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Marist Bulletin - Number 230

 

France celebrated the Centenary of the separation of the Churches and the State
12/01/2006

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A grateful remembrance of the Congregation to the French Marist Brothers


Coinciding with the fortieth anniversary of the closure of the Second Vatican Council, on the 12th December 2005 the centenary of the law of separation of the Church and the State was celebrated in France. It has been a century since the Republic abruptly emancipated itself from the influence of Christianity after various centuries of incidents in which the Churches and the State were involved.
For the Marists, this event has a particular significance because before celebrating this centenary, various Provinces and countries have also celebrated the centenary of the start of Marist works in their lands as a consequence of the presence of French Marist Brothers who had to leave their country due to the events in their country that concluded with the promulgation of this law.
The years 1901 - 1904, in France, are only a phase of the open war between the public school or public teaching and the congregational or free teaching, a conflict that started in 1880. The expression free teaching started in France between 1800 and 1830 with the birth in France of about twenty religious congregations of lay brothers, consecrated exclusively to schools. At the same time as the male congregations, hundreds of female congregations started with the same objective in many towns and cities through the initiative of parish priests, in such a way that free teaching and congregational teaching were the expression of the same reality, described also by the expressions fight against free teaching and fight against the teaching congregations.
France kept in its memory the law of July 1901, on whose behalf the statutes of many associations were repealed. But this liberal text had an obscure side: the III title promulgated a severe legislation against the religious congregations whose political and social influence the Republic intended to eliminate. The government of Emile Combs, formed in 1902, decided to apply the text of the law vigorously, before voting the law of July 1904 that prohibited any type of teaching by the congregations. Since the separation had taken place, neither Jesuits nor Brothers had officially lived in France.
This was a catastrophic moment without precedent for the congregations and the tens of thousands of their members. Some requested an authorisation that was refused; others submerged into secrecy and even in exile. Hundreds of convents, colleges and schools were closed and, thousands of religious and a good number of their students went to bordering countries from the shores of the Mediterranean and even as far away as Canada, United States of America, Latin America, Japan and Australia. This was a sad exile, but also one that aroused a missionary spirit. (Le grand exil)
This conflict lasted until the Debré law promulgated in 1959. In a few years (1962 - 1965) the Second Vatican Council recognised a new conception of religious life announced sixty years before by the secularisation of the French religious.
But in the political and religious history of France, marked by revolutions, coups and emigrations, one had easily forgotten this exile of thousands of religious at the end of the 19th century and the start of the 20th century. This is a fact that cannot be denied because these exiles had taken with them the pedagogy, the language and the books of France. But the effects of this underestimated exile were never assessed, the last one that had marked the troubled political-religious history of France.

The Marist memory
The Marist Brothers who have celebrated throughout the last twenty years the centenaries of the first brothers in their country, the majority of them French, have spoken of this exile as a significant act.
I would like to mention especially two works that refer to these events. Firstly, the book Le grand exil des congrégations religieuses françaises (1901 - 1914), in which Brother André Lanfrey had collaborated with an article entitled Expatriation et sécularisations congréganistes, published by Èditions du Cerf (2005) (www.editionducerf.fr). This volume reproduces the reflection of the Conference organised by lInstitut dhistoire du christianisme, le Centre André-Latreille, le Laboratoire Diasporas, of the University of Toulouse-Le Mirall, lInstitut universitaire de France in collaboration with the Centre universitaire détudes québécoises of the Laval University of Quebec. In its five chapters, this book tries to explain the legislation of 1901 to 1914 and the responses that the congregations had given before inviting the reader to follow the religious on their journeys of exile.
Brother Michele Gaetano Vinai is also the author of a book in Italian of more than three hundred pages, entitled, Un secolo di lotte per linsegnamento libero in Francia published by the Stampa Universitaria Nazionale, in April 2005.
Brother Michele Gaetano Vinai wrote this history motivated by his own experience. When I was a young teacher in Rome, I had as colleagues about ten of these brothers exiled from France in 1903.
A little bit older than twenty years of age and wanting to maintain their promise made to God, guilty of nothing, they had preferred exile. I will always remember their calm, smiling faces, expressing openness to all, simple men, sought by all and of an enviable human equilibrium. They spoke Italian without the shadow of a foreign accent, such that their students did not doubt that they were not Italian. All of these brothers returned to France in 1939, at the start of the Second World War.
And he concluded with these words: I am writing so that your memory may never be forgotten by those who follow, because it is an historical patrimony that we must conserve.

