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‘Yellow vest’ protests test English-speaking Catholic church in Paris  

Demonstrators wearing yellow vests march near the Arc de Triomphe, right, holding the French tricolor in Paris, on Dec. 8, 2018. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)

PARIS (RNS) — Avenue Hoche, one of the tree-lined roads radiating out from the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, seems like an ideal place to locate a church for foreigners. An oasis in the city’s chic 8th District, it’s close to the Champs Élysées and the pleasant western neighborhoods that expats prefer.

But that location also put the street in the middle of France’s often turbulent politics, as St. Joseph’s, the parish for English-speaking Catholics in Paris, has learned several times since it opened there in 1869.

The “yellow vest” protests rocking the French capital for the past four Saturdays have filled Avenue Hoche with roving bands of angry demonstrators and riot police firing volleys of tear gas to disperse them.

More protests have been called for this weekend.

Parked cars and motorcycles have been burned to the right of the church entrance. The supermarket to the left was looted. Protesters have at times taken over the church’s backyard or sat down on its front steps and plaza for a rest.

During the past four weekends of protests, though, St. Joseph’s has stayed open, holding all its scheduled Masses, four baptisms and a short Advent retreat.

The Rev. Aidan Troy preaches to a large congregation during Sunday Mass at St. Joseph’s Church on Dec. 9, 2018, near the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. RNS photo by Tom Heneghan

A youth group prepared 200 lunch bags for the homeless and went to distribute them with wet handkerchiefs over their noses against the tear gas.

Blocked streets and closed metro stations mean attendance has fallen off somewhat, but parish life has gone on. Some parishioners who couldn’t get to church followed services on its YouTube channel.

The Rev. Aidan Troy, the Irish Passionist who has headed St. Joseph’s since 2008, faced a sparse congregation at early Mass on Dec. 2 after the worst rioting of the protest series went late into the previous night.

He drew on an Irish saying — “This is the morning after the night before” — as he thanked worshippers for coming, noting that some of them might feel on edge due to the protests.

“There’s always the danger that people get scared,” he said. Noting that his previous assignment had been in Belfast, he added: “We don’t run scared.”

The yellow vest protesters, many of them rural working poor facing rising taxes amid stagnating wages, have brought their grievances to Paris and forced the government to roll back some planned tax increases.

Among the thousands of protesters have been hundreds of local anarchists who donned the same vests to melt into the crowds and then loot, burn and clash with police.

Some angry yellow vesters joined in the violence and, especially on Dec. 2, the police were clearly overwhelmed. Almost twice as many security forces turned out on Dec. 8 and stood their ground, but central Paris was still paralyzed.

Parishioners who’ve managed to reach St. Joseph’s often found blocked streets and closed metro stations along their way.

Demonstrators in yellow vests clash with police in Paris on Dec. 8, 2018. Crowds of protesters angry at President Emmanuel Macron and France’s high taxes tried to converge on the presidential palace, some scuffling with police firing tear gas, amid exceptional security measures aimed at preventing a repeat of the previous week’s rioting. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)

“We saw carcasses of motorbikes and cars on the way to church and tarmacs torn up,” said Michael de Haas, a South African IT engineer who coordinates the parish’s religion classes for children. “It was like going through a movie scene.”

Organist Daniel Morales-Carmona crossed police lines on Dec. 1 to play at the Saturday evening Mass, but the metro stopped four stations away from the Arc de Triomphe the following Saturday. He had to get out and walk the remaining distance.

Morales-Carmona soon came upon rock-throwing protesters and riot police firing volleys of tear gas, and ran for cover.

“I looked at my phone and I had five minutes to make it to church. That was impossible, so I had to turn around and go home,” said Morales-Carmona, a native of Mexico doing advanced organ studies at the Paris Conservatory.

Tear gas has hung over Avenue Hoche for the past three Saturdays as riot police tried to break up roving bands of protesters gathering there.

