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City of Banjul
Friday, October 15, 2021

The Feast of Sainte Mary

My guide had taken me to every nook and cranny of the enormous edifice that is the principal mosque of Mouridism in the heart of the Holy City of Touba in Senegal. Its very tall minaret dominates the semi-arid landscape and is visible from ten kilometers away across the undulating and dusty terrain. We were walking along the cobbled forecourt of the mosque, close to the perimeter with its intricately fashioned metal lattice work. I casually remarked to the guide “…Bamba died in 1927?”.  “Yes”, he replied. Suddenly, there was a gentle tap on my shoulder. I turned around and right before me was an elderly Wollof woman -certainly a septuagenarian. Quite a dignified figure she was. Draped in cloth of dark blue hue, she was somewhat deferential but spoke in a strong voice. She asked me, ‘Are you a stranger?” I replied in the affirmative. She wanted to know where I came from and I said from Banjul. She shook her head and then said “Wollof fee Anglais nga” (You are a Wollof from the British land (Gambia). I nodded. She then gave me something of a lesson. She said, “…In this place, one never talks of Bamba being dead. No, never. Bamba is not dead. Bamba has slept”. 

The notion that “Bamba has slept” leads me on to the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. From the earliest times, church tradition has held that Mary “at the end of her earthly life was taken up body and soul into heavenly glory”. The concept of Mary’s dormition dates from this period. Mary has slept. But in addition, she has been assumed body and soul into heaven. For Catholics, this is a dogma of faith. For the late Pope Pius XII in his bull Munificientissimus of 1950 so declared in the Dogma of the Assumption. The Orthodox Christians – Copts included – also honour the Dormition of Mary. Thus more than three-quarters of the world’s Christians, i.e. Catholics and Orthodox combined, honour Mary in this particular way. Mary was specially chosen by God to be the Mother of His Son. The Council of Ephesus (AD 431) so held. Mary, therefore, had a special place in God’s plan of salvation. She is honoured as the Mother of Christ and our mother too.  The Byzantine tradition (Orthodox) is especially lavish in its appreciation and veneration of Mary. In the church of Saint Saviour in Chora, Istanbul/Constantinople, which houses what many regard as the world’s finest mosaics and frescoes, there is one dedicated to the Dormition of Theotokos. (‘Theotokos’ is the popular name for the Virgin in eastern countries). The inscription reads: “The dwelling place of the uncountable”. This accords with numerous epithets in the Tridentine Liturgy of the Western Church. Sung versicles such as: “et verbum caro factum est”, “ecc ancillae Domine, fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum” and “post partum Virgo inviolat permansisti”, all point to the same direction and reinforce the time hallowed tradition of reverence for and filial devotion to the virgin Mother of Christ.

The “Sainte Marie” (Assumption) tradition in The Gambia goes back to the mid-nineteenth century (1849/50). When the French missionaries re-established the Catholic Church in The Gambia in 1849. The first major initiative they took was to purchase land on which to build a church. This building proved to be too small within a year and a bigger and more permanent structure was put up the following year (1850). The bishop at the time, Monsignor Kobes (1824-1872) came over from Dakar to lay the foundation stone on 25th March 1850. When completed in the same year, the chapel was dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary under her title “Lady of the Assumption”. This was the first church within Senegambia dedicated to Mary under this title. In subsequent years, several other churches dedicated to Mary, under her various titles, were to spring up all over Senegambia viz: Our Lady of Lourdes, St Louis; Our Lady of the Purification, Joal; Our Lady of Lourdes, Bignona; Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, Palmarine; Our Lady of Deliverance, Poponguine; Our Lady Victories, Hann – Dakar; Stella Maris, Bakau and Our Lady of Fatima, Bwiam et cetera.

Oral sources suggest that Banjulians have from the earliest times celebrated in grand style the patronal feast of the mother church – which became cathedral in 1958. It should be remembered that for a very long time, (1849-1949) Catholicism in The Gambia was essentially a Banjul-based affair. In the mid-twenties, Bwiam was established and in the mid-thirties, Basse. But besides the educational work in those places, no Catholic community as such existed there. Not until around 1955 when St. Therese’s Parish (Kanifing) had a resident priest (late Rev. Fr. M. Corrigan, C.S.Sp) did a Catholic community, as generally understood; emerge elsewhere in The Gambia outside St. Mary’s Island. 

In the first one hundred years of the existence the Catholic Church in The Gambia (1849-1949), the feast of Sainte Marie (now a Solemnity) was not observed as a public holiday. From the church’s perspective, it was a holy day but nothing took place on that day. In pre-Vatican II days, it was fashionable to celebrate the “external solemnity” of major feasts which were not public holidays on the Sunday nearest the actual date. Thus the feast was observed in that manner. There was usually a Solemn Mass, by three priests – celebrant, deacon and sub-deacon – in the morning (9.30 am) followed by solemn Vespers (all in Latin) at 3.30pm).  This was followed by a procession along the customary route viz Picton Street, Kent Street, Anglesea Street, Hagan Street and back to the Church. As the procession reached the “Janneh Kunda” area (15 Hagan Street) the crown would in unison break into the “EY HOL” a hymn reserved from time immemorial and up to now as the closing hymn of the procession whose strains lead the throng back into the church for a Solemn Benediction Service.

