“There are so many memories linked to this basilica. When I was a child, I used to play football with my friends on the square.” Azzedine, who has been living in Bologhine for 54 years, looks down on the bay of Algiers from his house on the hill. Here, the Our Lady of Africa basilica has been braving the harsh sea climate for the past century and a half. Every year, it sees some 100 000 visitors, among which Christians and Muslims are welcomed without distinction.
Dating back to the mid-19th century, the basilica was built on the initiative of Monsieur Pavy, the bishop of Algiers at that time. He wanted a shrine similar to that of Fourviere in Lyon, and arranged for the erection of this Roman, Byzantine and Mozarabic inspired basilica on the Bologhine hills. The district’s inhabitants, who named it Our Lady of Africa, come here to commune, pray or listen to music.
Last December, Azzedine took part in celebrating the building’s new face after a three-year restoration. This restoration project was first launched by then-archbishop Monsieur Teissier after the 2003 Boumerdes-Zemmouri earthquake caused severe damage to the basilica. When the building works finally began in 2007, they brought French and Algerians efforts together. Thanks to a school building programme, 28 young Algerians were trained by the Compagnons du Devoir, a French artisans organization. Now, some of these new craftsmen have joined Algiers’ wilaya workshops, while others take part in renovating another basilica, the Saint Augustin one in Annaba.
The restoration process was far from simple, because apart from the usual work that comes with historic rehabilitations, earthquake reinforcement work was also necessary. Stone by stone, the little steeple and the campanile vaults were dismantled and rebuilt with new stainless steel arches. The brick vaults of the nave, the lantern tower and the chancel apse were strengthened with carbon strips. The objective of this work was to make the shrine less vulnerable for new earthquakes. The beautiful original stained glass windows, made by master Avignon glassmaker Guilbert d’Auelle, which were blew out already in the 1983 bombings, were exported to Marseille masters glassmakers who renovated the windows before returning them to Algeria.
Today, after the careful renovation, the basilica has recovered its white brightness and is now as shiny as the blue Mediterranean sea at its foot. Karima, a visitor to the basilica explains: “Even though we’re Muslims, this place is first of all a holy place, not an Islamic place. It’s a part of our common traditions. The sisters who run the basilica have always listened to us and welcomed us all. Here, as anywhere, God hears our prayers.”