The colony and orphanage of Medjez-Amar in Algeria (1855)
In this way, some thirty families from the Valais endeavoured to establish themselves in the north of Algeria as early as 1851, with the aim of making productive the land that had been taken away from the local populations in view of an economic policy of exportation.
Four years after the arrival of the first colonists from the Valais, the bishop of Algiers, Monsignor Pavy, invited the abbot of Saint-Maurice, Monsignor Etienne Bagnoud, to take over the direction of the orphanage of Medjez-Amar, which stood in his diocese in the province of Constantine. Founded in 1847, the agricultural colony of Medjez-Amar was a 392-hectare farm crossed by a road then being built by the colonial administration. In this colony, many children and Arabs were forced to work on large-scale land clearing projects; the children were mostly poor orphans sent from mainland France, as well as the children of the original colonists, many of whom had not survived the harsh conditions and malaria. The colonial administration had middle-term plans to turn this orphanage into a school to train young man to work in agriculture and horticulture. In 1852, owing to the great difficulty in supervising these children by the first French priests, the direction of this colonial farm was turned over directly to the Army. Thus, when the canons of the Abbey of Saint-Maurice agreed to take over its direction in 1855, the orphanage of Medjez-Amar was a French military camp that housed 84 children, whose labour was exploited starting at the age of 12.
Pursuant to the imperial decree of 30 June 1855, the Abbey of Saint-Maurice, through the intermediary of Monsignor Bagnoud, was granted the concession of the territory of Medjez-Ammar for a period of 20 years. In the weeks and months that followed, several canons from the abbey travelled there to take up the direction of the operations, including Maurice Revaz, Augustin Bertrand, Claude-Louis Gross and François-Marie Bruchon. The abbot Etienne Bagnoud, General Prior of the canons of Saint-Augustin, was also the 55th Bishop of Bethlehem. This title associated him with a religious lineage that went back to the Crusades, and so when he went to Algeria, he could consider himself as setting foot, not on foreign ground, but on a legitimately reconquered territory. In the terms used by the canons of the abbey, access to this land and the opportunities for evangelisation that it offered were seen as "sacred imperialism".
The foundation of a monastery-orphanage at Medjez-Ammar was accompanied by the plan of making it a subsidiary of the Abbey of Saint-Maurice d’Agaune. There was even a new project for an adjoining settlement, of which the Valaisans were called upon to be the vanguard, only four years after the defeat of 1851. In a letter dated 16 February 1855, Maréchal de France Vaillant, the French minister of war, made it known to the governor general of Algeria that he would be favourable to the establishment of farmer families from the Catholic cantons of Switzerland near the orphanage of Medjez-Amar if they came in large enough numbers to further the colonization. This was his answer to the population project undertaken at that same time by Henri Dunant in the context of the Geneva-based Society of Swiss Colonies of Sétif, for he was afraid that only Protestant families might be sent to Algeria. Negotiations were conducted between the Diocese of Algiers and the Abbey of Saint-Maurice to formalize and implement this project, but it was never carried out. On the whole, the Saint-Maurice settlement on Algerian soil will not last very long, owing to the difficulty of the task and the physical unsuitability of the Valaisan priests to local conditions. The abbey's presence at Medjez-Ammar came to an end in 1857.
BibliographyMagali DUBOIS, Des chanoines de Saint-Maurice en Algérie. L’orphelinat de Mdjez-Amar (1854-1857). Thesis for an undergraduate degree in General History, University of Geneva, Oct. 2003.
François-Marie BUSSARD, "La coopération de l’Abbaye de St-Maurice à l’œuvre missionnaire", in Echos de Saint-Maurice, 34 (1935), pp. 25-134.