The Passing of a Giant (Dennis Aubrey)

Angelico Surchamp June 23, 1924 – March 1, 2018

The first time we saw Père Angelico Surchamp, the diminutive monk was with a group of admirers at the Convent of Notre Dame de Venière just outside of Tournus where he served as confessor to the nuns. One of the guests – obviously a great admirer – insisted on taking his picture. Smiling, Surchamp asked, “What am I? A national monument?” I remember thinking at the time, “Of course you are!”

Dom Angelico Surchamp, September 20, 2011

PJ and I have been planning our fall trip to Europe. As always, we put on the list a visit to the Abbaye de la Pierre-qui-Vire, home to our great mentor. The last time we saw him a year ago his health was failing and we were hoping that he would be well enough to receive us. This is not to be; today we received a letter from Father Mathias at the Monastery.

Chers amis,
Nous vous partageons le départ de notre Frère Angelico Surchamp.
Bien fraternellement.

This short announcement came with an obituary letter from Père Luc CORNUAU, Abbé of La Pierre-qui-Vire, giving the briefest summary of his life and accomplishments. The key phrase in the document is the following; “Artiste et moine, f. Angelico a cherché à unifier sa vie, non sans tension lors des évolutions de la liturgie après le Concile. Son regard pétillant et malicieux laissait entrevoir sa forte personnalité, et son sourire accueillant, sa simplicité ainsi que sa belle confiance en Dieu.” Translated, this reads “Artist and monk, Father Angelico sought to unify his life, not without tension during the changes in the liturgy after the Council. His sparkling and mischievous look revealed his strong personality, his welcoming smile, his simplicity and his trust in God.”

So few words, hinting at so much. But what nothing in the document says is what he accomplished for the history of architecture, specifically, Romanesque architecture. His chef d’oeuvre – the Éditions Zodiaque – is a monumental accomplishment in art history, a collection of over 200 volumes on Romanesque art and architecture. No work in the field is complete without these studies.

Frères Surchamp and Norberto photographing a church in Aragon, September 23, 1986 (Photo courtesy of Románico)

Our admiration for Surchamp is complete, but the sense of loss at his passing has nothing to do with his work. We have lost the luminous spirit of the small monk in the Morvan who had become our friend, our mentor, and our spiritual guide for Via Lucis.

We have one memento of our visits to him that carries his inimitable touch. On our first visit, we met him at the convent and then took him to lunch in Cuisery. Afterwards, he took us to see the Église Sainte Marie Madeleine in the village of Le Villars. He thought it would be interesting for us to photograph. At one point I was shooting the exterior capitals and joked with Père Surchamp that he had now to “sing for his supper”; I handed him the remote and asked him to take the shot. He smiled at me and said “Is the photographer the one who presses the button or the one who composes the shot?” I laughed and said, “Now we’re talking philosophy.” Here is the shot he took – posted in black and white, of course – and even though we never completed the discussion of who the photographer was, I have the pleasure of assigning the metadata and therefore attribute the photo to the master.

Portal of Église Sainte Marie Madeleine, Le Villars (Saône-et-Loire) Photo by Dom Angelico Surchamp

That night I asked PJ to express her thoughts on Surchamp. “We were so excited to meet him; I thought it was the meeting of the minds for the two of you. You found someone who you could talk to about the churches on a different level than anyone else, because there is a philosophy in his speaking of these places and the experience of photographing them. You can really understand him when you have done it, like we have. It means a great deal to hear him speak. I think that he looked at the churches as an artist, not just as a priest or a monk or from strictly a religious point of view, but also from an artistic point of view. Which is why you don’t have to be Catholic to love the places. He understands this on a very profound level, as I think we do.

And I love his explanation of the difference between Romanesque and Gothic – the Romanesque induces internal experience and reflection; Gothic induces external reflection. Gothic is the demonstration of the belief of spirituality while Romanesque is the experience of that belief.”

And this from a woman who professes not to speak French.

Surchamp’s artistic view of the world comes from his early love of and training in the fine arts. He was a student of the great Cubist painter Albert Gleize and was greatly influenced by Gleize’s work.

