PART NINE: Help Given to the Poor Slaves of Bizerte and of Several Other Places
The priests of the Congregation of the Mission had been sent by their superior general, Monsieur Vincent, to help and serve the poor slaves in Barbary. They did not limit their charity to the cities of Algiers and Tunis, although the number of slaves there gave them ample occasion to exercise their zeal. They extended their care to all places where the poor captives languished in irons, and were in need of their services. This led Monsieur le Vacher, who ordinarily lived in Tunis, to go as far as Bizerte, a port city about ten or twelve leagues away, with five penal colonies of slaves, to offer consolation and services helpful for their salvation. Here is what he wrote to Monsieur Vincent:
Slavery is so evil that it causes many other evils. Among the slaves here, besides the ones in the penal colonies, I found forty locked up in a small stable, so small and crowded that they could hardly move. The only air comes from a small window, covered with an iron grill, located high up in the wall. The slaves are chained two by two, and permanently locked up. Yet they have to work at grinding wheat with a hand mill. Their quota is beyond what their strength allows. These poor people in truth are fed with the bread of sorrow, and can say that they eat by the sweat of their brow, in a place so stuffy, and at work so demanding.
Shortly after I began my visit I heard the confused cries of women and children, mingled with groans and tears. I raised my eyes to the tiny window to see five poor young Christian women slaves. Three of them had small children with them, and they were all in desperate condition. They had heard the noise of greetings to me when I had come to visit the men, and had rushed to the window to see what was afoot. When they realized I was a priest, their sad state moved them to break down in cries and tears. They asked to share in the consolation I had attempted to bring to the men in their prison.
I must admit that I was almost overcome with sorrow at the sight of these poor slaves, loaded with chains, and at the lamentations of these poor women, mingled with the cries of their innocent children. The youngest of these women had been greatly persecuted by her owner, who sought to have her deny her faith in Jesus Christ so that he could marry her. Oh, that a small fraction of the enormous sums spent by Christians on superfluous vanities and delicacies could be used to relieve these poor souls from their grievous sufferings. Aided by God’s grace, I attempted to help these poor men and women as much as lay in my meager power. We live in a country where we have to pay large amounts just for permission to do good for the unfortunate. To get authorization just to speak to the slaves, you have to pay off their masters, as you must also do to have the slaves on the galleys unchained when they are preparing to leave port. I attempt to take the slaves, one crew at a time, to the penal colonies, to give them an opportunity to go to confession, hear mass, and receive communion. By God’s mercy this has been quite successful.1 In another letter, written by this same priest, he said:
Two galleys left port yesterday, each carrying more than five hundred Christian slaves. By the grace of God all had been given the sacraments. How sad that day was, and how many blows were rained upon their backs by those infamous renegades in charge of the crews! I know the convicts in the galleys of France are not treated any better, but at least these convicts suffer for their crimes, while the Christian slaves of Barbary suffer solely because they are Christian and faithful to God. On the day these poor people received communion and were returned to the galleys, I was able to provide a slight celebration, at which I provided two steers, and five hundred loaves of bread. Besides, I was also able to give each galley a hundredweight of white bread, to be given to any among them who would fall sick during their time at sea.
From there I went to visit the slaves at Sidi-Regeppe. I found them unchained, in keeping with the promise their master had made to me the last time I was here. I found six young men among them, aged sixteen to eighteen years, who had been slaves for the past four or five years. Since they were not allowed out of the house, they had not been able to receive the sacraments as the others had. After preparing them, I heard their confessions. Then I asked them to prepare their poor dwelling as decently as they could, for I would come back the next day with the blessed sacrament, as I would usually do in bringing communion to the sick. The next day, in fact, I celebrated mass in the penal colony in the chapel of the Annunciation. Then, accompanied by all the Christians I met in the streets of Bizerte, I sought out these poor slaves. O God, with what tenderness and devotion these young men received their Lord. The tears of joy and consolation which filled their eyes caused all present to weep also, not from their own miseries, but from their happiness. I heard the confession and gave communion to a seventh young man, who fell ill the next evening. I gave him the sacrament of extreme unction, but he died soon after. I used the remainder of my time in the service of the sick in the penal colonies.2
This is how the King of Glory, Jesus Christ, made use of the missionaries. He came himself, with unbounded charity, to visit, console, and vivify the souls redeemed by his blood. They were sought out even in the darkest prisons where they lived in the shadow of death. It was not an insignificant favor that he had inspired Vincent de Paul as the instrument of his mercy and grace in favor of these poor slaves. To him, after God, they owed all the consolation, aid, and helps for salvation given by the missionaries of his Congregation.
