This morning I was checking the statistics of this blog when I noticed an interesting search term that someone used to find Via Lucis. The Google search entry read “Joseph Raaymakers”. PJ and I had met this man in 2008 in the Pyrénées-Orientales and we had written of him in a post on the vierges romanes of France. I decided to run the same search to see what I could find. What I discovered was that he died on September 12, 2012, while PJ and I were in Brittany.
In 2008, we wanted to visit the Église Saint Jacques in Villefranche-de-Conflent. The church was closed and locked, so we determined to find the Mairie to see if a key was available. To our great fortune, we saw the Mairie just across the parvis of the church. When I asked about getting the key, the secretary made a quick phone call and then told us that someone would be down in a few minutes to open the church. We waited for at least half an hour, and then I wandered off to photograph the church exterior. PJ waited in the parvis and when I returned, she shrugged. Nobody came to open the church. We waited longer and then the bells rang for noon.
Noon meant lunchtime and at this point we felt that nobody would come for some time. Just as we were deciding to leave for our own lunch, we heard the ringing of a bicycle bell and a small elderly man in monk’s robes came flying down the road on a bicycle. He skidded to a stop at the church door, looked at us and smiled. It was our guide; his name was Joseph Raaymakers and he was a hermit priest, a carver of wooden crucifixes, who also served as the guardien of the church.
As a man, he was perfectly delightful, kind and knowledgeable and with a sense of humor that matched his energy. His tour started while he unlocked the door; he pointed out that the entire village was pink because it was made with the local Conflent marble, the same material that distinguishes the cloisters of Saint Michel de Cuxa. Inside, he showed us the church and after he discovered our interest in the vierges romanes, he even brought out for us a lovely statue that was hidden from sight. Père Joseph maintained that he had gone to a local village and had seen in the face of a young woman the exact visage that was represented in these ancient carving. As a sculptor himself, this was proof that the artists carved the faces of those they knew. “Go to Montserrat,” he said, “and you will see the Madonna walking in the town.”
He loved Saint-Jacques, which is a bit of a hodgepodge of three different eras of construction from early Romanesque to Gothic. But Raaymakers was proud of the church and resolved to show us how the builders managed to combine the three parts of the building into a coherent whole. He sang, lustily as he moved through the space and the sound was pleasantly echoed, not at all the confusing jumble that one would have expected from three different stone spaces, differently vaulted, thrust together like they were.
Père Joseph was particularly charmed by PJ and when he discovered that her French was limited, resorted to clowning to communicate. At one point he pulled a bishop’s mitre off a reliquary statue next to the altar and placed it on his own head.
Père Joseph was an entertaining and generous soul who let us shoot to our heart’s content without demonstrating any impatience. He was always ready to answer any questions or to point out a feature that we might have otherwise missed. We always remembered him fondly and planned to see him again when we returned to the Pyrénées this September. But finding out that he had passed away, I thought I’d do some research on him.
He was born in this very town of Villefranche-de-Conflent. The town was once important enough to the defense of France that it was fortified by Vauban. By 1937, the year Raaymakers was born, the population was about 225. At the age of eleven, his family moved to a farm in nearby Cabrils, in the commune of Ayguatébia-Talau. The entire commune had a population of 45 people and Cabrils consisted of three buildings. He was ordained a priest in 1965 and served as the parish priest in the town of Olette until 1985. Where is Olette? It is sited two miles from Cabrils and is a thriving town of almost 400 souls. But Raaymakers was the priest of several nearby cantons, and was, in fact, one of the pioneer priests who traveled from parish to parish administering to his flock.
In 1997, at the age of 60, Père Joseph decided to adopt the life of a hermit and moved close to the village of Ayguatébia-Talau where most of the 45 people in the commune resided. When he passed away, he was described by the mayor of Olette, Jallat Jean Louis; “He was a man of God, helping those who were rejected by society. He touched many people, was always open to others, willing to go a long way with them. He was very attached to the church, even if sometimes it shook him a little.”
In a way, his entire life was spent in the ten miles as the crow flies on the east-west axis between Villefranche-de-Conflent and Ayguatébia-Talau. It is therefore no surprise that if we were going to meet him, it would be in these confines. Père Joseph was one of many people we have met in our travels whose generosity touched and delighted us. His influence reached far beyond those few miles in the Pyrénées mountains where he spent his life, across the seas and into the small corner of the world that PJ and I call home.