Paysage cubiste, Albert Gleize (1920)

PJ had further thoughts on Surchamp. “He sees the interaction of lights and planes, shapes and shadows. He wasn’t just shooting – most of the photography that you see from that era, they are shooting a picture of the church. But he’s really shooting like we shoot, he’s shooting something else. He is trying to capture the church, but he’s shooting deeper than ‘I want to show someone what this place looks like.’ He’s trying to express all of these other things – the interaction of the architecture with the light, it’s multidimensional feel.”

Paray-le-Monial from Bourgogne romane, La Nuit des Temps I, 1974 (6th ed.), pl. 50

Paray-le-Monial from Bourgogne romane, La Nuit des Temps I, 1974 (6th ed.), pl. 50

She continues, “He’s shooting as an artist – taking the religious content aside, you can see that he is shooting it the way an artist would. Of course it’s very realistic, there’s nothing more real than architecture, but like your shot of Fontenay that I love, that’s a perfect example. There’s nothing more realistic than that, but it also wonderfully abstract, and you can look at it and see the bands of light only, it’s abstract.”

As if to confirm this thought, when Surchamp saw PJ’s photograph of the side aisle at the Cathédrale Saint Front in Perigeueux, he smiled at her and said “You photograph as I photograph!”

Side aisle, Cathedrale Saint Front, Périgueux (Dordogne) Photo by PJ McKey

We were lucky enough to visit with Surchamp in the company of my parents some years ago. At the Basilique Saint Philibert de Tournus, we walked through the old columns of the nave together. We descended the steep stairs into the crypt, and seeing Surchamp in his black robes walking with his hands behind his back was like being taken back centuries in time. I could almost hear the plainsong chants of his Benedictine predecessors as he walked these stone floors among the strong pillars.

We mounted again up into the main floor of the abbey church, my father and Surchamp walked arm-in-arm. I thought, “These are my two fathers, my birth father and my spiritual father”.

PJ with Dom Angelico Surchamp in Le Villars

Driving away, my parents were delighted to have met Surchamp – “He was everything you talked about,” my mother said. Indeed, and more, because my words can never do justice to this accomplished Benedictine monk who has become so important to our lives. “We do not reach beauty except in love, and love requires time and freedom.”

On our last visit with Surchamp at La Pierre qui Vire, he said, À mon âge, tout ce que je dois donner c’est ma mort – “At my age, all I have left to give is my death.” I told him that he had more to give than that, just the joy of our visit with him was a greater gift. He took my arm, looked at me with that old, wise look and said Nous sommes séparés par des milliers de kilomètres et un grand océan, mais nos coeurs sont proches.

“We are separated by thousands of kilometers and a great ocean, but our hearts are close.”

I felt at the time that he was saying goodbye, and it turns out that feeling was correct. He is back in the arms of his great, giving, and loving God who Surchamp cherished with all of his heart. We wish him farewell on his long journey into eternity. We will lay flowers on his grave when we return to our beloved France in September.

Here are links to our previous articles on père Angelico, José Surchamp

Those who precede (Part 2), Angelico Surchamp

Those who precede (Part 3), Angelico Surchamp

Those Who Precede part 4 – Angelico Surchamp

The Monk in the Morvan Forest

A Church in Mourning (Dennis Aubrey)

Today’s post was intended to be a study of the magnificent façade of the Église Notre-Dame d’Avy in Charente-Maritime, but it will have to wait a day. The news this morning was about the attack on the L’église Saint-Etienne in Saint-Etienne-du Rouvray. Two Isil fanatics have assassinated an 84-year old priest in this 16th century Normandy church.

Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray (Seine-Maritime)

Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray (Seine-Maritime)

Once a small town outside of the Norman capital of Rouen, Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray is now part of the suburbs. The priest, Jacques Hamel, had served as a priest for 58 years and was assisting at mass at the time of the attack.

Jacques Hamel  (1930-2016)

Jacques Hamel (1930-2016)

The église Saint-Etienne is not one of our Romanesque churches, so beloved of both PJ and myself. It is not even Gothic. But it is part of the France that we love and admire and we are devastated by the attack. Saint Stephen, the patron of the church, was the protomartyr, the first martyr of the Christian church. Now we have another, Jacques Hamel, the cleric who fell victim to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’s first attack on a French church. While the attack appears senseless, in reality it is an example of Salafi jihadism’s use of violence to achieve political ends. The choice to execute an 84-year-old French priest while he was celebrating mass is simply, to these fanatics, good publicity, like public beheadings.

