Today is the feast of St. Augustine and a Sunday. I decided I could not miss going to church at the big cathedral downtown. The service was at 11.
I had a strong emotional response when the music began—organ and choir way up high in the back. The white-robed priests and brothers processed, a mix of races and ages, carrying a thin wooden cross. I recognized only one or two of the tunes, but that has been true at most Catholic masses I’ve attended—most of the music is unfamiliar to my Protestant ears. Here there were sub-Saharan African selections, too, sung with gusto by the congregation.
The last time I attended this church was Holy Week 1980, when I was 22. The congregation then seemed much smaller, mostly European and white-haired. I don’t remember the stained glass—the impression then was unbearably bleak. It was spring and still cold. Even though my French was very good by that time, I didn’t understand most of what was going on and was unfamiliar with the protocol and mass. I watched everyone else and did what they did, even communion.
This time the congregation was 200 or more, all ages, most from African countries beyond the Maghreb. Again I did what everybody else did, sitting, kneeling, standing, except no communion. The place was flooded with light and color and summer warmth.
Sure enough, the priest gave a homily about St. Augustine, although my French is so bad I understand almost nothing. I could just sit there and think about Augustine and his church in the 300s in Carthage, close to my flat, close to the arena where Perpetua and Felicity and their comrades were martyred. In Augustine’s time, this Arab city of Tunis didn’t yet exist and the spot of the cathedral was under water.
Did the priest mention Perpetua? St. Augustine is renowned as an early theologian of the church, but rarely is it mentioned that he wrote his Confessions inspired and challenged by, even in response to, the diary of Perpetua, a literate young Roman woman before his time, who ate cheese for her eucharist and dreamed in prison of the shepherd in heaven.
After mass I took photos and looked at the art. I found the mosaic image of St. Augustine’s baptism: he stands up to his waist in a little clover-leaf-shaped baptismal well. When the lights were extinguished, I took a brochure in English and read it on the train home.
Ever since I learned that boats once came all the way to the Tunis medina’s Bab el-Bar, I have wondered how the cathedral and whole colonial city could have been built upon a shallow lake. Such are the wonders of human engineering. The Lac de Tunis was dredged, its bottom scraped and pushed toward the old seaward gate. So much of the modern city is built on landfill.
The cathedral brochure contains the following description:Nowadays the cathedral stands right in the city centre, but a century ago it was still the site of the Christian cemetery, which in the 18th century Hamouda Pasha, the Bey of Tunis, generously gave to the Christian community (mainly slaves and captives) for the burial of their dead. The building is 54 m high, 76 m long and 11 m wide (the width of the transcript is 32 m). The cornerstone was blessed by Cardinal Lavigerie on the 28th of May 1890 but the construction was soon halted because of serious problems with the laying of the foundations—the soil turned out to be swampy and therefore unable to support the weight of the structure. Since there was no other site available, the solution adopted was to hammer into the ground 2377 trunks of Norwegian fir trees, some of them as long as 23 m. This “underground forest” allowed construction work to continue and the cathedral was solemnly blessed onChristmas Day 1897…
The Tunis cathedral is a contemporary of the house on the Marty farm. It may be built of stone, but it too contains a memory of trees.