Pilgrimages aren’t so much of a conventional Christian activity as it is for Islam but one thing is common among all these forms of pilgrimages – the numbers are unavoidably huge.
In Senegal, on an annual basis, tens of thousands of faith-believing people, mostly Catholics, embark on this unassuming journey to a village in the Cap Vert-Thies region of the country called Popenguine.
Being an annual event that has a rich historical blend of resilience and superstition, the place has become so significant that it has even attracted people from across the borders of Senegal, even so, many Muslims.
But then, what is so unique about the Basilique Notre-Dame de la Délivrance beyond the obvious fact that it houses one of the many hundreds of Black Madonnas (statues of the Most Holy Virgin Mary that are black)?
Well, it is believed to possess some superficial powers that can heal people of their ailments in a way that is celebrated on a national scale in this West African country.
Called a Shrine, this Popenguine location has suffered many setbacks and threats of death – literally. First built in the 1800s by a Catholic priest, Bishop Mathurin Picarda, following his love of the village of Popenguine after his first visit there, the shrine would go on to experience many closures and setbacks during the next century.
In that period, there has been the building’s collapse, epidemics of yellow fever and sleeping sickness, the Great War, and a shipwreck that took the lives of a bishop and 16 missionaries.
The area remained primarily a Muslim community thereafter but the Catholic faith and devotion to the Our Lady of Deliverance figure persisted.
By 1998, a new church was built and dedicated to the Immaculate Conception of the Most Holy Virgin Mary and proclaimed a minor basilica in 1991 at the request of Cardinal Hyacinthe Thiamdoum, a native of Popenguine. This began a new birth for the church and for the community.
In 1992, the head of the Catholic church at the time, Pope John Paul II visited the shrine and crowned the statue of Our Lady of Deliverance on February 20, 1992.
Things spiraled from there, with tens of thousands of pilgrims, many of them organized groups of young people, and many inspired by rumours of Marian apparitions appearing there, repeatedly go to Popenguine for the annual celebration on Pentecost Monday, the day dedicated to celebrate the feast of the Black Madonna.
During this ceremony, a solemn mass and then a procession from the church to a nearby grotto shrine of Our Lady of Deliverance in a cliff overlooking the sea is held.
Undoubtedly, religion in Africa is as big as the numbers of people the continent boasts of. And with the spread of many different doctrines of the Christian faith across it, the Catholic church still maintains a strong place on the continent.
In fact, statistics from the Vatican show how the future of Catholicism will be in Africa. In 2009, when Pope Benedict XVI visited Africa, the estimated number of Catholics was at 158 million while it is expected that by 2025, one-sixth (230 million) of the world’s Catholics will be Africans.
And all these are owed to the fact that the numbers of these Bible believing faithfuls keep rising on the continent.
In 2018, the BBC carried a feature on the subject, “The Intriguing History of the ‘Black Madonna’” which highlighted the unique interest of a US artist, Theaster Gates, who has done extensive work on the concept of the ‘Black Madonna’ in his latest exhibition celebrating images of powerful black women.
Conventionally, of course, the depictions of the Virgin Mary have usually appeared of a young mother with white skin in paintings and sculptures but sometimes, she appears with a dark or black face and hands.
History of the Madonna Statue
The first notable study of the origin and meaning of the so-called Black Madonnas in English appears to have been presented by Leonard Moss at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science on Dec. 28, 1952. Amazingly, all the images in Moss’ study had a reputation for miracles.
Each year, millions of European pilgrims ritually humble themselves before the image of Black Mary and her child Jesus at Black Madonna sites throughout France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Belgium, Portugal and other Catholic countries.
In Poland for instance, the Church encourages believers to pray to the Black Madonna of Czestochowa every morning before rising. It is actually reported that Pope John Paul II follows this ritual. Time Magazine (June 11, 1979) reported on Pope Paul II’s visit to Czestochowa’s holiest shrine, which prominently displays “The Lady” known for centuries as the Black Madonna.
Today, there are over 300 documented Black Madonna sites in France alone!