I fear for the innocents in this world gone mad; they are not protected by a non-combatant status from the attacks by the “soldiers” of Isil. The victims are judged only by the publicity value that may be gained by their deaths. These attackers are also very mindful of the responses by the aptly named “reactionaries” like Marine Le Pen who polarize the world even further. My heart aches for France suffering her latest onslaught. But she will survive, just as she survived an earlier attempt at Islamic conquest, a hundred years’ war, wars of religion, the mechanization of death in World War I and the holocaust of World War II. Like her thousands of Romanesque churches, she bears the scars and survives. She will do so again.

The Mason of God (Dennis Aubrey)

In a world where what passes for news are articles about the megalomaniac Donald Trump, the Kardashians, and the Jenners, we occasionally find something worth consideration.

On August 25 a funeral mass was celebrated in the Italian town of Montefortino at the chiesa della Madonna dell’Ambro. The recipient of the mass was a Capuchin friar, Padre Pietro Lavini who lived as a hermit in the Sibylline Mountains near Rubbiano Montefortino and along the Gola dell’Infernaccio, the Gorge of Hell. A thousand people attended the service of the man who died two weeks prior, on August 9, 2015.

Why did they come to this mass? What did Padre Pietro accomplish with his life as a hermit?

Padre Pietro Lavini, photo from Santuario Madonna dell'Ambro

Padre Pietro Lavini, photo from Santuario Madonna dell’Ambro

In 1971, Padre Pietro discovered the ruins of the Eremo di Santo Leonardo, an abandoned 12th century Benedictine monastery in the wilds of the Sibyllines. All that remained of the church were fallen stones and a single standing Romanesque arch. Pietro received permission from his monastic superiors and walked into the wilderness with the goal of single-handedly restoring the church. He spent the next 43 years working alone and by hand and rebuilt the church. When asked how he managed it alone, he responded that there were two in service of the restoration. God was the designer and he himself was the mason. He became known, in fact, as the muratore di Dio, the builder of God.

L'Eremo di Santo Leonardo

L’Eremo di Santo Leonardo

I’m pretty sure that Trump would characterize the small monk as a “loser” because he didn’t spend his life inflating his own reputation, sleeping with beautiful women and living in a gilded palace. There is no room in the Trump brand for someone who lives a life of sacrifice and renunciation, a life with values that run deeply in the search for the truth of the human soul. Trump lives in a tiny narrow band of reality that inflates its own importance by belittling the rest of the world. I’m sure that if he saw the abandoned meadow in the Sibyllines, all Trump could imagine would be an exclusive golf resort for his rich friends. Padre Pietro imagined an entire world in the fallen stones, and built it with his two hands.

Thanks to our friend Diane Quaid who brought the life of Pietro Lavini to our attention via this article in the Economist.

A California Church (Dennis Aubrey)

On Tuesday, I sat in a church in Santa Barbara, California. Saint Raphael’s is a large parish church, modern and modest. It has a simple narthex leading to a large open nave with stained glass clerestory windows. There are no side aisles or nave arcades and the transepts are low and functional. The altar is quite attractive with a flat eastern wall – no ambulatory, no hemicycle, no choir stalls. There is no real transept crossing at all.

But this is a church that taught me much on the single day that I was there, because it was here that I sat with my mother, brothers, sister, PJ, and the rest of my family to hear the funeral mass for my father. The large crowd in the church showed me how much he was loved and respected by those who knew him. My father was not an elected official or a public figure. He was a private man who spent his entire life in service. First he spent 24 years in the US Army, serving. He spent the rest of his life serving his church, his community, and his fellow soldiers.

Eglise Abbatiale Lavaudieu, Lavaudieu (Haute-Loire)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Eglise Abbatiale Lavaudieu, Lavaudieu (Haute-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

PJ told me of an uncle of hers whose funeral was attended by hundreds of mourners, to the complete surprise of his family and friends. The church was filled with people who this man had helped in life, helped without telling anyone, not his wife and children, not the neighbors or friends. He had simply helped those in need and when he died, those who had been helped came to pay their respects. My father’s funeral was like this.

