TWENTY YEARS and more ago, long before I came to live in the village, part of the church roof fell in during Mass. No one was immediately beneath it at the time, no one was hurt although several were shaken, but the collapse channelled village opinion into three camps:
1. Those who saw the collapse as divine retribution for the hypocrisy evinced by the so-called faithful
2. Those grateful for divine intervention safeguarding the righteous gathered in the unaffected end of the church
3. Those - happily - who rolled up their sleeves and got on with putting things back together again.
Few builders were interested in repairing the roof. Tons of rubble would have to be removed, without the benefit of builders' trucks. Only two thoroughfares lead to the church, built on a rock-hewn platform high on the steep outcrop the old village clings to: one is L'Escalier de la Commanderie, a six-flight vaulted stairway, and the other, the Rue Mégeane, is too narrow for much else but donkeys or men with wheelbarrows.
However, someone was found and the work proceeded, during which a handsome wooden pulpit inexplicably disappeared, and eventually the new roof was dedicated, to the great joy of all except those in camp 1. above, who you would have thought might have welcomed the opportunity to wish to the Deity better luck next time.
We fast-forward to the present day, when there's an intractable problem with damp along the uphill side of the church. For years the vaulted side-chapels, dedicated to St This and St That and which run parallel to the nave, have shown ugly patches of damp, plaster has fallen, rust has attacked the metalwork, paint is peeling and the place smells of gloom and decay. An architect is called in. He diagnoses faulty exterior drainage, and it's discovered that the roof-repairer of twenty years ago, far from removing the rubble, simply slung it behind the church, thus obstructing the drainage channels. So it all has to be cleared out and the channels relaid. As this work may affect the side-chapels, all the paraphernalia in them has to be removed and carried for storage in the side-chapels the other side of the nave.
Volunteers are called for. Josephine and I put our hands up, tentatively. We use the church so often for concerts that it seems churlish not to repay its hospitality, but we aren't among the faithful, we aren't Catholic, we aren't even French, so they may not want us. Indeed, it's on the cards that our infidel presence may cause the roof to fall in again. But we aren't turned away, and when we show up find that the working party is multi-national: 3 Brits, ourselves and Indispensable William, and our French neighbours Claude and Béatrice, incomers who originate from practically within sight of the White Cliffs of Dover. Béatrice appears to be in charge, although the self-appointed charge-hand is the equally indispensable Pascal from the Ardennes, another old friend of this column whose veins flow not with blood but with Belgian jokes. Two ancient locals, concierges who battle against terminal immobility to look after the church as best they can, continually contradict each other. Later an amiable Dutchman, Jan, turns up.
We begin the task of dismantling altars and dismounting plaster saints. The dust, filth and decay is indescribable. Every item of chapel adornment is antiquated, broken, peeling, worm-eaten, rotten, a gimcrack assemblage of tacky ritualistic 19th century tat. (But who knows whose forgotten but deeply sincere gratitude or aspirations this tat may represent?) St Michael's foot has fallen off. Doubting Thomas is minus one arm, but still weighs a ton. St Joseph's head is fastened to his body with an iron pin, almost rusted through. It takes three of us to carry a plaster Virgin. Pascal takes her top end, saying it's some years since he held a virgin in his arms, ho ho. H'm. We glance apprehensively up at the roof.
An hour's work, and it's done. The saints have all marched in to their new quarters, the damp-afflicted side-chapels are empty, and work can start putting things to rights outside. We're too dirty to shake hands with the still-arguing geriatric concierges, instead we offer wrists and elbows to touch, in the French manner. Béatrice thanks us warmly.
We go home, with much to think about. Most thoughts are gripes, unworthy and self-centred bellyaches. We wonder why it is that if anything needs to be done in the village, if any initiative has to be taken or volunteers found, it's mostly the incomers, northern French, Brits, Celts, Dutch, Germans and Scandinavians and other Anglo-Saxons who line up. Why have so few of the faithful turned up? This church is dying on its feet. Then we wonder why no priests have put in an appearance . . .
* * *. . . but perhaps they can be forgiven. Jean-Philippe, a sort of local ombudsman for whom I sometimes do translations, tells me about a recent church stushie that's only too believable. There are just two priests to look after 49 places of worship in the local mega-parish, so they can't be everywhere at once. Certain economies have to be made, corners cut. One of these concerns Extreme Unction, the last rites. Attendance at deathbeds, which may go on for hours if not for days, makes impossible demands on priests' time, so some bright spark in the diocese or even the Vatican came up with the idea of administering the last rites en bloc, to entire congregations, or at least all those who wished, in advance. In this way the moribund would know that when their last hour had come, they'd been processed, so to speak, and could wave their passports to eternity at the Pearly Gates, something like cashing in your Get Out Of Jail Free card in Monopoly.
In the village opposition from a generally very elderly congregation was fierce. Tampering with the sacraments was bad enough, but how could the extreme unctionees benefit if they were too aged and infirm to totter up to the church to receive it?
Not good. I find myself wondering if there will be a priest on hand to administer the last rites to the church itself when the time comes.
* * ** Christopher Campbell-Howes goes Martini?
A bit obscure, sorry. When the same Jean-Philippe heard as a child Oh when the saints go marching in sung in English, he understood the words to be Oh when the saints go Martini, an impression that stayed with him for many years.