Monsieur Guerin, another of the priests of the mission, visited the same place, and gave a report to Monsieur Vincent of his trip to Bizerte, in a letter of 1647.
I was advised on Easter Sunday that a galley had just come from Algiers to Bizerte. At once I set off to visit the poor chained Christians, numbering about three hundred. The captain allowed me to conduct a sort of mission for ten days. I had another priest with me who helped with catechizing and hearing confessions. We managed to help all, except for several Greek schismatics. O great God, what consolation to see the devotion of these poor captives, most of whom had not been able to receive the sacrament of penance for many years. Among them were some who had not confessed for eight, ten, or even twenty years. I was able to have them unchained while I took them to a place apart to receive communion, after celebrating holy mass. After the mission I treated them to a small celebration, ending by giving them fifty-three ecus worth of foodstuffs.
During the time of the mission I stayed in the house of a Moslem, who would not take any payment for my stay. He said, “We must be kind to those who are kind to others,” which is a remarkable statement, coming from an infidel. What would amaze you even more is that almost all the Moslems of the locality were so taken and edified at the mission that some showed marks of respect to me, and kissed my hand. I have no doubt your heart would have been filled with joy at the sight. If the fruit of this mission of Bizerte was sweet, the road to it was difficult enough. I did not want to take a military escort in coming here, but I was waylaid by some Arabs who beat me. One of them took me by the throat so violently that I thought he was going to strangle me. Since I am such a miserable sinner, our Lord did not judge me worthy to die in his service.3
Besides the slaves in the cities of Algiers, Tunis, and Bizerte, some were kept in country places because of their work. Some of these would from time to time come to the cities, where they would manage to receive the sacraments, but others never came, or only very rarely. These, too, the missionaries attempted to visit, in the wild and deserted places where the slaves worked, often enough at very difficult tasks. The missionaries of Tunis, particularly, were active in going into the country. They would visit what they called the Maceries (the work places and habitations in which they live), in Perriere, Cantara, Courombaille, Gaudiene with its seven streams, Tabourne, Morlochia, Hamphya and Mamedia. Their places are three, six, eight, ten or twelve leagues from Tunis, and some are in high and arid mountainous regions, more suited to the native lions than to humans.
On the first such trip made by Monsieur le Vacher, he came upon some Christians who had not been to the sacraments for twelve, fifteen, or eighteen years. Some had lost nearly all remembrance of Christianity by being deprived for so long of any of the practices of our religion. Here is what he wrote to Monsieur Vincent:
By giving some money to the owners or guardians of these poor slaves, I was able to bring them together for instruction and the sacraments, and by God’s grace I was able to confirm them in the faith. Once I had selected the most decent place I could find, I celebrated mass, at which all communicated. Every one of these poor slaves was filled with the consolation it pleased God to bestow, amid the misery of their captivity, which is beyond the imagination of persons who live in freedom. The joy and consolation they experience in their pains could only be the gift of the grace of God. I embraced all, and to give them some small token of my esteem, I provided a celebration for them, as much as my poverty would permit. Besides that, I gave each of the very poorest a quarter piastre.4
The paternal heart of Monsieur Vincent filled with joy upon receipt of such accounts. He could see his spiritual sons animated with the spirit of the good shepherd of the Gospel, seeking lost sheep in the most remote places, in bringing them back, in a way of speaking, in their arms and upon their own shoulders, to Jesus Christ, their true Pastor. What consolation for him to learn that his missionaries had rescued some of these poor slaves from the deplorable lapse into apostasy brought on by their despair, and had treated them with mildness and charity. Many recognized their fault, and regretted deeply their infidelity to God. They tearfully threw themselves at the feet of the missionaries, accepting the penance given them for their sin. It is impossible to express the joy in the heart of the father of these missionaries at such consoling news. He joined the angels in heaven in their rejoicing at the sight of a single sinner doing penance for his sin, and being converted to God.