I learned the depth of the love his family had for him, from the granddaughter who sobbed uncontrollably at his loss, my sister and brothers who tried to bravely accept his passing, to my mother whose partner, companion and lover of 68 years was taken from her. All of this I knew, but somehow the service showed me the depths of this love.

And finally I learned something completely unexpected. During the services which were beautifully and personally conducted, I discovered myself tugged by something, like being pulled by a river current or an outgoing tide. I felt part of a great stream of faith that tied my father to his church for his entire life, to the history of those who had preceded him in the church, in life, in sanctity and even in death. His death was part of this massive Orinoco flow streaming to the sea beyond, carrying him inexorably to his God. We mourners were witnesses standing mute in the shallows as he passed, the water tugging at our legs as if to remind us that our time was coming and to mark his passing closely, not to forget. For the briefest moment I felt in my heart the faith of my father, something I sought for my entire life. But like his passing, it continued on and could only feel the lapping of his wake.

Eglise de Mailhat, Mailhat (Puy-de-Dôme)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Eglise de Mailhat, Mailhat (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Someday in the small quiet room where my services will be held, I expect that I will still be a bystander in that river of faith, pretending in my pride that it does not matter. But here at Saint Raphael’s church my father reached back to give me one last parting gift. He made me feel that faith of my childhood, the certainty of God’s grace.

Echoes of Ephraim (Dennis Aubrey)

Some time ago, I wrote a post about King David and his son Absalom called “Death in the Wood of Ephraim.” It has subsequently become one of our favorites, not just for the writing and photography, but from the remarkable comments that followed.

In the writing, I reflected on the origin of song, wondering if it was to be found as an expression of joy or of sorrow. My sister Ann wrote “Both are pure, both stem from the depths of our beings … they simply differ in source. Which came first? The briefest song of innocence, I think. Followed swiftly by lamentation.” My brother John Paul, who is a French horn player in Boston, wrote with another possibility: “Personally, from my experience as a performer, I suspect the origins might lie in our need to express certain emotions (joy, sorrow, lamentation, etc – are they really that different from one another?) in a unified manner. In other words – song allows groups of us to express feelings together – as one.”

Basilique Notre Dame, Paray-le-Monial (Saône-et-Loire)  Photo by PJ McKey

Basilique Notre Dame, Paray-le-Monial (Saône-et-Loire) Photo by PJ McKey

I write today because the three of us, along with my brother David, have lost a sibling to a virulent and implacable cancer. Stephen Blaisdell Aubrey was the third of five of the children, and we all mourn him today. His ashes were scattered in his beloved ocean, but it is not our mourning that is the subject today. “Death in the Wood of Ephraim” was an expression of the loss of a child by a parent. David, upon hearing of the death of his rebellious son Absalom, cast himself down and cried out “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! would God I had died for thee, O Absalom, my son, my son!” (2 Samuel 18:33).

The night we heard of Steve’s passing, my mother and father, Ann (who had flown in from Brazil), John Paul, PJ and I were together for dinner, just three miles from where he died with his wife Jan and his children Montana and Chance in his presence. Despite our knowing that his end was imminent, we were all shattered by the loss. As we gathered around and held her, my mother could only echo the words of David, “Why couldn’t it have been me? Why didn’t God take me?” How could we tell her what we all felt, that her death would have been just as crushing for us all, and the thought of my father without his beloved wife of 66 years is impossible to contemplate. The loss of a loved one can not be made whole by the loss of another.

Église Notre-Dame de Saint-Saturnin, Saint-Saturnin (Puy-de-Dôme)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Église Notre-Dame de Saint-Saturnin, Saint-Saturnin (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

When brother David heard the news, he came over to join us and the family was together to mourn Steve’s loss. We all stood in awe of the grief of our parents. The blessing that had been bestowed on us to share their lives as they reach the deep winter of their years is tempered by a loss which they should never have experienced.

Stephen Blaisdell Aubrey May 26, 1955 – July 17, 2014  (Photo by Steve O'Malley)

Stephen Blaisdell Aubrey May 26, 1955 – July 17, 2014 (Photo by Steve O’Malley)

In his most moving elegy on the death of his brother Gerard, Bernard of Clairvaux wrote, ” It seems to me that I can almost hear my brother saying: “Can a woman forget the son of her womb? And if she should forget, yet I will not forget you.” This is how it must be. You know how I am situated, how dejected in spirit, how your departure has affected me; there is none to give me a helping hand.”

