The story of Saint Patrick is the story of a young man who finds himself far from his homeland in a place where language, culture and society were very different to his own but the story also of how he comes to play a fascinating role in the history and in the culture of that people.
In a strange way, those who now live outside of their homeland, but with a sense of playing a role in the life and in the culture of the country and society that has welcomed them, have a very deep understanding of the story of the young Patrick who came to love the people who had captured first his body, but then his heart.
That is the perspective of those who gathered over the week-end in Paris to celebrate St Patrick’s Day in the ceremonies and in the gatherings in honour of their patron. Irish people travelled up to 200km to be present at the traditional ceremonies that mark the day in the city of lights.
On the feast itself, people gathered in the Anglophone Mission, St Joseph’s Church on Avenue Hoche for Mass with Fr Aidan Troy. Fr Aidan was joined by his confrere, Fr Melvyn from the US and by Fr Sean Maher, aumonier of the Irish College and Msgr Xavier Rimbeaud, vicar responsible for foreign communities in the Archdiocese of Paris. The ceremony was in Irish and English and concluded with the blessing of shamrock and the distribution of same. Afterwards, on seeing the “trèfle irlandais”, many of the local café workers smiled and welcomed those who were in the ritual of celebrating “la Saint Patrick”.
On the next day, the Irish community gathered, as is traditional, in the Eglise Saint Etienne du Mont, on the Montagne Saint Genèvieve. This is symbolic on two levels. It is the Church wherein are kept the relics of Ste Genevieve, the patron saint of Paris. Each January, large numbers of Parisians gather there to celebrate the Feast of Ste Genevieve and to pray for their city. On the Sunday nearest St Patrick’s Day, the Irish community gathers in that Church and calls on the intercession of their own patron. On another level, Saint Etienne is the Church on the brow of the Montagne Sainte Genèvieve, which boasts an Irish presence for over a thousand years, from the monks sent by Malachy of Armagh, to the early masters in the University of the Sorbonne to the seventeenth century foundation of the Irish College, a college which still exists today.
Different groups were represented, including the Fondation Irlandaise, staff of the Irish Cultural Centre, Paris Gaels GAA, Network Irlande, Mission Bretonne, priests and sisters from many of the religious communities, the Rector and students of the Séminaire Polonais (which found its first home in the Irish College after the War). The music was provided by the choir of the Chapelle Saint-Patrick and by An Cór, a choir from Limerick who had travelled to Paris specifically for the occasion. M. Vincent Warnier, the organist of St Etienne du Mont, played for the occasion and Mlle. Lena Hennessy, an Irish student in the Paris Conservatoire, sang the beautifully haunting “Deer’s Cry” after Communion.
Almost four hundred people from Ireland, France and many other countries gathered for this Mass. Prayers were offered for both countries and particularly for the families in Belgium affected by the sadness of the bus crash in Switzerland. The curé of Saint Etienne du Mont, Père Jacques Ollier, welcomed the Irish community on this important occasion, stressing the importance of Franco-Irish relations, particularly on the rugby pitch. Père Olier is also the vice-president of the Fondation Irlandaise, the governing authority of the Irish College. Two seminarians from the Diocese of Paris ministered on the Altar, both of Irish extraction.
After Mass, the celebrations continued in the grounds of the Irish College. In solidarity with the Irish Church and in preparation for the Eucharistic Congress in Dublin, the Chapel bell was rung at 6.00pm, by Sr Assumpta, originally from Co. Tipperary but who has worked in French prisons for sixty years. The day concluded with prayers for Ireland and France in the Chapelle Saint-Patrick, with a final Salve before the very beautiful statue of Our Lady, a statue before which so many of those who have influenced our recent history (Daniel O’Connnell, Karol Wojtyla, to name just two) have prayed.
In the city where Irish people have been welcomed and renowned, the memory of Saint Patrick is cherished and revered. On a mountain far from their homeland, the Irish community echoed Patrick’s words, “Christ be with me, Christ be beside me!”
Fr Sean Maher
Chaplain, Irish Community