Cath├ędrale de Saint-Alain, Lavaur, Tarn, France

Cathedral of St Alain, Lavaur, Tarn, France


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Mystery Worshipper: Raymond X
Church: Cathedral of St Alain
Location: Lavaur, Tarn, France
Date of visit: Sunday, 3 June 2007, 10:30am

The building

A massive brick edifice in the Gothic style, built as much for defence as worship. Construction began in 1255 on the spot where a Benedictine abbey once stood. Although the church was dedicated in 1300, construction continued until well into the 16th century. The bell tower features a jacquemart (statue of a man that strikes the hours with a hammer) dating from 1604. The interior houses several interesting pieces, including a Renaissance polychrome dresser and a wrought-iron and copper lectern. To study the interior is to take a guided tour through French liturgical history, with a side chapel surviving more or less from each intervening century.

The church

The diocese of Lavaur was suppressed in 1790, the area first becoming part of the diocese of Montpelier and later part of the archdiocese of Albi. Thus the former cathedral is now a parish church. At the service I attended, there was a good cross-section of local society. Perhaps more elderly couples than usual, but they had presumably come in force for the special wedding anniversary blessing.

The neighborhood

During the Albigensian Crusade, Lavaur was a stronghold of the Cathars under the leadership of Dame Guiraude, a local aristocrat. When Lavaur fell to Simon de Montfort in 1211, Dame Guiraude was thrown down a well and there stoned to death. Whether this incident was the just reward of heresy or a monstrous atrocity seems to be a matter of lively controversy to this day. The site of her death can still be visited. Today Lavaur is a quiet town whose main employer is Laboratoires Pierre Fabre, the noted manufacturer of cosmetics and grooming aids, and the rest of the population is broadly agricultural.

The cast

The curé, Pere Claude Cugnasse, was in charge, assisted by various others including a deacon who, judging by his curious and not at all local accent, is part of the influx of Africans who provide almost all of the young clergy in France today.

What was the name of the service?

Messe Dominicale

How full was the building?

The large church was about half full, with the people pressing toward the front.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

No. One seemed expected to find one's own place. There was a welcome sign in French on the door promising "14th century church, 19th century organ, 21st century worship." The last part did not fill me with comfort.

Was your pew comfortable?

A pleasant wooden chair with a plaque advertising its local manufacture at the Stella works.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

The discreet chat of reputable churchgoers.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Bonjour tous." It was then announced that engaged couples and those married folk celebrating an anniversary would be given a special blessing.

What books did the congregation use during the service?

PowerPoint. I have never seen this in another Roman church, but both the slides and their presentation were rather less slick than one would expect at a top evangelical church.

What musical instruments were played?

Organ, a magnificent 19th century Cavaillé-Coll instrument in the cathedral's original organ case dating from 1523. Alas, the organ is sadly under-used.

Did anything distract you?

I enjoyed looking round at the various side chapels. The nearest one had a slightly hideous 19th century shrine to Our Lady still adorned with her May finery – blue and white sheets draped over statue and altar, surrounded with natural, silk and silver-gilt flowers.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?

Literally the latter. The deacon couldn't stop encouraging us to clap along to the inevitable Marchons dans la Lumire ("Marching in the Light of God"), although when he added an unscheduled reprise at the end of the gospel he was unable to clap himself as his hands were occupied waving the book in tempo. Later on in the service, the deacon called the engaged couples and anniversarians up to receive a blessing. He called each by name (and so they had presumably pre-booked), but about two-thirds of the engaged couples seemed not to have made it to the service.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

7 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?

6 – A clear message delivered in easy French.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

A meditation on the famous Moscow ikon of the Holy Trinity (which was visible on both the PowerPoint and a big poster behind the preacher). The Holy Trinity (or at least the ikon) is a picture for us all to take as an example of Christian marriage (well, perhaps in France).

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The real sense of church and town assembled as a single community.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?

When the rather good organist finally got a chance at the end to let the Cavaillé-Coll speak in full voice via Bach's famous D-minor Toccata and Fugue (in the proper French style), one of the priests shouted at him to shut up before the fugue, so he could get on with the baptisms after the mass. A man with a guitar was already standing at the lectern.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?

I walked outside and a man greeted me with a jug, which he assured me contained grape juice.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

The "grape juice" was one of those French apéritifs that are a bit like dry sherry but fuller. There also seemed to be orange juice.

How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

6 – I think I would find the clapping a bit irritating after a couple of weeks.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?

Yes. The church is obviously at the heart of the local community.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?

The rather poor attendance of the engaged couples.

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