We are not alone, and the helping hands of parents, siblings, Steve’s family, and our friends all reach out to help us in our pain. But there is nothing that can be done to touch that kernel of agony deep inside, inside the place where I personally fear I was not a good enough brother to him. I dream of him almost every night, perhaps hoping to hear his words of forgiveness.

Ann wrote an appreciation of Steve on her blog, which might give you a sense of Steve as a man.

De Profundis (Dennis Aubrey)

“De profundis clamavi ad te, Domine;
Domine, exaudi vocem meam. Fiant aures tuæ intendentes
in vocem deprecationis meæ.”
Psalm 130

“Out of the depths have I cried unto thee, O Lord.
Lord, hear my voice: let thine ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications.” Psalm 130, King James Version

One of our readers, Aquila Herus, introduced me to the music of Arvo Pärt, and through this music he inspired this entire post. This composition is called “Spiegel im Spiegel”.

Église Saint-Julien de Chauriat, Chauriat (Puy-de-Dôme)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Église Saint-Julien de Chauriat, Chauriat (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

We are also inspired by the Église Saint-Julien de Chauriat, one of those masterpieces from the Auvergne. Saint-Julien is beautifully painted and a pure Romanesque creation, all round arches and small windows, filled with extraordinary capitals in the manner of Saint Austremoine. She also holds one of the finest of the many vierges romanes in the region, Notre Dame de Chauriat. PJ and I were alone in the church for most of the time we photographed.

In this remote part of France, ten miles east of Clermont-Ferrand, we felt part of a world in a time long past, far from the frenzy of our modern world, when the community of nuns made this the center of their world. And thinking about this church and these women, my mind turned, as it does sometimes, to the long passage of time and the inevitability of death. Usually this makes me think of PJ, whose mother died when she was only seven. This time, however, I remembered something that happened when I was thirteen years old.

Église Saint-Julien de Chauriat, Chauriat (Puy-de-Dôme)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Église Saint-Julien de Chauriat, Chauriat (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

When my family lived in France near the town of Poitiers, I was sent after school by my father to help the mother of one of his French workers carry groceries to her home. I didn’t feel like helping because I was ignorant, young, and energetic. I had things to do in my life and none of them had anything to do with this chore. But my father told me to go and I did, meeting the elderly woman at the front door of a house and carrying her small, light box of groceries up the stairs and into her small second floor flat.

Transept, Église Saint-Julien de Chauriat, Chauriat (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Transept, Église Saint-Julien de Chauriat, Chauriat (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

She was a veuve, a thin, frail widow, probably sixty years old, which seemed ancient to me. In those days there were so many widows in France, dressed always in black, the enduring harvest of two World Wars. I was anxious to finish, to be about my boy’s business, but as I set the groceries down in her small kitchen she asked if I would like an aperitif. This changed things. I was, after all, almost a man and deserved to be treated as such. I nodded politely in a manner that I hoped was adult and left her to the mysteries of the drink making and I went back into the living room. It was a musty, shadowed room, full of old furniture. The large window was covered with a heavy dark drape. I pulled it back to reveal yellowed, intensely complex lace curtains over the windows. The movement of the drapes sent out clouds of fine dust and as the particles filled the room, the beams of the late afternoon sun burst into view; the room turned golden as the patterns of the lace became the patterns of the light.

Last Supper capital, Église Saint-Julien de Chauriat, Chauriat (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by PJ McKey

Last Supper capital, Église Saint-Julien de Chauriat, Chauriat (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by PJ McKey

I looked, startled by the beauty of the light and the softly floating specks of dust that sparkled as they swirled. In the center of the room, at the exact terminus of the beams stood an exquisite round, antique wooden table, highly waxed and polished. As I looked closer, I saw that the wood had thousands of tiny wax-filled scratches in the surface, scratches that looked like the small network of wrinkles around the eyes of someone you love.

