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Translocal Martyrdom: Community-Making Through African Pilgrimages in Switzerland

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A new form of translocal martyrdom was (re)invented in the context of African migration to Switzerland a decade ago: The ‘Pèlerinage aux Saintes et Saints d’Afrique’ at St. Maurice and the pilgrimage dedicated to the (Black) Virgin Mary in Einsiedeln. Under the patronage of the federal Catholic ‘Swiss Bishops Conference’ (SBC) several annual events are organised by clerics, missionaries and non-clerics to incorporate African residents in the institutional setting of the Catholic Church. These events are designed to attract Africans but also to revitalise Catholic faith and practice. In this context, African martyrdom is becoming a metaphor for suffering in crisis, escape and migration.


  • Religious Practice
  • Pastoral Care
  • African Origin
  • Musical Performance
  • Undocumented Migrant

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  1. 1.

    We would like to thank Cécile Navarro, Alexandre Grandjean and Barbara Dellwo of the Institut of Social Sciences of Contemporary Religion (ISSRC) at the University of Lausanne for their support in the fieldwork of this study, for translations and for editing of the manuscript. Furthermore, we thank the reviewers as well as Marta Bivand Erdal and Dominic Pasura for stimulating comments and suggestions on the previous version of this chapter. We are particularly grateful to all pilgrims who shared their views, food and time with us, as well as to the organisers of the pilgrimages who kept an ear open for our interest in these events. May we continue pilgrimaging.

  2. 2.

    Ballif (2014) discusses the ‘Pèlerinage aux Saintes et Saints d’Afrique à St. Maurice’ from the point of view of the organisers and concludes that the event ‘est présenté comme le renouvellement d’une pratique pèlerine ancienne’. She suggests that the event may be interpreted as a response of the organisers to a situation that is new and threatening to the Swiss Catholic church: the loss of members and of ritual celebrations. This agrees with our own findings. We go further by investigating the ritual and transformative force of these pilgrimages.

  3. 3.

    The article draws from fieldwork in Switzerland that we conducted between 2010 and 2015 by participating in five annual pilgrimages, a choir festival and other public (mainly but not exclusively religious) events with a high proportion of African participants. We used qualitative methods to explore these events, in particular participant observation, interviews, informal talks and audio-visual recordings, which, in the case of pilgrimages, were taken for the purpose of reflecting on the event with participants ex-post. Missionary publications and video recordings made by the organisers of the pilgrimages as well as media reports on the events supplement this material. We used classical ethnography and revised grounded theory, namely situational analysis, following Clarke (2005) to analyse our material and thus the complexity of postcolonial events.

  4. 4.

    In 1990, only 24,768 African immigrants were registered. Around 6000 were born in Switzerland and approx. 8000 were married to Swiss spouses. In 2004, 65,092 immigrants from 49 African countries were living in Switzerland—less than 1 % of the total population (7,529,564). In 2011, 4.9 % of the immigrants in Switzerland (and 2.7 % of the emigrants leaving Switzerland) were from African countries. (accessed 28 February 2013).

  5. 5.

    In 2011, the majority of migrants from sub-Saharan countries came from Eritrea (876), Congo (DRC, 74), Nigeria (199), Cameroon (233), Senegal (121), Kenya (156) and South Africa (257).

  6. 6.

    See for example, (accessed 20 November 2012).

  7. 7.

    The percentage of Catholics amongst the Swiss population (over the age of 15) was 42.5 % in 1910, 45.4 % in 1960, remained relatively stable until 1990 and the declined then to 38 % in 2013. The percentage of Protestants fell from 56.2 % in 1910 to 26.1 % in 2013 and the percentage of the population that declared it was without religion rose from 0.5 % in 1960 to 22.2 % in 2013. The fact that the Catholic Church lost a smaller percentage of members than the Protestant church(es) is due to migration: the majority of Swiss immigrants have been Catholic. Source: Federal Office of Statistics; Judith Albisser, 2015: Aktuelle Daten aus der Religions- und Kirchenstatistik der Schweiz, Factsheet Kirchenstatistik, Schweizerisches Pastoralsoziologisches Institut (SPI) St. Gallen (Dezember 2015), p. 3.

  8. 8.

    Interview R.v.W. with Marco Schmid, Fribourg, 7 December 2011.

  9. 9.

    The profile and history of the missionaries, (accessed 19 October 2016).

  10. 10.

    Jean-Marie Gabioud, Roman Stäger, Claude Maillard, Jean-Pierre Chevrolet, 2011: Lettre à nos amis 2011. Pères Blancs de Suisse. Fribourg, p. 29. Translated by M.S.

  11. 11.

    According to the mission statement of the White Fathers in Switzerland and in Germany, the main activity is missionary work in African countries. The education of future missionaries is conducted in Europe. Besides these activities, they aim at changing the image of Africa by organising presentations for children. The ‘Africa Center’ in Berlin organises networking events for refugees, in order to ‘build up contacts to the African community in Berlin and to get information on day to day questions’: ​(accessed 19 October 2016).

    Photos taken at the White Fathers’ weekly contact point for migrants in Fribourg can be found here: (accessed 19 October 2016).

  12. 12., (accessed 21 December 2015).

  13. 13.

