Maman French gets very angry when served oatmeal. I learned this last Christmas vacation when I pulled an apple-pear crumble out of the oven and she went into conniptions over the oatmeal laced topping, spouting out expressions like “donkey feed” and “during the war”. This little tantrum popped into my head last Friday afternoon as I started scooping oatmeal-chocolate chip cookie dough onto baking sheets, making the cookies I’d be bringing to the convent next door for the Fêtes des Voisins. I was assuming that the nuns would be about her age and suddenly panicked that they may have the same aversion to oats.
My assumptions were wrong. The nuns are of every age and from diverse backgrounds; there is a British nun and a sister from Rwanda. They greeted us warmly, showing us a buffet table set up in their cafeteria and invited us in to discover their tidy garden.
Before learning more about the Société des Auxiliatrices des âmes du Purgatoire, I was anxious to see inside the Neo-byzantine chapel I admire from my balcony every morning. Built in the 1870’s it is now a National Monument and the nuns gather here for mass every Thursday morning at 8:30, the harmonious singing of their prayers vibrating on the air to create a concert with the tap tap tapping of the keyboard in my living room. The church is a peaceful symphony of pale stone and gold studded mosaïcs, with a glass door that announces “Hope” to all who enter.
Marie-Françoise was the first nun to greet me outside and I immediately began peppering her with questions; What was their order? What did they do? What did she?
The Auxiliary Sisters of Purgatory were founded by Eugenie Smet in 1856. Today they are 540 nuns in over 20 countries practicing the Spiritual Exercises of the Jesuit leader, St Ignatius of Loyola. Among other activities, the nuns on our street teach catechism and run a hostel for religious scholars. They also use their hostel to welcome families who are in Paris to tend to their ill children at Necker, the Children’s Hospital that is just a block away.
As I got more personal Sister Marie-Françoise was very generous, sharing that she had been a teacher before entering the religious life. She is now retired, but works at a center near Montparnasse where homeless can get a fixed mailing address, spending a few hours each week signing people up and distributing mail. And she takes care of her one hundred and four year old mother. 104!
After our chat, we returned to our neighbors who were gathered around the table, sharing snacks and talking about life in the neighborhood. As we entered the hall, an elder nun pointed me out. “That’s her, that’s the American who made the cookies.” Was it praise or accusation? I held my breath a second as questions started coming my way about the spices I’d used, the cooking time and would I share the recipe. I blushed, I thanked them and the question turned to more important topics, like who owned the huge dog who never seemed to leave the balcony of the 4th floor. Wasn’t it sad the chocolate shop had left the neighborhood? Any sightings of our infamous neighbor, Gerard Depardieu recently?
We had a lovely evening meeting our neighbors. I befriended a Japanese journalist, got a list of some great new restaurants to try and have a date to hear the nuns sing in their chapel during mass a week from next Thursday.
La Fête des Voisins is so new that it doesn’t get a lot of press, but it is so successful it has now spread Europe-wide with cityhalls across the continent encouraging neighbors to get out and get to know one another. Its a lovely way to spend the evening.