It’s not so easy in France (Dennis Aubrey)


Our recent post on the difficulties of photographing churches in Italy was followed by a panegyric on photographing in France. We have to be honest, however. It is not all as easy as we made it out to be.

Take today, for example. We are in the Limousin, the area around Limoges. There are a number of remarkable churches in the region – Le Dorat, Bénévent-l’Abbaye, La Souterraine, and the first of today’s targets, the Collégiale Saint-Junien in Saint-Junien. We got a nice early start so that we could hit all three of our targets, but there was a problem.

Crossing, Collégiale Saint-Junien de Saint-Junien,  Saint-Junien (Haute-Vienne)  Photo by PJ McKey

Crossing, Collégiale Saint-Junien de Saint-Junien,
Saint-Junien (Haute-Vienne) Photo by PJ McKey

This was Sunday. We thought that there might be a mass, but when we looked it up on the internet, there was no mention of a service. We arrived to find people trickling into the church and when we opened the doors, we heard the sound of singing.

Nave, Collégiale Saint-Junien de Saint-Junien,  Saint-Junien (Haute-Vienne)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nave, Collégiale Saint-Junien de Saint-Junien,
Saint-Junien (Haute-Vienne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

A mass. That was fine with us. We sat in the rear of the church and quietly watched and listened. It was clear that the service had just started. The people of Saint Junien appeared very devout and sang well and lustily throughout the service. I was an altar boy when young, and knew the time it took to complete a good mass. Most likely it was 45 minutes, although if the priest was like the infamous Father Graw, the mass would be over in 30 minutes. I learned the Latin responses in order to keep up with him and remember that ad Deum qui lætíficat iuventútem meam came out as a single rushed word, addeumquilætíficatiuventútemmeam. A hesitation and Father Graw was off and I was behind for the rest of the service.

Ambulatory, Collégiale Saint-Junien de Saint-Junien,  Saint-Junien (Haute-Vienne)  Photo by PJ McKey

Ambulatory, Collégiale Saint-Junien de Saint-Junien,
Saint-Junien (Haute-Vienne) Photo by PJ McKey

Things were progressing smoothly, albeit slowly, when we heard a commotion outside. I remember thinking, “Why aren’t these people more respectful of the service going on here?” After awhile, the door opened and a large group of people entered, families mostly, all carrying small infants dressed in white outfits. A baptism! A mass baptism!

We were now an hour into the services when the families were called forth and the blessing given, and then the mass ended. Another group came in, mostly men in suits. PJ and I were worried. Would we ever have the opportunity to photograph?

Cupola, Collégiale Saint-Junien de Saint-Junien,  Saint-Junien (Haute-Vienne)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Cupola, Collégiale Saint-Junien de Saint-Junien,
Saint-Junien (Haute-Vienne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

After the mass, the group of people assembled at the altar and we saw a full-fledged French baptismal service began for the five children, including a pair of twins. There were lots of children about, several of whom spent their time running around and having a great time in the large echoing interior of the church.

Finally, the actual ceremony of baptism was concluded, the oil placed on the foreheads of the newly welcomed, the parents had their say, the godparents had theirs, the priest gave a heartfelt and somewhat long blessing, and then everyone got up to leave. Of course, at this point, the friends and families gathered on the steps of the church for photographs (there must have been fifty people in the “inner” circle). PJ and I unloaded our gear (and were mistaken for the official photographers of the baptism by some of the parishioners).

West portal, Collégiale Saint-Junien de Saint-Junien,  Saint-Junien (Haute-Vienne)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

West portal, Collégiale Saint-Junien de Saint-Junien, Saint-Junien (Haute-Vienne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Eventually the church emptied out and PJ and I had our time – two hours uninterrupted in an empty church. It was everything we had hoped for. The hour and a half delay was forgotten in the orgy of shots that we collected (about 450 shots between us).

Nave, Collégiale Saint-Junien de Saint-Junien,  Saint-Junien (Haute-Vienne)  Photo by PJ McKey

Nave, Collégiale Saint-Junien de Saint-Junien,
Saint-Junien (Haute-Vienne) Photo by PJ McKey

Saint Junien was magnificent and well worth every second of the wait. But we thought we should be honest and remind everyone that these are living churches, and as such, they give little thought to those of us who are merely witnesses and not participants.

Location: 45.887345° 0.902496°

7 responses to “It’s not so easy in France (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. The good news is that there are a lot of people in this church, and several baptisms. You know, so many of our 19th century churches are being pulled down ! Your story about the “infamous Father Graw” reminded me of a short story written by novelist Alphonse DAUDET in the 19th century, in his famous “Lettres de mon Moulin”. It’s called : “les 3 messes basses”. Dom Balaguère has just heard about the midnight meal that is going to be served after the 3 Christmas low masses. And the devil, in the shape of Garrigou, his choir-boy, diabolically rings the bell to make Dom Balaguère say the mass faster : “Dominus vobiscum” becomes ” “Dom… scum” “Et cum spiritu tuo” becomes “stutuo”…
    You can read it (just 3 pages) in French here :

    http://fr.wikisource.org/wiki/Lettres_de_mon_moulin/Les_trois_messes_basses

    It’s a delight ! You can also find it in English, but the text is not so good, especially as the Latin responses are translated into English. (Here, you have to scroll down until you find the title The three low masses).

    http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/30442/pg30442.html

  2. It was the feast of Corpus Christi. You are lucky that the days of the traditional “brown boot” church are over and there wasn’t the traditional Corpus Christi exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, procession around the church and environs, followed by Benediction. You would have been there all afternoon (at least that’s what it seemed like to me as an acolyte 60 years ago)!

  3. “The hour and a half delay was forgotten in the orgy of shots…” So funny! Thanks, Dennis, for this very entertaining post.
    @Evelyne Thanks for reminding me of this lovely short story. Daudet brings back good memories:) Merci !

  4. Your patience paid off. I love interesting nooks and crannies. This lovely church seems to have many. I also loved the story about Father Graw. It brought a smile. Thanks.

  5. Given a choice between having various functionaries telling me I am not to take photographs and waiting for a mass and baptism, I’d take the later. It adds to the real context of the building, after all, it is a church and as you said, a living part of the community. So much nicer than functionaries with their nattering and bother about having or not having permission to do what you were doing. Glad there were some baptisms going on.

    • Aquila, it was actually such a pleasure. A little 4-year old boy had a paper airplane, twin two-year olds looked at all the statues and paintings. The church was so full of life.

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