Symposium on the Marist mission in Europe
The Symposium on the Marist mission in Europe, convoked by the General Councils Mission Commission and held at the Hermitage from the 27th to the 30th December 2003, was a time of reflection of Marists in Europe before the celebration of which I have spoken here.
While we commemorate the one hundred years of the Combes law which had its consequences so important for the life of the Institute, the Symposium, whose motto was Share the history, build the future, decided to celebrate with recognition the contribution of the Marist Brothers of France to the entire world and to reflect on the future glimpsed today for the Marists in Europe. The conclusions of the meeting opened the way for a process already commenced to prepare the celebration of the First International Marist Mission Assembly (2007), at Mendes in Brazil, an Assembly that will be preceded by regional meetings.
The Symposium brought together forty participants (brothers and laypeople) who represented the current five Provinces of Europe and the General Administration. Brother Seán Sammon, Superior General, presided at a ceremony of recognition towards the brothers of France for their contribution to the Institute from 1903 onwards. A ceramic mural, installed in the Hermitage, concretely expresses our gratitude. For more information see: http://www.champagnat.org/es/240106200.htm




Foundation of Mendes
Improvidence and disorganisation


On Monday, 15th June 1903, Brother Marcian and I, in the company of some newly arrived brothers, went to Mendes to receive the nineteen confrères who were to arrive that day. We were a bit concerned about the descent from the ship and the appearance in the town of so many soutanes. A Benedictine priest in revolt against his Superiors had caused some agitation in the town and had incited a popular movement against all foreign religious. This unfortunate Benedictine, by the name of Ramos, had provoked this situation and maintained it thanks to money. The events in France encouraged such an antireligious movement very much.
The religious houses were guarded by the police. The Benedictines had to flee from the people who had invaded the monastery. The landing of twenty brothers in such conditions, in a town at boiling point, would have been a grave imprudence. At all costs, we had to avoid the attention of people, and as a consequence, prepare ordinary clothes for the brothers. A part of the day was occupied by this distasteful and improvised work.
The vessel set anchor far from the quay. We could not do extra trips so that everyone had clothes that fitted him. You can imagine the scene: if some were lost in clothes too big for them, others remedied the situation with string. Despite their clothing, these brothers looked like us. They had a familiar air. We had only half solved the problem. To arrive at the place without any further problems we went in small groups which took different ways. Thus the problem was solved, even if it was an awkward solution.
The good brothers who had arrived were happy to be in a country of liberty where they could live as a religious. By staying in France and renouncing the soutane, they could have continued their apostolic life by showing a great deal of prudence. They had refused this illegitimate regime which the majority of congregations had put up with. For them, the integrity of their religious life and the flight from the dangers of secularisation were worth any sacrifice. The goodbyes to family and friends had not weakened them. Brazil was a long way away, but Brazil was the country of liberty.
The exiles arrived at the Bay of Guanabara. The panorama of the town has marvellous views. They were waited for impatiently by their Brazilian brothers who had already rejoiced in the happy surprise of having nineteen Marist Brothers, admirably disposed to the missionary life. Unfortunately, at first, the French brothers had an unhappy impression.
Brother Jean-Alexandre, in charge of receiving them, went on board. He was a bit surprised to seem them all in religious clothing. He told them disconcertingly that it would be imprudent for so many religious to disembark like this and he organised with a local businessman in the town to outfit them. They left France to conserve the religious habit, and in arriving at the country that they thought to be their refuge, they were told that they must renounce it so as not to be exposed to insults from the people.
We have been misled, they murmured. Brazil is worse than France. The most pessimistic of impressions swamped them, giving birth to lugubrious thoughts. Their dream of a free life in the New World vanished in an instant. For the moment, they ignored the incomparable Bay of Guanabara which spread out from the hills that surrounded the great city of Rio. The comical aspect of their ordinary clothes, the bizarre spectacle that each one offered to his expelled confrères and the bitterness of their thoughts made them laugh for a moment. Laughing was good for them; it was a relief. Finally, they philosophised: Do not suffer before arriving; for judging your situation, wait till you get to know it better. These were wise words. The decision about this topic had been taken by the Council, knowing well the astonishment that it would cause, as well as the impossibility of explaining in a few words that this state of the spirit of the town was only accidental and truly rare. We were suffering from this distress, but we were consoled at the thought that it would pass.
Let us explain now that Ramos, this Benedictine religious who had taken 600,000 francs from the monastery, was feeling threatened by the arrival of true religious who would re-establish the ancient Benedictine traditions. Newspapers had tried to create opposition to the entry of these foreign religious into Brazil. Happily for us, the Government took a hand in this good cause and allowed the Benedictines to accommodate them in the monastery to live in the community there. These monks came in company of the Superior General. At the Chapter that followed, the poor offending religious was deprived of the charge that he had not exercised worthily. Calm had returned.