The Arc de Triomphe is only about 300 yards away, and yellow vesters reached it on Dec. 2 to spray graffiti on the monument’s walls and trash a small museum inside.

When protesters took over the churchyard one Saturday and began relieving themselves there, Troy opened the toilets inside St. Joseph’s and invited the demonstrators — especially the women — to use them.

“That probably protected us from any damage,” he said with relief while standing near a sliding glass door that could have easily been shattered.

The Rev. Aidan Troy chats with parishioners following Mass outside St. Joseph’s Church on Dec. 9, 2018, near the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. RNS photo by Tom Heneghan

St. Joseph’s first brushes with French politics came a year after the Passionist order opened it in 1869. Artillery shells often fell in the area as the Franco-Prussian War and then the Paris Commune insurrection raged.

One morning, shrapnel smashed through two windows while the Rev. Francis Bamber celebrated Mass. “The congregation was of course greatly alarmed,” he later wrote, but they “waited courageously to the end of the service.”

Once peace returned, the church settled down to serving parishioners ranging from wealthy English and American expatriates to their Irish maids and assorted other English speakers lured to the booming City of Light.

A day before his death in 1900, the Irish playwright Oscar Wilde, who moved to Paris after two years in jail for “gross indecency” (i.e., a then-banned homosexual relationship), called for a priest from St. Joseph’s who received him into the Catholic Church.

An anti-clerical government almost shut the church down in 1900 by sending an enormous tax bill that a rich American benefactor unexpectedly paid. The government expelled the Passionists a few years later, but the order was eventually allowed back if it repurchased the building.

During the 1940-1944 German occupation, English priests had to leave but clergy from Ireland, which was neutral in World War II, were allowed to stay at the church. The Gestapo carted off many of its files and kept a close eye on the church.

Despite this surveillance, two Irish Catholics with ties to the church — the Rev. Kenneth Monaghan and governess Lilly Hannigan — succeeded in secretly passing messages to French Resistance groups and helping smuggle downed Allied airmen back to Britain.

The old church building became unstable in the 1980s, prompting the Passionists to open a new structure on the same site in 1987.

By that time, the parish had become the multinational community it now is, with large numbers of new parishioners from the Philippines, Sri Lanka and several African countries. The congregation now is made up of some 2,000 Catholics from about 40 countries.

St. Joseph’s has been and will always be my home away from home,” said Jun Gonzales, a health care worker who moved from the Philippines to Paris five years ago.

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Tom Heneghan

23 Comments

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  • France, once the center of Christendom, now the center of the cesspool of secularism.
    Open border and ever so tolerable France, sacrificing its own citizens to terrorist attacks in the name of political correctness.
    Environmentally radical and socialist France, suffering riots because the elites make decisions in worship to mother earth that causes harm to the average worker.
    Globalist France, led by cowardly leader who hides while his cities burn; would rather serve the global elite than the people of his own nation.
    Repent. Turn back to God.

  • NICE TRY, R.N.S., what with this article’s lame, if desperate, attempt at capturing a religious angle to the Gilets Jaunes’ [soon coopted, I pessimistically predict] making of The New French Revolution. Nothing (at all religious) to see here, folks, all ye Progs & JellyCalls! Let’s just enjoy this Pre-Christmas, Secular Frenchie Outburst for what it is, and pray OMG no state-sponsored assassination & massacre intervene! Take it away, Ms. Johnstone:

    “[From] the message … [of] the Yellow Vests … [that] we can’t make ends meet [and] just can’t take it any more [so] the government must stop, think and change course … I have not heard one word that would fall into the categories of ‘far right’, much less ‘fascism’ – or even that indicated any particular preference in regard to political parties. … It is just a way of saying, We are the people, we do the work, and you must listen to our grievances. To be a bad thing, ‘nationalism’ must be aggressive toward other nations. This movement is not attacking anybody, it is strictly staying home. … The Gilets Jaunes hav[ing] made clear their distrust of all politicians … is not a movement that seeks to take power.”

