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2305: St John the Baptist, Montaigu, France
St John the Baptist, Montaigu (Exterior)
Mystery Worshipper: Augustine the Aleut.
The church: St John the Baptist, Montaigu, France.
Denomination: Roman Catholic, Diocese of Luçon.
The building: This is one of the points of the parish of Saint Martin (as parishes in this part of France tend to be grouped together). Built in 1866 on the ruins of a much more ancient church and then decorated by the 19th century Nantes sculptor Guillaume Grootaers, the building features interesting stone carvings. The region was evangelised by St Hilary of Poitiers and St Philbert of Noirmoutier in in the fourth century.
The church: It is staffed by three priests and two lay missionaries, one for youth and the other for catechesis. Under the lay apostolate heading there are 29 groups, including four prayer groups, two hospital chaplaincies, and eight social action and youth groups.
The neighbourhood: This town of 5,000 on the northern border of the Vendée has been around for at least 12 centuries since the good burgers of the nearby Saint Georges fled to Montaigu, which was a more defensible site. Louis XII built a fort there to serve as a base for attacks on Brittany. Little plaques commemorate where Resistance figures and US soldiers fell during the town’s liberation.
The cast: My notes suggest that it was Fr Gérard Guérin, one of the two assistant clergy in the parish.
The date & time: 17 September 2011, 6.00pm.

What was the name of the service?
Parish Mass.

How full was the building?
I counted 78 women and 41 men in a building that could have held about 300. Most congregants were in the 40+ age range, but there were quite a few families, including one Vietnamese and another of mixed origin (Mauritian?).

Did anyone welcome you personally?
I was clearly from out of town and received a few curious glances.

Was your pew comfortable?
I found an agreeable pew on the epistle side, toward the front and near a pillar on which I might be able to lean should I feel the need (I had walked a great distance that day).

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
People entered quietly, but were greeting each other and exchanging a few words as they did so.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
Au nom du Père, du Fils, et du Saint-Esprit.

What books did the congregation use during the service?
There were a few leaflets with the propers and lessons in them.

What musical instruments were played?
There was an organ, played not too badly.

Did anything distract you?
Everyone seemed quiet, but that might have been on account of the dismal weather – although I might have been one of the few who had walked for five hours in the drizzling rain. During the eucharistic prayer, the congregation divided into those who stood, sat, or knelt. The maybe-Mauritian family, seated near me, knelt. I very much liked the stained glass of Joan of Arc, quite near me.

St John the Baptist, Montaigu (Window)

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The singing was full-hearted, to the point that I wondered if I had walked into a Jamaican church by accident. Apart from that, it was a standard novus ordo mass.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
We were addressed for about 10 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
4 – The priest touched on a range of topics, all at very high speed, so I fear that I could not really keep track of the sermon. Parishioners were amused by his jokes, and they clearly liked him.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
I fear that I could not get very much out of it, even though my French is usually up to sermons.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The singing was good and there seemed to be a strong sense of community in the congregation.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Nothing in particular, although I was still recuperating from hours of walking in light rain.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I waited for the priest to finish talking with some of the liturgical staff, and went up to ask him if the parish seal could be affixed to my pilgrim's credential. He laughed, saying that he had no idea where it might be. He was only the priest, he told me, and the people ran the parish. He signalled the parish administrative assistant, who walked me to the office to stamp the credential. There, she introduced me to her 85-year old father who, in his youth, had left Franco’s Spain and had ended up in rural France.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
After-service refreshments are not part of French church life, so I headed off back to my hotel, where the restaurant provided me with a quiet dinner of duck in morel sauce and a plate of the local cheese.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 – I don't know if there is any choice in Montaigu, but I liked the mix of relaxed friendliness. They were not trying to prove anything. The place seemed active.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
There was a gentle welcome for a traveller.

St John the Baptist, Montaigu (Statue)

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
Stepping out of the rain into the community of a small town.

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