We went quickly to the meeting places but found the brothers already there. They were walking in small groups, with disconcerted faces, which made them look more like foreigners. They were trying to pick up the attitudes of the people that they heard close to them, but everything betrayed them; they gave nearly the same show as if they were in their religious habits. Some of the most curious of the people headed towards on employee of the College who seemed to be accompanying them and asked: Who are these people? Where are they going? Someone answered, They are Germans who are going to work in the brewery in Mendes. And they answered, We could see that they were foreigners.
This answer satisfied the most demanding. While this scene was happening at Rio, we were preparing ourselves to welcome our confrères. Shortly afterwards, we arrived at Fazenda to take possession of it. It lacked everything and we had twenty brothers. Our greatest concern was to prepare the beds. We only had iron beds and mattresses of poor quality; there were neither curtains nor covers at Fazenda. During this wintry night there was more good will than organisation and direction.
After a great deal of searching, we found enough towels in an old cupboard. They would serve as bed sheets. That was all we good offer in the depths of winter. As they had to arrive late, we consoled ourselves for not having any provision by the fact that they would have already eaten. The evening trains arrive on the hour after seven oclock. As there was no information concerning their arrival we wanted to meet the first train, so as to avoid troubling them further by having to wait.
The first train passed without bringing our brothers. The same happened with the second. We could not leave without waiting for the last train. They were finally on this last train. Where would they sleep? I was waiting for the train with my heart beating quickly. It arrived suddenly and stopped brusquely. Soon, I saw a jumble of white clothes, a general agitation towards a wagon from where came a number of suitcases rapidly placed on the stations platform.
The late hour and the darkness protected us from indiscreet looks. We greeted each other quickly, leaving the more complete introductions for when we arrived at the house. Armed with lanterns, we started our walk after a short indispensable explanation: We have three kilometres to the entry of the property, and on the way, there are many pot-holes, large stones, muddy holes and spiny bushes that emerge traitorously. Try to follow me closely. Only take necessary baggage; the others will stay at the station. We left in the darkness of the night. We had to form a caravan that would have looked very strange.
Those who took two bags found the trip very long. And they had not eaten anything for a while. After several stops to get our breath back and to laugh about our tiredness and our situation, we arrived at the entry to the property. The strange countryside, the mystery of the night, the thousand impressions of the day, the physical changes and the humour of a voyage in such conditions and, especially, the attraction of the unknown that awaited them, all that aroused in the soul a strange symphony. It is pleasant to remember this nocturnal walk, imposed by the unexpected and one that we could not have prepared ourselves for even in the name of charity.
After a brief pause, we took the path to our property. When I say path, dont imagine something straight with tress all aligned. No, it was a sinuous path that followed the inclinations of the terrain. On one side, it clutched onto the mountain and on the other it was bordered by immense bamboo plants. A stream, whose water murmured and sang on the rocks, skirted the path from its birth until it formed a waterfall near the house. The rustle of leaves in the wind, the sound of stems rubbing against each other, creaking and groaning in the confusion where they rebelled, created indeed a strange environment. We brothers, moved by all of this, walked in silence.
Suddenly, after the last curve, a light appeared behind a window announcing that we had arrived. In an instant the caravan became alive. Everyones curiosity was excited by this large house lost in the wood and so favourable for religious life. Giving way under the weight of luggage, drenched from sweat, our voyagers showed their joy with a lot of noise through an exchange of fraternal greetings.
Above all, with lamp in hand, they wanted to visit the house. The impression that they had of it was excellent. They found it big, lovely and well organised. The rooms were rich and well furnished; the kitchen had a big stove. There was a bathroom, some showers, etc. The dining room could accommodate eighty people. The host table offered its service, but what poor service it was. The brothers were dying of hunger, and we only had some bread, oranges and fresh water to welcome them. We called the administrator and he found six eggs. What were six eggs for so many people? We needed in fact one hundred eggs, a basket of bread or three kilos of ham. The discouragement and the worry are memorable, and to complete the chaos, two brothers were missing.
This maigre meal was nevertheless seasoned with good humour, to the point that we forgot that we were missing nearly everything. The shock of the new impressions caused us not to realise that Brothers Jules-Régis and Alphonse-Régis were missing. Where were they? When would they arrive? We were worried. We decided to look for them in all directions. The administrator, his son and various employees also started searching. It was one oclock in the morning. They probably continued their journey where the path branched off.
After one hour of searching, they were brought to the house, very embarrassed by the whole affair. They had stayed behind the group to rest a bit; nobody noticed them; when they arrived at the spot where they should have left the main road to enter the property, the other brothers had already reached the lane of bamboo; they continued in the wrong direction. When they were found, they were wandering towards the unknown.
The administrator, who had headed towards Mendes, reached the station in the town; he looked everywhere such that he did not return until four in the morning. This episode, from an artistic point of view, enriched a voyage that was already dramatic; I have not forgotten it. I should add, in order to be more precise, that no longer able to carry their luggage, some brothers had left them in a field in the bush. They were easily found. The story of their misadventure made us laugh a great deal. That is how the first day went at Mendes.


H. Adorátor Vinte anos de Brasil, Editora universitaria Champagnat,
Curitiba, 2005, p. 202-206.

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