On the way to Compostela, a disused chapel accommodates pilgrims

On the way to Compostela, a disused chapel accommodates pilgrims

Let’s keep our churches alive!

This report is the second in a series of five subjects which illustrate the common commitment of Le Pèlerin, CFRT/Le Jour du Seigneur and the dioceses of France to allow our churches to be places of life open to all. In this year of our 150th anniversary, our magazine is thus pursuing its mission of mediator in the service of the common good.

→ To discover in video version on the Jour du Seigneur website.

A realization of Geoffrey Defebvre.

“This place jostles… as the road to Compostela itself jostles us!” declares Marie-Noëlle straight away, who has just dropped off walking shoes and sticks at the reception of the Chapelle des Ursulines, now converted into a stopover lodge. It is 4 p.m. and, on this afternoon at the end of May, the pilgrims begin to arrive, after a final very steep climb, at the exit of Aire-sur-l’Adour (Landes). “You won’t have to climb it tomorrow morning!” console ans1873 2023 kindly Didier Jouaret by welcoming the most breathless. He is the proud owner of this chapel, which belonged to the teaching order of Ursuline nuns but was deconsecrated in 1973, and which he bought from a private individual in 2017. Newcomers let out a murmur of admiring surprise: from the moment they were welcomed , in the north side chapel of the building, splendid 19th century murals draw a trompe-l’oeil curtain, bluish and gold, along the walls.

When they enter the adjacent choir, their gaze is immediately drawn to the rich decor of the building’s choir with its high altar… while in the nave, several “seating areas” equipped with old armchairs surround a long table ready for dinner. Walkers who recognized each other from a previous stage greet each other happily in French, English, Dutch…

In the south side chapel, a dormitory was installed, closed by a glass door. “It shocked me a little when I looked at their website, continues Marie-Noëlle who walks with a friend: I did not really see myself sleeping in a church. But when you walk, you get rid of habits and received ideas and we come back to the essentials. And I see that this place emanates a spirit of fraternity faithful to the primary function of this building.”

This is what Didier Jouaret wanted: “Only once in five years, recognizes the master of the place, a person was shocked by this cohabitation of the sacred and the profane and did not want to stay here. However, my project is associative and only oriented towards pilgrims. I never intended to create a tourist business or a nightclub! I myself have made the journey and I wish to offer here all the comfort and human warmth that we all hope to receive at each stage.”

This former building contractor from Mimizan (Landes), Catholic, asserts himself above all as “a lover of heritage”. When he retired, his wife and three daughters encouraged him to take over this abandoned chapel, not listed as a historical monument, but located along the Camino, just opposite the Sainte-Quitterie church, a jewel novel that is the pride of the city: “Since 2017, I have changed 4,000 tiles, he lists, evacuated four tonnes of pigeon droppings, brought the building that I also repainted while respecting the original decor. A restorer friend and master glassmaker gave me a serious helping hand and allowed me to redo the stained glass according to the rules of the art.”

Maintain spiritual sense

If several dormitories are installed in the sacristies and chapels, Didier Jouaret has also created modern rooms in the outbuildings. It can accommodate up to 35 people who dine together, by candlelight, surrounded by the Stations of the Cross.

“Restoring the liturgical furnishings will be the next step,” he announces. He has already redone the crosses and wants to maintain an “oratory” space with a few kneelers around the altar which dates from 1873. “I want to keep a spiritual meaning to this place, he explains at the time of dessert which he shares with his guests. Often, pilgrims gather there. Sometimes, we receive priests who walk and say mass there.”

Those seated this evening take photos, ask questions about the saints in the stained glass windows. Hanneke, Dutch, who walks alone to Compostela to “reconnect” with herself, smiles: “This is my second night in a church, a mayor having authorized me to camp, in Auvergne, one evening of storm, in a church still closed but whose bells were ringing. An incredible experience but less welcoming than here!” She believes that this lodge “keeps the spirit of pilgrimage alive”. At the other end of the table, the pilgrims Gaëlle and Viviane conclude: “The majority of walkers make the journey for sport and do not enter churches. Here, we understand that it is also a way of faith.”

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