charles, about Jesus and about the mystery of Nazareth. His talks formed the basis of the first chapters of his book, Seeds of the Desert.
The winter was very hard that year and the nomads tried to find shelter on the outskirts of the village. Little sister Magdeleine was deeply moved by the misery she saw. Some had died of cold or hunger. One evening one of the nomads brought his infant son to the little sisters, asking them to care for him. His mother had died and already his tiny body showed signs of suffering...
That Christmas day they placed him in the Manger and little sister Magdeleine wrote:
In this context where the suffering of others closed in around her little sister Magdeleine entered into a profound experience of God and of the Passion of Jesus. Several times she relived his Passion, hour by hour, in a particularly intense manner.
As with her experience of the infant Jesus, she was very discreet about these encounters and told only Fr. Voillaume and little sister Jeanne what had happened. She wrote to Fr. Voillaume about the Crucified Jesus:
Inspired by Brother Charles...