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The little chapel on the hill

There is a charming little sanctuary hidden high on a wooded hill far away from Victoria. TONY MATHIOT tells an interesting story …..

tony1It had been a stormy night. The sky above La Misère was hidden behind a massive nimbostratus that released torrents of rain upon the forested mountain, while blustering winds lashed at the old giant timber trees. The storm lasted until after dawn, and yet, around three hundred inhabitants, men, women and children, trudged up the mountain foot path, grappling with fallen branches, wading across raging streams to attend the ceremony of the blessing of the chapel of the Sacred Heart of Jesus at Beauvoir, La Misère, on that Friday morning of April 6, 1883.

In the inclement weather, Mgr. Symphorien Mouard (1828-1890) performed two other blessings, that of the bell in the chapel’s belfry and that of the cemetery below, the burial place of the Catholic Missionaries since 1873. However, Mgr Ignace Galfione (1815-1881) Mgr Mouard’s predecessor was not buried in that cemetery. In fact, few people know that the second vice-prefect of Seychelles is actually entombed in the foundation of that little chapel on the hill …
Mgr Ignace Galfione (1815-1881) arrived in Seychelles on Sunday October 30, 1864 aboard a ship of the Messageries Impériales which had only a month before, started its service here.  The Seychelles had been handed over to the Savoyard Capuchin Priests on January 8, 1863 and Galfione (de Villafranca) was appointed vice-prefect, representing the Apostolic prefect who resided in Switzerland and almost never visited his prefecture.

Mgr Ignace Galfione arrived in Mahé two years after the great Lavalas of October 1862, which had devastated the little capital town, killing scores of inhabitants including two sisters who had just arrived from Reunion, the year before, to establish the convent of St Joseph de Cluny.

In fact, the first religious ceremony that he officiated was the blessing of the chapel of the Sisters of St Joseph de Cluny, in Victoria.  But, his priority was the evangelisation of Seychelles which his predecessor Jeremie Giantommaso de Paglieta (1820-1871) had started a decade earlier. And that, of course was a cinch.  The population of about 8,000 inhabitants who were mostly descendants of African slaves was amenable to religious indoctrination, which of course encouraged the Catholic mission to expand its presence throughout the archipelago by the creation of more parishes.

Galfione was blessedly grateful for the help of the few missionaries who had arrived in Seychelles before him and a little later after, among whom were Father Louis Noir (1822-1886), Father Theophile Pollar (1826-1889), Father Martin Christin de Vinzier (1833-1909) and Father Valentin de Reyvroz (1836-1883). During the first 12 years of his episcopacy, he built mission schools for boys across Mahé. These were made of wood thatched with pandanus leaves, pathetic little structures that nevertheless served their purpose eminently well. Churches of coral limestone and timber were erected in all the established parishes, and in 1868 he created new ones at Anse Royale and Anse Boileau (and much later, one at Grand Anse Praslin in 1879).

At a time, when there was much rivalry between the Catholic Church and the Anglican Church, which for obvious reasons, got the unstinting support of the Civil Commissioner, Mgr Ignace Galfione confronted adversity with the characteristic Roman Stoutheartedness of his ilk. It was difficult to acquire land for the many charitable projects that he had in mind because the Catholic Mission was French. However, the benevolence of some land owners who were descendants of the first French settlers enabled Mgr Galfione to achieve his aspirations.

With the sum of 60,000 francs that he received from the Apostolic prefect, Father Ambroise Tussot (1805-1890) and donations from a few wealthy inhabitants, he established the foundation of the Catholic Mission in Seychelles.  He rebuilt the church of the Immaculate Conception in Victoria, in such a majestic form, that it was indisputably the first edifice ever to be erected on the soil of Seychelles.  He had the statue of the Virgin Mary placed at the top of the ridge and a clock on its facade. The fledgling education system in Seychelles which was virtually governed by the Anglican and Catholic churches saw a great advancement in 1867 with the opening of the St Louis College. This institution which flaunted its scholastic dignity with the pride of its noble purpose was managed by the Frères des Ecoles Chrétiens until 1875.  That same year, saw the arrival of a few more Savoyard capuchin priests, including Marc Hudrisier (1848-1910) who would later become the first Catholic Bishop of Seychelles. In 1875, Mgr Galfione allowed the sisters of the St Joseph of Cluny to work as nurses at the newly-opened hospital. His indefatigable spirit certainly attested to the devout commitment of his vows. His tasks were arduous. His responsibility was heavy. His ambitions were vast, but, his health was getting frail.

His concern for his colleagues who were getting old and were suffering from infirmities of health induced him to construct a home, and hermitage far away from Victoria in the salubrious mountain of La Misère. The place which eventually became known as Solitude, owing to its remoteness, was in the charge of the Sisters of St Joseph de Cluny.  After 15 years in Seychelles, during which time the Catholic faith of the inhabitants had been firmly instilled, the cross of the Catholic Mission had been firmly entrenched on Seychelles soil and more priests were coming to replace the old and tired ones, Mgr Galfione had one more and one last undertaking … the little chapel on the hill.

On June 16, 1879, the Roman Catholic Church purchased a large property up at La Misère known as Rivière Sèche. Galfione, who had a special apostolic affection for the industrious disciples of mother Javouhey (1779-1851) gave a portion of the land to the Sisters of St Joseph of Cluny and proposed to build a chapel on another piece. Before the Catholic Mission had acquired the land, a portion of it had been allocated for the purpose of serving as a burial place for the Catholic Missionaries since 1873. That was when Sister Francois-Xavier Gavin (1836-1873), an Irish nun, who had arrived in Seychelles in 1864 was buried there. She passed away on June 26, 1873 at 37 years old.

