Today’s post is a little bit about a church and a little bit about personal history. When I was in eighth grade, our family was stationed in the small town of Ingrandes, about 5 miles north of Chatellerault and 25 miles north of Poitiers on N-10 (my father was an engineer in the U.S. Army). We lived in military housing this time, not on “the economy” as it was called when we resided among the French.
PJ and I went back to Ingrandes last October while visiting Poitiers to shoot Sainte Radegonde and I wasn’t surprised to see the village looking spruced up and prosperous. I had a faint recollection of the church and we went in to visit. What we found surprised me on two levels. On the level of the architecture, the Église Saint Pierre et Saint Paul was an interesting Romanesque structure, much restored and repaired but still faithful to its origins.
The church is eccentric, full of strange asymmetric buttressing arches and supporting structures to keep the walls from tumbling down. This was not a matter of a planned restoration, but a series of fixes to address emergencies. One can still see large cracks in the stonework that threaten the stability of the church.
There is one very unique sculptural element, the “Fol Dives” capital based on the parable of Dives and Lazarus. This was a common theme in the Middle Ages, and generally portrayed as it was here in Ingrandes – a rich man clutching his money in a bag is being dragged to hell by a demon. This version is a very primitive rendition of the story, as can be seen by the unsophisticated use of the capital’s surfaces and the great empty space between the two figures. But the naivete accounts for the charm of the sculpture.
The Église Saint Pierre et Saint Paul is still a living church, fulfilling its mission 800 years after construction. Everything is neat and tidy while candles, flowers, and ex-votos testify to an active congregation.
The second thing that surprised me was that I remembered the church from all those years ago because I had served mass as an altar boy in that very place. Every once in awhile, the American military would use a French church for services and my favorite priest as a youth, Father Conroy, presided at a mass here. Conroy was what was called a “soldier’s priest”. He caused a bit of a furor because he wore combat boots and Hawaiian shirts under his cassock at mass and the Colonel’s wife thought this unseemly. I heard about his response, which has always stuck with me. “I am here for the soldiers. The rest of you have your families to help you with your problems but the soldiers don’t.” Conroy was from Chicago and sported a gaudy scar on his face, and I always thought of him vaguely as descended from gangsters.
Once, when asked by a parishioner why he had become a priest, Conroy responded that as when he was a young altar boy he was engaged in transferring the missal from one side of the altar to the other when he saw his girlfriend in the congregation. He smiled at her and winked, and then immediately tripped. Both he and the bible went sprawling. “The only way I could get back on the altar was to become a priest.”
It is easy to imagine the effect of such an outsized personality on a wildly impressionable thirteen year old! I came to the conclusion that church was not such a solemn thing and there was room for a certain lightheartedness. It seemed that the mass took on more of the aspect of a conspiracy than a religious ceremony.
I particularly liked High Mass, which was usually celebrated at a French church instead of the barracks-like American military churches. Father Conroy was not the priest one would normally select to celebrate the high mass. The conventional choice would have been Father LeDoux, the priest in Verdun, who was raised in New Orleans and possessed a beautiful, elegant voice. He loved to sing and his mass was occasion for joy. Conroy had a lousy voice and his singing was execrable, but it didn’t matter. It was, to me, like part of the joke that we conspired to share.
That conspiracy led inevitably to mischief. Part of the duty of an altar boy at High Mass was to use the censer to dispense incense on the entry down the center aisle to the altar at the beginning of the service. The priest would follow the server who shook the censer (a position of prestige among us) and was in turn followed by two or three other boys.
The Christmas midnight mass was the most important High Mass of the year, which meant that everyone dressed up. Men wore their suits, of course, but that wasn’t much different than normal mass. Women, however, went all out. They wore their finest dresses, hats, gloves, and – if they had them – fur coats. The overheated church was redolent with the mixture of all the different perfumes. It was in this milieu that I made a profound discovery. The heady mixture of perfumes and heat, when combined with a good dose of powerful incense, caused women to faint.
As I led the procession down the aisle swinging the censer, I would keep my eye out for an overweight woman wearing a fur coat and lots of perfume. As we passed, I would send a good double-dose of frankincense wafting at the target. The fragrant smoke would billow and there was a good chance that the woman would swoon and pass out. We were always rewarded with the sight of a husband (usually smaller than his wife) struggling with the ushers to drag his spouse out of the church to get some air. I remember noticing how the women’s toes were inevitably pointed straight up.
This was the height of liturgical hilarity.
Father Conroy knew what was going on, of course, and took me aside afterwards when we were changing out of our vestments. He didn’t say much but suggested that I was probably not long for this church. Far from being chastised, however, I thought that this was approbation!
Well, it transpired that Father Conroy was right. I left the church a few years later and have never returned to being a practicing Catholic. But perhaps the good Father can take pleasure in the fact that I still love these churches and feel profoundly moved by the faith that he shared with those that built them. PJ and I love to photograph them and I still carry a little packet of frankincense with the equipment, just in case we need it.