France – My Friend Monsieur Le Cure

IT is curious how insignificant a part the parish priest plays in French fiction. One novel ofttimes proves the germ of another, and Balzac’s little masterpiece, ” Le Curé de Tours,” as we now know, suggested what is not only the masterpiece of another writer, but the only great French romance having a priest for hero. ” L’Abbé Tigrane,” by the late Ferdinand Fabre, belongs to a series of powerful ecclesiastical studies which stand absolutely alone. All readers who wish to realize clerical life in France from the topmost rung to the bottom of the ladder must acquaint themselves with this not too numerous collection,

Such general neglect is all the more difficult to understand, since the priest constitutes an integral portion of family life in France ; the confessor is indeed in some sort a member of the household. Be his part exalted or lowly, whether he occupies a lofty position alike in the Church and in the world, or in a remote village is counted rich on forty pounds a year, the relation between priest and parishioner is the same, one of constant intercourse and closest intimacy, with, of course, exceptions. Here and there are Socialist and anti-clerical circles from which any representative of sacerdotalism is excluded. These, however, are uncommon cases.

On the other hand, it must be borne in mind that there is no analogy whatever between the status of a French curd and a clergyman of the Church of England.

Strictly speaking, there is no State Church in France. It was during the reign of Louis Philippe that the words religion de l’Etat were struck out of the charter by the Chamber of Deputies, la religion de la majorité des France being placed in their stead. The French Government acknowledges and subsidizes in equal proportion four religions—namely, the Roman Catholic, the Protestant, the Jewish, and in Algeria the Mohammedan ; though it must be remembered that there are about thirty Catholics to one Protestant, and there are only about fifty synagogues in all France. The Protestant pastor, indeed, receives higher pay than the Catholic priest ; being the father of a family, he is understood to want a better income. When-ever a Protestant temple, Jewish synagogue, or in Algeria a new mosque is built, the State makes a grant precisely as in the case of a Catholic church.

No peasant-born, illiterate, boorish wearer of the soutane was my friend Monsieur le curd. Formerly professor at a seminary, learned, genial, versed in the usages of society, how came such a man to be planted in an out-of-the-way commune of eastern France, numbering a few hundred souls only, and these, with the exception of the Fuge de Paix, all belonging to the peasant class ?

The mystery was afterwards cleared up. The highly cultivated and influential residents of the chateau situated at some distance from the village were on good terms with the bishop of the diocese. As it was their custom to spend five months of the year in the country, they depended somewhat upon the curé for society, and Mon-seigneur had obligingly made an exchange. A somewhat heavy, uneducated priest was sent elsewhere, and hither came Monsieur le curé in his place. Agreeable intercourse, unlimited hospitality, and sympathetic parochial co-operation during five months of the year doubtless went far to compensate for isolation during the remaining seven. Yet, taking these advantages into consideration, how modest such a sphere of action, how apparently inadequate its remuneration !

M. le cures yearly stipend was just sixty pounds, in addition to which he received a good house, garden, and paddock, about half an acre in all, and the usual ecclesiastical fees, called le casuel, the latter perhaps bringing his receipts to a hundred pounds a year. As the patrimony of both rich and poor is rigidly divided amongst sons and daughters in France, it may be that this village priest enjoyed a small private income. In any case, only devotion to his calling could render the position enviable.

When I made his acquaintance, M. le curé was in the prime of life, too florid, too portly perhaps, for health, but possessing a striking and benignant presence. Extremely fastidious as he was in personal matters, his soutane was ever well brushed, his muslin lappets spotless, the silver buckles of his shoes highly polished. Nor less was he careful in clothing his thoughts, always expressing himself choicely and with perfect intonation. During my repeated visits to the hospitable château I renewed an acquaintance which finally ripened into friendship. At the dinner-table the conversation would, of course, be general ; but when-ever he called in the afternoon we invariably had a long theological discussion, never losing temper on either side, and, I need hardly say, never changing each other’s way of looking at things by so much as a hair-breadth. Upon other occasions everyday topics would come up, M. le curé showing the liveliest interest in matters lying wholly outside his especial field of thought and action.

It will happen that such cosmopolitan tastes are some-times hampered even in these days by episcopal authority. A village priest has not much money to spare upon books or newspapers, and the chatelaine used to send frequent supplies of these to the presbytery. One evening, as he was leaving after dinner, she gave him a bundle of the Figaro, a newspaper without which no reading Frenchman or Frenchwoman can support existence, and which costs twopence daily. As he tied up the parcel he turned to his hostess, saying with a smile—

I shall take great care, madame, not to let my bishop catch sight of these numbers of the Figaro.”

It seemed odd that a middle-aged priest could not – choose his own newspaper ; but was not the immortal Mrs. Proudie capable of rating a curate for a less offence than smuggling a forbidden journal ?

