Saturday, April 18, 2009

Exploring Rouen

Since we had come home pretty late last night, it wasn't easy getting up early this morning to be in time for our 8 AM scheduled departure for Rouen with Br. Emmanuel. However, this is why we're here, and both Roch and I were ready to go by 8 AM, backpacks prepared and equipment batteries charged.

Br. Emmanuel met us at the car and off we went. It's Saturday morning, so the traffic was light, thankfully. All driving directions from Br. Emmanuel (French) went through Roch (English, I think), so I had to wait to hear them before executing them. A couple of times this led to a bit of miscommunication - with me whispering a bit of frustration under my breath (my fault; I should know enough French to follow directions) - but we found the autoroute to Rouen eventually. This time, the toll road was the kind that required up-front payment, several times along the route. Rouen is about 90 minutes from Paris on the toll road, with everyone driving as if they had a life to save, and it was clearly not their own. Br. Emmanuel knew very little English, so all of our communication was through Roch. When we got to Rouen, we drove hither and yon until we arrived at a non-descript wall with a metal fence behind which was St. Yon. I found a parking place (illegal probably, but what the heck) and we stood outside the fence, with me taking pictures and Roch filming as the light rain fell around us.

Then we moved to the other side of the property, down a tiny street, where I parked on the sidewalk and we again documented the area and the scene. At one point, Roch was filming from the entrance to an apartment complex across the street, and Emmanuel was explaining various fine points of history in a loud voice, when a French woman opened the door behind them and yelled at them to please be more quiet. Sufficiently mollified, the rest of the time was spent in silent work.

A short drive away - just the end of the block - we found a plaza with a very large statue of De La Salle atop an ornate fountain. By now it was raining in earnest, but somehow we managed to maneuver around and do our job. Cars whizzed around us in the roundabout and people paid more attention to us than to the statue. Across the street was a church that Emmanuel said contained some paintings of the Founder and the Brothers, but we couldn't find a way to get into it and so had to put that down as something we will have to do when we return in July.

On we went to St. Sever church, which was located in a small plaza, opposite the St. Sever shopping center. There were many more people in the shopping center than there were in the church. Roch and I went into one of the stores and picked up a big golf umbrella, so that we could keep the HD camera dry when we were shooting. Then we went into St. Sever, where Emmanuel showed us the small side chapel dedicated to De La Salle, complete with statue, altar, and beautiful stained glass windows. He also explained that Br. Bartholemew, the second Superior General, was buried under the floor of the chapel - neither recognized by a plaque nor dug up and placed elsewhere. He remains
a somewhat anonymous figure in our experience. In the side chapel next to De La Salle's is a side altar that was made by the students (inmates?) of St. Yon early in the 19th century. It clearly shows the Sign of Faith and is entirely made of wood.

On we went to the SJBDLS school in Rouen, where Joseph Monguy, the President and head of the Lasallian Schools organization in France, met us and showed us around. We spent a good deal of time in the large church associated with this K - University school (1600 students). This is where the relics of the Founder rested until 1904 when they were transported to Belgium before ending up in Rome. You can see the empty cavity under the altar where the reliquary had rested. In the main chapel, behind the altar, is a smaller reliquary containing one rib-bone of the Founder, held up by two kneeling figures of Brothers. Apparently, Rouen's leaders didn't want to see all of DLS leave the city and so kept one piece of him there. The church is part of the school and they have both religious services and assemblies there (a curtain hides the sanctuary, when necessary, and a movie screen is hidden in the ceiling for use when appropriate).

Joseph and his wife Christine, along with their teen-aged son Luc, hosted us for lunch. They live in what was the Brothers community up to a couple of years ago when the Brothers moved out. Joseph just took over as President, having worked in other Lasallian schools, and the family was invited to live on the property for a variety of reasons. The lunch was one of the nicest we've yet had - simple, very tasty, and very French. They have relatives in the Bay Area and understood some English. It was a very pleasant lunch and visit.

After this, we made our way to downtown Rouen to see where the first Brothers' community lived - a Norman house down a small alley, but with a garden in the back. Moving on, we went to where Nicholas Barre lived as a Minim - a church that is presently a Benedictine Sisters community. Several aged sisters came out to speak with us and were quite hospitable, although one sister somewhere in the darkened sanctuary kept throwing out insistent shushing noises. We were entirely too loud, apparently (again). Then it was on to the site of one of the five schools that the Brothers operated in Rouen during the time of the Founder. This one was located in an inner courtyard that pretty much was the cemetery of the city during the Black Plague. The school was located upstairs in one part of the courtyard and the kids would have watched as bodies from the poor section of town were delivered daily to be buried in common graves in the middle. Not exactly a great way to get an education. All of the buildings also had Danse Macabre motives carved into the woodwork. Finally, we went to a building next to the local hospital which had been the "hospital" where Adrian Nyel was based before and after working with De La Salle. It's still an active building that's being used for medical students' housing. It's here that Nyel first began his work in educating poor youth.

Now it was time for a couple of things that weren't on our itinerary. First, we went to a church located on a surrounding hill and overlooking the city of Rouens. Here, Emmanuel took us to a cemetery where a number of Brothers are buried, including Br. Timothee, the third Superior General and a key figure in the early history of the Brothers, and Br. Claude, the fourth Superior General, along with several Assistants and other Brothers. I wasn't able to quite figure out why they were buried here instead of St. Yon, but I'm sure that there's a good reason.

Now it was toward the end of the afternoon and Br. Emmanuel wanted to show us one last place, the spot where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake. (Nothing like ending the day on a high note.) The plaza that he took us to contained a fascinating modern church, shaped like an upside-down boat and featuring the saved stained-glass windows of a church that had been bombed to smithereens during WWII. It was quite impressive on the inside. Outsider, there was a large cross marking the exact spot where Joan was shoved into the burning pyre (so we were told) as a heretic on May 30, 1431. After touring the place, we had a nice cup of tea at one of the cafes surrounding the square.

By then we were pretty toured out and made out way back to Paris, where Roch and I had a dinner made up of items we'd bought at the Rouen markety, including some wonderful cheeses, butter (really good butter), olives, bread, and pate. Tomorrow, we're back on deck with Br. Emmanuel at 8 AM for the Paris tour. Are we having fun yet?

Photographs: St. Yon - building and chapel; Statue of DLS in plaza nearby; St. Sever side chapel of SJBDLS (left side of picture); Relic of DLS at SJBDLS school in Rouen - figures of two Brothers holding it; Main sanctuary of church at SJBDLS school in Rouen; Lunch with President's family; Place where Brothers had their first community house in Rouen; Nicholas Barre's monastery; Location of one of the schools in Rouen; Adrian Nyel's "hospital" in Rouen; Cemetery and final resting place of Br. Timothee, etc., overlooking Rouen; Roch and I having dinner en suite. (Click on a picture to see the larger version. Also, if you want to look through all the pictures I've taken - unedited or sorted - go to

As promised, the video clip from the visit to Parmenie may be found here.