The place on the mountain where Galfione wanted to build his chapel abounded with hard wood timber trees that dated back to the mid-eighteen century, and enormous granite boulders. It was early in 1880 that work started to clear the land. The men started at the break of dawn. The giant trees were lopped down and the wood was cut into sections and beams. It was laborious and strenuous work and painfully exhausting. The coolness of the La Misère altitude combined with the scorching sun created a certain discomfort that the workers had to gradually become accustomed to. After all, this was the first construction of any kind to be done in the pristine forests of that part of Mahé. Nearly all the churches, chapels and schools that the Catholic Mission had built before were situated on the coastal plateau. This was actually the first time that the hinter lands of the island were being cleared for the erection of a house of worship. A sacred precedent! The granite rocks were burned and broken into pieces. These were used to construct a retaining wall for the knoll on which the chapel was to be built. Early in 1880, Mgr Ignace Galfione supervised the beginning of construction. It was to be a modest little structure made entirely of wood. The hammer-beam roof design had no intricate corbel or bracket. The local craftsmanship at that time could not afford such architectural ornament.
Gradually, the chapel began to take shape until Mgr Galfione decided that he had to leave Seychelles for a visit to Europe.

On August 30, 1880, Pope Leo XIII (1810-1903) erected the status of the Catholic Mission in Seychelles to Vicariat Apostolic. During his voyage, Mgr Galfione was informed that he was to become the Apostolic Vicar. He was not delighted at the prospects of assuming such a supreme position given, the state of his deteriorating health.  He declined the offer. But Rome insisted.

So it was on September 19, 1880 that the rather ailing 65-year-old Galfione was ordained the titular Bishop of Auréliopolis at the church of the Capuchins of chambéry.

On the way back to Seychelles, he had an acute cardiac arrest and had to remain at Aden to recuperate. He arrived at Mahé on Sunday December 5, 1880 aboard SS Dupleix, extremely weak. Aware of the ebbing of life from his tired body, Galfione asked for the extreme unction. The news of their dying Apostolic Vicar created consternation and tribulation across Mahé. Doctors tried their utmost best … and succeeded.  Mgr Galfione recuperated slightly and regained a little strength. At the end of January 1881, he was carried to the Hermitage at La Misère. For many months, he managed the evangelical and pastoral work of his priests through his diligent intermediary, Father Edmond d’Aix Bains (1825-1890) who had come to Seychelles for that express purpose. From his bed or from his Palanquin, directed the construction of his chapel. Every day, the sound of hammering resounded in the forest as the men persevered at their task. They were despondent to see their venerable Apostolic Vicar in such a pathetic state. Yet, his indomitable spirit drove them on. The chapel began to sprout.  Occasionally, work had to cease and then resume again. By the end of November, the little Chapel was half completed. The men were sawing wood to make the rafters and the struts.

In mid-June of 1881, Mgr Ignace Galfione left the hermitage to celebrate the feast of Corpus Christi in the church of Victoria. Carrying the cross, he headed the traditional procession through the streets of Victoria followed by hundreds of inhabitants.

A few days later, the administered the sacrament of the Eucharist to dozens of children.  In early November, his health degenerated, and for many weeks he labored under excruciating pain.

On Sunday December 19, 1881 at 7pm, Mgr Ignace Galfione passed away at the age of 66 years. A sublime paragon in the history of the Catholic Church in Seychelles, his estimable mission accomplished…  His chapel unfinished.

Seychelles mourned.  Hundreds of grief-laden inhabitants accompanied his leaden coffin from Victoria up to the hills of La Misère. There he was placed in a small chamber in the foundation of his chapel, on the right side of the altar.

The fragrance of ripe cloves blended with the scent of cinnamon which the mountain breeze brought down from the forest, mingled with the incense smoke, to create a distinct aroma of a yuletide requiem, as the choir sang Venez Saint du ciel…
Weeks passed, months passed. Men worked intermittently to complete the chapel, while below, the little burial ground accommodated those who came to rest so far away from the altars where they took their sacred vows.

Finally, the little chapel was completed in early 1883. It had no transepts, no ornamental ecclesiastic feature. It was a simple rectangular structure with a pandanus roof, windows and pews, made entirely of La Misère timber. In 1883, when he blessed the chapel, Mgr Mouard gave a new impulsion to the devotion of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, in a bid to satisfy the wishes of his predecessor. From then on, every year in June, crowds of hundreds of inhabitants coming from all the districts of Mahé made the pedestrian journey to La Misère to celebrate the feast that Pope Pie IX (1792-1878) had established on August 23, 1856. In 1885, the provincial superior of Seychelles, Mère Marie des Anges (Antoinette Constance Granger) (1840-1900) named the place ‘Beauvoir’.

tony2The wooden chapel stood there on the hill for many years.  A little sanctuary, quarantined by the mournful gloominess of the place and the serenity of its isolation.

In 1913, the chapel had succumbed to the ravages of time and weather and had become too small for the growing population of the parish. Consequently, Mgr Bernadin Clark (1856-1915) decided to reconstruct the chapel with stone, retaining the original design. It was much later, in 1956 that Brother Victor Golliard (1920-1995) added the transepts during an extensive renovation. That year, which was the centennial anniversary of the Devotion of the Sacred Heart of Jesus there was no pilgrimage to Beauvoir. In 1964, Brother Victor built the Oratory.

Today, the chapel of the Sacred Heart of Jesus stands exactly where it was originally erected over a hundred years ago. To sight-seeing foreigners, it is a quaint melancholy enigma of elegiac beauty. It is an important punctuation mark in the history of the Catholic Mission in Seychelles because, after all, it is the tomb of Mgr Ignatius Galfione de Villafranca.



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