A Beatification in the Assumption Family

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

In January 2018 Pope Francis authorized the Congregation for the Causes of Saints to recognize the martyrdom of Bishop Pierre Claverie and his 18 companions, men and women religious, who were killed in hatred of the faith in Algeria between 1994 and 1996.  Their beatification will take place in Oran later this year.  Claverie was a French Algerian and the Bishop of Oran from 1981 until his Aug. 1, 1996 martyrdom. He and his companions were killed during the Algerian Civil War by Islamists.

The best known of Claverie's companions are the seven monks of Tibhirine, who were kidnapped from their Trappist priory in March 1996. They were kept as a bartering chip to procure the release of several imprisoned members of the Armed Islamic Group of Algeria, and were killed in May. Their story was dramatized in the 2010 French film Of Gods and Men, which won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival.

Along with Marist Brother Henri Verges, Sr. Paul-Hélène Saint-Raymond, LSA became the first person in the modern era to undergo martyrdom in Algeria on May 8, 1994.  Sr. Paul-Hélène was a Little Sister of the Assumption.

Sister was born in Paris on January 24, 1927, the eighth of ten children. She did scientific studies in Sorbonne but found her religious vocation, joining the Little Sisters of the Assumption in 1952 so she could serve the poor. Subsequently she studied to be a nurse and made her final vows in 1960.

For roughly four years, Sr. Paul-Hélène worked among the poor in Rouen before transferring to Algeria, where she was head nurse at an Algiers health center. She was a whirlwind of activity so that she would exhaust her fellow sisters and had to be told to go easy on them. She became so skilled she could perform minor surgery.

Reflecting on the violence that then reigned, she wrote that “one must start oneself to fight against one’s own violence.” To Msgr. Teissier who warned her of the danger all were facing, she replied, “Father, our lives are already given anyway.”

Sister, an engineer by training, had lived 30 years in the Maghreb (i.e., northern Africa from Morocco to Libya’s western border) serving the people there. Upon her retirement, rather than returning to France, she moved to the capital to assist Brother Henri Vergès in running the library, which served 1,200 young people from neighboring schools. Her vast culture and knowledge made her known as ‘Madame Encyclopédie.’     

She left as usual on the morning of the 8th of May, 1994. It had been agreed that if there was any unrest, she would stay and spend the night in the Kasbah. For some months, in order to avoid making too many journeys back and forth, Paul-Hélène used to work all day on Sunday (in predominantly Moslem countries Sunday is an ordinary day, while Friday is a holiday), and take her meal at the Kasbah (10 minutes from the Ben Chebeb library). So that is what she did on the 8th of May. She left the Kasbah house at about 1:30 p.m. and went to open the library where she took her place in the courtyard at the entrance to welcome the secondary school students. She had her little table in the corner and, on another table, the boxes with index cards for use by the students. 

Three men appeared and said: 'Police!' Paul-Hélène led them to Henri's office, as they had apparently asked to see the person in charge. One of the men took out his revolver and aimed it at the back of Paul-Hélène's neck. She fell backwards, killed instantly. When the sisters of her community arrived on the scene they 'found her stretched out, arms almost crossed, hands open, very peaceful, a slight smile upon her lips', one of them said. 

A second shot was heard, and Henri collapsed. Henri had probably stood up, was shot, and fell face down upon his desk.  The bullet had cut through his face at the level of the cheekbone and lodged in the wall.  Only a trained gunman could have fired such a shot. 

Let us pray with the martyrs:

Lord God, our Father,
We praise you for the Passion and Death 
And the Resurrection of your Son Jesus, 
He, the greatest of martyrs, 
By whom salvation comes.

You desired that his martyrdom be shared 
With our brothers and sisters 
Of the Church in Algeria: 
Henri and Paul-Hèlene, Caridad and Esther,
Jean, Charles, Alain and Christian,
Angèle-Marie and Bibiane, Odette,
Christian, Luc, Christophe, Michel,
Bruno, Célestin and Paul,
And your bishop Pierre.

We ask you, Father, that, 
By their intercesión,
That the dialogue, respect and love may be strengthened 
Between your Christian and Moslem sons. 
Bless Algeria and its people, 
We glorify you, in peace.  

Father, we invoke our martyrs for …

(at this point, fomulate petitions that are entrusted to our martyrs)

And you Mary, whom all love 
And who are also venerated in the house of Islam, 
Listen to our prayer and intercede with your Son, 
Jesus Christ, our Lord.