    Source: Diana Johnstone, “Les Gilets Jaunes – A Bright Yellow Sign of Distress”, Global Research, December 4, 2018.

  • Wow bigoted and uninformed garbage at all levels.

    You are attacking religious freedom and demanding France go back to its autocracy loving state sponsored church.

    You are making racist appeals against immigration there despite the economic and demographic need for it. Recycling neo Nazi arguments there.

    You are lying about Macrons policies. He is an economic conservative, like Republicans here. People are rioting over garbage austerity measures done while the government gives away resources to the wealthy.

  • Actually it is just a description of your rather ridiculous attack. You clearly don’t know what constitutes a statesman. So you are not qualified to jusge the existence of non existence of such traits in others.

  • She’s nothing more than a sock puppet for big socialism.
    Sad.
    No wonder she goes for the red lips look.

  • “Socialism” being what every other developed and wealthy nation does as a matter of course to improve quality of life and growth if the middle class. Given the kleptocrats in office, we could use achange of pace. People who are not slaves to oligarchy.

    You and other conservatives aren’t even capitalists. You do not support free markets and the regulation required to keep them free. You support monopolies, graft and abuse of public resources. There is no excuse for kleptocracy. Only people with a hand our

  • France has a conservative in office. Policies just like American republicans. Austerity plus giveaways to wealthy.

    He got elected because his competition was Neo Nazi slime. This is what happens when nazis get in a ballot. They make mainstream miscreants look reasonable.

    He is only a socialist to far right derps.

  • There’s nothing wrong with austerity; as it is the consequences for living above your means.
    The problem is the citizens of France Are addicted to government programs and guarantees which at some point in time becomes in a possible burden on the government.

  • Yes there is. It harms the working and middle class and stunts economic growth in favor of the wealthy avoiding responsibility for maintenance the system they benefit from.

    What you are complaining about is French people demanding representation by government for their interests.

    Macron is right, his election opponent he was far right white supremacist. Your take on who is a socialist is meaningless. Anyone to the left of Neo Nazi is considered a socialist by American conservatives

  • Typical socialist. Ask for everything; expect others to pay for it; then cry and riot when it becomes unsustainable.

  • Typical wingnut.

    Anything short of gilded age oligarchy is somehow socialist. Try responsible governance. Try government answerable to the governed, as opposed to their personal bank accounts.

  • Whataboutism to go with wingnuttery. So how many people associated with Obama or his staff and inner circle were convicted or even indicted of felonies. Zero. in terms.

    Trump has racked up 11 people convicted of felonies related to working for him in the last 2 years.

    Obviously the prior administration was hardly the darling of quite a few industries. Finance, Fossil Fuels, Health Insurers, private prisons, private schools.

    Nothing wrong with supporting organized labor or environmentalists. People looking out for the interests of those who cannot buy their way out of responsibility. Wall Street was not a big fan him.

  • Nothing wrong with supporting organized labor or environmentalists is code for; Putting working men and women out of work.

  • Quite the opposite. A race to the bottom for conditions of those who work for a living is not a worthy goal.

  • Yeah – HRC and the environment nazis care a lot about coal miners.
    I shudda added her famous quote to my list of why people don’t like her: “ we’re going to put the coal industry out of business….”

  • Coal mines? A dying industry with a history of the most horrific work conditions out there, devastating to quality of life, known for heavy bribery of Republicans to stay afloat. The industry destroys the places where its workers live.

    Those workers could be working in other industries for producing cleaner fuel. Its not politicians killing coal, its cheaper and safer alternatives and technology.

    You might as well be bemoaning the workers at VHS tape manufacturing plants at this point.
    https://money.cnn.com/2018/08/21/investing/coal-power-trump-epa/index.html

  • That you are being foolish and giving me Trump level dishonest ridiculous screeds? Yes I proved that point.

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