It was only in 1954 that the feast of St Marie (Assumption) became a public holiday. Thanks to the efforts of the late Mr. Lawrence Jarra, who with the active support, guidance and encouragement of the oldmen, Messrs George M. Senghore and John C. Fox, led a press campaign to get the day declared a public holiday. The late Hon E.F. Small, doyen of Gambian trade unionism and politics – who was also editor and proprietor of the Gambia Outlook and SeneGambia Reporter newspapers – also gave much assistance by allowing valuable space in his paper to the cause. Mr small was a staunch Methodist.

Little has changed in the liturgical observances of the feast. The most important one is no doubt the INTROIT. Before the promulgation of the Dogma of the Assumption in 1950, the introit was the standard “GAUDEAMUS”. After 1950, the Vatican replaced it with current one, “SIGNUM MAGNUM”. Another change is in the statue carried at the procession. Formerly it was a small statue of Mary – probably the one near the staircase to the gallery at the back of the Cathedral. Around 1950, the then Father Superior, Rev. Fr. Mathew Farrelly, C.S.S.p., imported the one currently in use which features Mary with raised arms as in ascent.

Much of the finest music in the Catholic repertoire is dedicated to Mary. The Gregorian Chant, the official music of the Catholic Church, has several magnificent pieces. Among the introits, the GAUDEAMUS, SIGNUM MAGNUM and the SALVE SANCTA PARENS are outstanding. The collection of graduals and communions is impressive. The BEATMA ME DICENS (communion antiphon of the mass of the Assumption) is in a class by itself. Mary’s canticle, the AVE MARIA is probably the single piece of composition set to music by the greatest number of eminent composers. Arcadelt, Victoria, Bach-Gounod, Mozart, Schubert, Frank, Brahms, Verdi and Rachmaninoff have all provided their own versions. Needless to say, each is a masterpiece. Likewise the MAGNIFICAT. Several of the great composers have one or more settings of this great canticle. Bach’s own setting for double choir is particularly elaborate. It lasts fourteen minutes compared to about three minutes duration for the setting in the Gregorian Chant (plainsong). Palestrina, (16th Century), perhaps the most celebrated of the POST REFORMATION composers, had a special love of and devotion to Mary. This is evident from his large number of compositions in her honour – masses, motets and hymns. Among the masses, one may mention the “AVE MARIA” (in six parts) and the powerful “Missa ASSUMPTA Est Maria”. The Spanish composer, Thomas de Victoria (16th century), also has a grand mass dedicated to Mary under the title “AVE MARIA”.

Social celebrations on Saint Marie Day were formerly based on church groups-Sodalities, Associations, Legion of Mary, Choristers, Servers etc and were held in the mission yard, grounds of old St. Augustine’s and Catholic houses nearby.

In 1975, the Government abolished the observance of the feast of Sainte Marie as a public holiday following the adoption of the Waller Commission’s Report on salaries and conditions of service in the public sector. The report, inter-alia recommended a reduction in the number of public holidays. Thus Easter Monday and Sainte Marie had to go. In 1976, the feast of Sainte Marie fell on a Sunday so the effects of the abolition were not felt. Mass, Vespers, Procession, benediction etc were held and were indeed well attended.

In 1977, following representations by the Catholic Community, the biggest Christian Group, the Government decided to restore Sainte Marie to the schedule of public holidays. This change made it possible to expand the celebrations and to incorporate a display by the Police/Army band after the Solemn Vespers and Benediction in the evening. The social groups take up thereafter to about midnight.

The feast of “Sainte Marie” is very important in the social life of the Gambian people. It is one of the few feasts which transcend the religious divide. Though the Assumption of Mary, as a dogma of faith, is peculiar to Catholics, nevertheless Muslims and other main line Christians have a deep love and respect for Mary. In fact, Mary is mentioned many more times in the Qur’an than in the Bible. Given the close consanguinary, marital and other bonds binding Gambians – indeed SeneGambians as a whole – social events are occasions for joint celebrations and for renewing and reinforcing ties of blood and friendship.

The celebration of the feast of “Sainte Marie” in The Gambia is inextricably linked to torrential downpours. This is more a matter of geography than of faith or religion. However, to Gambians of all faiths, “Sainte Marie” means a very wet day either on the eve or on the day itself. A “dry” “Sainte Marie” is a rarity. An Englishman resident in The Gambia doubted this in a “Letter to the Editor” published in the Daily Observer a few years ago. It rained all night on the day before and again in the morning before the church services began. That was Mary’s response – evident and emphatic! Rain does not however, deter people from going out on “Sainte Marie” day. In the 1948 floods when Banjul – then Bathurst – was completely submerged in water and canoes had to be used to move people from place to place, the feast was celebrated all the same though on the day itself the flood had subsided and the waters almost completely receded.

Prayers for peace, stability and prosperity are offered in all Catholic churches throughout SeneGambia on Sainte Marie Day. In both Senegal and The Gambia, the day is a public holiday. This allows the faithful to assist in the acts of worship and to participate in the celebrations organised in the evening. The feast of Sainte Marie this year coincides with the closure of the centenary celebrations of the cathedral (1914 – 2014). The building is the fourth on the site from 1849 to date. The celebrations promise to be the biggest and most elaborate ever. Several prelates, clergy, religious and lay faithful are expected from the sub-region. Besides eccles iastical pomp and pageantry, the social events will be full of grandeur and colour.

I wish all Gambians, and others resident here, a blessed Sainte Marie Day. May Mary, Mother of Christ and Queen of Peace, bless us abundantly. May she cast the mantle of her motherly affection and care over us all. 

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