With the benevolent intention of bettering his circumstances, the châtelaine advised her friend to take an English pupil or two. In order that I might be able to furnish any information required of an outsider, M. le curé showed me over his house. A well-built, commodious house it was, and the large fruit and vegetable garden bespoke excellent husbandry.

” You occasionally amuse yourself here, I suppose, M. le curé ? ” I asked, knowing that many parish priests are very good gardeners.

” No, indeed,” was the reply. “My servant keeps it in order. Ah ! she is a good girl ” (une bonne fille).

This good girl was a stout, homely spinster between fifty and sixty ; but, no matter her age, a spinster is always une fille in the French language. Cook, laundry-maid, seamstress, housekeeper, gardener, M. le curd’s banne fille must have well earned her wages, whatever they might be.

My- friend had enjoyed unusual opportunities of travel for a village priest. He had visited, perhaps in an official capacity, Ober-Ammergau, witnessing the Passion Play, with which he was delighted ; Lourdes, in the miracles of which he firmly believed ; and, lastly, Rome.

The most charitably disposed man in the world, M. le curé dilated with positive acerbity on the slovenliness and uncared-for appearance of his Italian brethren. ” I assure you,” he said to me, ” I have seen a priest’s soutane so greasy that boiled down it would have made a thick soup ! ”

But is not the French curé rich by comparison with an Italian prêtre, and might not such well-worn robes be thought a matter of necessity rather than inclination ?

M. le cur’s thoughts were now bent upon London. There was only one point on which he had misgivings. Could he without inconvenience retain his priestly garb ? French priests never quit the soutane, and on the settlement of this doubt depended his decision.

” Nothing would induce me to don civilian dress,” he said—” nothing in the world.”

I assured him that, although in England ecclesiastical habiliments had long gone out of fashion, English folks were peaceful, and he was not likely to be molested on that account. To London a little later accordingly he went. Indefatigably piloted by English friends, he contrived during his three days’ stay to see what generally goes by the name of everything—the Tower, St. Paul’s, the Abbey, the museums, parks, and civic monuments, winding up with an evening at the House of Commons. And the wearing of the soutane occasioned no inconvenience.

I must here explain that by virtue of his age M. le curd had escaped military service, now in France, as in Germany, an obligation alike of seminarists, students pre-paring for the Protestant ordination, or the Jewish priest-hood. In case of war French seminarists would be employed in the ambulance, hospital, and commissariat departments, and not obliged to use arms.

That journey was M. le cures last holiday. A few months later I was grieved, although not greatly surprised, to hear of his death from apoplexy. He had never looked like a man in good health, and one part of his duty had ever tried him greatly.

We used after mass to say ” How d’ye do ? ” to him in the sacristy, and upon one occasion I observed his look of fatigue, even prostration.

It is not the long standing and use of the voice that I feel, but protracted long fasts,” he replied, with a sigh.

With many other parish priests I have made passing acquaintance, most of these being peasant-born and having little interest in the outer world. Whenever any kind of entertainment is given by country residents, or any unusual delicacy is about to be served, the curé is invited to partake. The naïveté of these worthy men is often diverting enough. When I was staying in a country house near Dijon some years since, my hostess had prepared a local rarity in the shape of a game pate or open pie, a vast dish lined with pastry and filled with every variety of game in season—partridge, quail, pheasant, hare, venison, and, I believe, even slices of wild boar. This savoury mess naturally called for the exercise of hospitality. The curé and his nephew were invited, and after dinner I had a little chat with the uncle.

” Who will succeed the Queen on the throne of England ? ” he asked.

I should have thought that not a man or woman in France, however unlettered, would have been ignorant of the Prince of Wales’s existence and his position.

Many village priests, as I have mentioned, are excellent gardeners. One afternoon some French friends in the Seine-et-Marne, wanting some dessert and preserving fruit, took me with them to the presbytery of a neighbouring village. Very inviting looked the place with its vine-covered walls and wealth of flowers. The curé, who told us that he had been at work in his garden from four to six o’clock in the morning, received us in quite a business-like way, yet very courteously, and at once conducted us to his fruit and vegetable gardens at some little distance from the house. There we found the greatest profusion and evidence of labour and unremitting skill. The fruit-trees were laden ; Alpine strawberries, currants, melons, apricots, were in abundance ; of vegetables, also, there was a splendid show. Nor were flowers wanting for the bees—for M. le curé was also a bee-keeper—double sunflowers, mallows, gladioli ; a score of hives completing the picture, which the owner contemplated with pardonable pride.

“You have only just given your orders in time, ladies,” he said. ” All my greengages are to be gathered at once for the London market. Ah, those English I those English they take the best of everything.”

Whereupon I ventured upon the rejoinder that if we robbed our neighbours of their best produce, at least our money found its way into their pockets. I need hardly say that, whether lettered or unlettered, the parish priest in France is generally anti-Republican and out of sympathy with existing institutions. Most friendly I have ever found him, and from one good curé near Nancy I have a standing invitation to make his presbytère my pied à terre when next that way.