    Canon Michel-Ambroise Rey, 11. Pèlerinage aux Saintes et Saints d’Afrique, 3 June 2012, Vérolliez-St. Maurice. Translated by R.v.W. and Barbara Dellwo.

  14. 14.

    Moreover, among the population, Maurice is not associated with Africa, at least not at first glance. The iconography does not suggest this either. A famous painting of St. Maurice’s martyrdom by El Greco from 1580 to 82 shows a white-skinned Maurice. There is, however, a painting by Mathias Grünewald, St. Maurice and Erasmus, from 1517 to 23, showing Maurice with darker skin, but it does not circulate in this context.

  15. 15.

    Notes taken by M.S., 27 September 2013 and several informal exchanges with former residents conducted by M.S. in 2014.

  16. 16.

    However, other reasons for the death of the Ugandan martyrs were discussed by historians and anthropologists. (For an excellent discussion see Kassimir 1991.) Most of the martyrs were pages of the Kabaka and thus under his ritual, political and administrative authority. The scientific and public debates pivot around Mwanga’s homosexual desires and his concern for royal ritual and political power. The anti-gay, evangelical and charismatic movements in Uganda and elsewhere interpret the martyrs’ resistance as a heroic act confronting satanic acts (for example Afrique espoir, Les Saints d’Afrique, Kinshasa 2009).

  17. 17., (accessed 20 December 2015)

  18. 18., (accessed 10 December 2015).

  19. 19., (accessed 10 December 2015).

  20. 20.

    Pope Paul VI came in 1969 and Pope St. John Paul II in 1993.

  21. 21.

    Catholic Radio Sapienta, cited by Vatican Radio, 6 November15, (accessed 20 December 2015).

  22. 22.

    Les Echos de Saint Maurice. Nouvelles de l’Abbaye. Numéro 6, Décembre 2002, p. 6.

  23. 23.

    The details of the transfer of the relics from Uganda to Switzerland are not yet revealed, only the fact that they were brought to the Basilica of St. Maurice on 16 June 2002 (see above).

  24. 24.

    Les Echos de Saint-Maurice. Nouvelles de l’Abbaye, 6, 2002, p. 6. Translated by M.S.

  25. 25.

    Mgr. Joseph Roduit, Homélie lors de la réception des reliques des martyres des Saints de l’Ouganda à l’abbaye de Saint Maurice, at the 9. Pèlerinage aux Saintes et Saints d’Afrique, 6 June 2010. Translated by M.S.

  26. 26.

    Michel Ambroise Rey, Homélie donnée lors de la célébration eucharistique du 16 juin 2002 à la basilique de l’abbaye de Saint Maurice. Translated by M.S.

  27. 27.

    Mgr. Joseph Roduit, 9. Pèlerinage aux Saintes et Saints d’Afrique, 6 June 2010, St. Maurice.

  28. 28.

    Claude Laurentdidier, president of GCMSR, 11. Pèlerinage aux Saintes et Saints d’Afrique, 3 June 2012, Vérolliez-St. Maurice.

  29. 29.

    Claude Laurentdidier, president of GCMSR, 11. Pèlerinage aux Saintes et Saints d’Afrique, 3 June 2012, Vérolliez-St. Maurice.

  30. 30.

    Mgr. Joseph Roduit, Homélie lors de la 11. Pèlerinage aux Saintes et Saints d’Afrique, 3 June 2012. Translated by R.v.W. and Barbara Dellwo.

  31. 31.

    Fieldnotes taken by R.v.W. at the 11. Pèlerinage aux Saintes et Saints d’Afrique, 3 June 2012.

  32. 32.

    Fieldnotes taken by R.v.W. at the 12. Pèlerinage aux Saintes et Saints d’Afrique, 3 June 2013.

  33. 33.

    Fieldnotes taken by R.v.W. at the 1. Afrikanische Wallfahrt nach Einsiedeln, 25. August 2012.

  34. 34.

    Interview given to SRF, Swiss Radio Television, 25 August 2012. Translation by M.S.

  35. 35.

    For the event Engelweihe in Einsiedeln, see (accessed 13 April 2016).

  36. 36.

    Fieldnotes taken by M.S. at the 9. Pèlerinage aux Saintes et Saints d’Afrique, 6 June 2010, St. Maurice.

  37. 37.

    M.S. has met several undocumented migrants during the 2010 pilgrimage. We have followed the trajectory of one of them until his imprisonment and expulsion from Switzerland. His contacts with other Christians have been an important source of support for him.

  38. 38. and_the_importan/1191378 (accessed 20 December 2015).

  39. 39.

    According to the Reverend Joseph Kabongo, religious ceremonies in an African mode were initiated in Geneva by the francophone African pastors Kilola, Mayembe and Kabongo as early as 1983. In 1997 CEAS was founded as an umbrella organisation for African Christian Churches in Switzerland with the objective of caring for immigrants from the African continent and of sheltering them from sectarian churches (Kabongo 2011), (accessed 12 April 2016).


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Salzbrunn, M., von Weichs, R. (2016). Translocal Martyrdom: Community-Making Through African Pilgrimages in Switzerland. In: Pasura, D., Erdal, M. (eds) Migration, Transnationalism and Catholicism. Palgrave Macmillan, London.

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