Something about the absolute silence of the room, the heavy gold of the light, and the utter solitude made it feel like the home of a ghost. I was calmed, like a wild child touched by the gentle hand of an understanding mother. Into this silence the widow entered, carefully carrying two small glasses filled with a rose-colored liquid. When she handed me the glass I saw her impossibly thin wrists and forearms. My own hands felt gigantic and clumsy as I took the drink. She looked up at the opened drapes but didn’t say a word.

Notre Dame de Chauriat, Église Saint-Julien de Chauriat, Chauriat (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Notre Dame de Chauriat, Église Saint-Julien de Chauriat, Chauriat (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

We drank the slightly bitter wine and I tried to converse. It was awkward because I spoke little French and had absolutely nothing to say. My heart was somehow turbulent but there were no words. After a few minutes, she walked to the corner of the room and opened the glass doors of a secretary. On the shelves was a collection of pictures, tarnished medals, ribbons – stiff and faded ribbons – and a framed letter. I could make out from the letter that it was about the heroic death of a man, her husband. The letter was dated April 1917.

There were ornately framed monochrome pictures of a handsome young soldier with a rifle and a bugle, and the same soldier with a pretty young girl with a long dark skirt and a white blouse with long sleeves buttoned at the wrists. After a moment I looked at this woman standing beside me, small, thin, frail. I found in that face the faintest traces of the face of the girl, but also a beauty that I had missed before, beneath the age. The same loveliness of the girl in the picture but more. She must have felt me staring at her but she did nothing. She just looked at the pictures, her eyes moving without the least haste from one to the other, reading something, but something that I didn’t understand.

West portal, Église Saint-Julien de Chauriat, Chauriat (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by PJ McKey

West portal, Église Saint-Julien de Chauriat, Chauriat (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by PJ McKey

This collection in the corner was a monument to a man who had died forty-five years earlier in the first World War at the age of seventeen. When he died, she joined an army of her own, an army of women without men, without resources. Somewhere from what must have been such a brief union, she was left with at least one child to raise on her own, and he … and these pictures … were all that were left to sustain her memories. And maybe the reading that she was doing was trying to restore and recover the memories. And she allowed me to see these memories and mementos, these relics.

I looked at her profile and was afraid that if I spoke my voice would crack and I would ruin the moment, and so all I could was to look. What I wanted to do was to take her in my arms, hold her, touch her, comfort her, love her, and make her feel beautiful, show her that I understood. But I was overcome, afraid, a child and not a man. And in that confusion I realized that this woman looked at me and saw me as she remembered her husband. She could not see much difference between my thirteen years and his seventeen. And because of that, she saw that it could have been me that died forty-five years earlier.

In Memoriam Bruce Andrews, Église Saint-Julien de Chauriat, Chauriat (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by PJ McKey

In Memoriam Bruce Andrews, Église Saint-Julien de Chauriat, Chauriat (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by PJ McKey

This was the first moment in my life when I knew absolutely that I would die, was certain in my heart that I too would one day die, just as he had died. Her memory showed my future, and the future of all of us.

✞ This week we got word that one of our Via Lucis community, Bruce Andrews, passed away. We dedicate this post to his kindly and quiet soul, which I hope is at peace.

Angel capital, Église Saint-Julien de Chauriat, Chauriat (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by PJ McKey

Angel capital, Église Saint-Julien de Chauriat, Chauriat (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by PJ McKey

Location: 45.751037° 3.279917°

The Hermit Sings (Dennis Aubrey)

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.

Père Joseph Raamakers

Père Joseph Raamakers

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.

Portal capitals, Église Saint-Jacques, Villefranche de Conflent (Pyrénées-Orientales)  Photo by PJ McKey

Portal capitals, Église Saint-Jacques, Villefranche de Conflent (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

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.

Parvis, Église Saint-Jacques, Villefranche de Conflent (Pyrénées-Orientales)  Photo by PJ McKey

Parvis, Église Saint-Jacques, Villefranche de Conflent (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

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.

Reliquary with mitre, Église Saint-Jacques, Villefranche de Conflent (Pyrénées-Orientales)  Photo by PJ McKey

Reliquary with mitre, Église Saint-Jacques, Villefranche de Conflent (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

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.

Notre Dame de Villefranche, Église Saint-Jacques, Villefranche de Conflent (Pyrénées-Orientales)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Notre Dame de Villefranche, Église Saint-Jacques, Villefranche de Conflent (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

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.