Monday, May 15, 2006

Charles de Foucauld (1858-1916)





If I did not browse constantly through French websites and forums, I never would have known of Charles de Foucauld. Recently he's been mentioned often as a result of his canonization in Rome in November 2005. Originally scheduled for April, it was postponed due to the death of John Paul II. According to his biography, he was born in Strasburg on September 15,1858. His father, the Viscount Foucauld de Ponbriand died in 1864, and his mother a few months later. He and his sister were raised by their maternal grandfather.

After high school he was admitted to Saint-Cyr Military Academy where he and his classmates led a dissolute life. He then entered Saumur Cavalry School and began spending his inheritance recklessly.

He was then named to a post in Algeria where he joined the 4th Dragoon Regiment. Stationed in Sétif, he again caused a scandal because of his open relationship with a woman. Removed from the army for undisciplined behavior in 1881, he was reinstated later. He again went to Algeria, to Mascara, where the monotony of his everyday existence prompted him to study Arabic and Islam. It was a revelation.

"Islam produced a profound awakening in me...Seeing this faith, these people living in the continual presence of God revealed to me something grander and truer than mundane activities!"

He asked for leave to study Arab civilization but was refused. He left the army, spent a year in Algiers, then went to Morocco, crossing the desert from June 1883 to May 1884. He wrote a book, Reconnaissance au Maroc, accumulated a great quantity of ethnological information and was awarded the Medal of the Geographical Society of Paris. Bored in Paris, he returned to Algiers where he fell in love. Another trek through the desert resulted in a definitive decision to remain unmarried.

Back in Paris from February to October 1886, he met Abbé Huvelin, Vicar of Saint-Augustin who persuaded him to enter the orders. In 1887 he visited the Holy Land and on his return, entered the monastery of Notre-Dame-des-Neiges, but set out once again for the East and Syria. He joined the Trappists of Cheikhlé (Syria) in June 1890 where he remained for six years. He took his vows in February 1892 and a new name, Frère Marie-Albéric.

Soon, he wanted to free himself from the collective life for an eremitic one. His request was not granted and he joined the monastery of Staouéli in Algeria. He then went to Rome for theology studies, but the head of the Trappists became convinced that Charles de Foucauld had a personal mission and relieved him of his vows on January 23, 1897.

Charles de Foucauld then left for Palestine and lived the life of a hermit from March 1897 to March 1900, working as a servant in a modest hut with the Clarissas (an order of nuns closely related to the Franciscans) of Nazareth. His meditations led him to a new stage in his spiritual life: apostleship.

At the end of August 1900, he embarked for Marseilles and entered the monastery of Notre-Dame-des-Neiges, where he prepared for the priesthood. Ordained in June 1901, Père Foucault settled in Béni-Abbés in Western Sahara, In 1905, he settled near Tamanrasset with the conversion of the Tuaregs(1) as his goal. Living from his work as an artisan, he planned a tremendous intellectual achievement: the study of Tuareg language and civilization.

In 1905 he began the preparatory stage of this huge dictionary, which he completed in 1915. He made a few trips to Algiers, to France and to Tamanrasset looking for a cool spot to spend the summer. He found it at Assekrem, 80 kilometers from Tamanrasset.

On December 1, 1916, at age 58, he was assassinated by a group of Tuareg raiders.


(1) The Tuaregs are a nomadic non-Arab people of North Africa, largely Muslim.

Note: Another biography of Charles de Foucauld, in French, is here.


The first photo is of Charles with the African ex-slave named Joseph whose freedom he purchased and whom he converted.

The second photo shows his tomb in the foreground, before the Saint-Joseph Church in El Goléa, Algeria.

Part 2 of this article appears here.

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