We are on the move!
The concept of the pilgrimage as a journey took on new meaning for us today, as we left Paris and traveled 244 miles to Lyon in east central France, and during the day we rode on a tour bus, the high speed train, subways, city buses, and a funicular… Talk about a journey!
We took the TGV (Train a Grande Vitesse - which means "very fast train" - and it is! It travels at up to 200 miles per hour, and brought us the 244 miles from Paris to Lyon in under 2 hours!)
Lyon is the second largest city in France, and is famous for many things: the Lumière brothers invented cinema here in 1895; it is the birthplace of many famous people, including writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, and third century Roman emperor Caracalla; and it is the international headquarters of Interpol (!).
But it is much more important to our group on this journey because it is the city where the Sisters of St. Joseph were refounded after the French Revolution, and is the site of the convent and burial place of Mother Jeanne Fontbonne, second foundress and superior-general of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Lyons.
In Lyon, we were met by Sr. Marie du St. Esprit, an SSJ from Mexico and a member of the Lyons congregation. She was our guide to the city, including visits to the grave of Mother John Fontbonne, the SSJ Heritage Center, and the Basilique de Fourviere.
The Sisters of St. Joseph in Lyon
The Congregation of St. Joseph was founded in 1650 when six women in war-ravaged LePuy, France sought “something more” in their lives. These women worked among their neighbors—many of whom were desperately poor—caring for orphans, feeding the hungry, sheltering the abandoned, and nursing the sick. But during the French Revolution, the Congregation almost disappeared as many Sisters were forced to go into hiding or were imprisoned or executed for their religious beliefs. The Sisters regrouped in 1807 under the leadership of Mother St. Jeanne Fontbonne here in Lyons.
Mother Jeanne Fontbonne
There is a "Fontbonne Room" at Elms College, and many don't know the origin of the name. But here, it is ever-present. Mother Fontbonne is revered here, and her history clearly tells the story of why.
Jeanne Fontbonne entered a house of the Sisters of St. Joseph in 1778, which had just been established at Monistrol by Bishop de Gallard of Le Puy. The following year she received the habit, and soon gave evidence of unusual administrative powers. On her election six years later as superior of the community, Mother St. John, as she was now called, aided in the establishment of a hospital, and accomplished much good among the young girls of the town.
At the outbreak of the Revolution, she and her community followed Bishop de Gallard in refusing to sign the Oath of the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, resulting in the persecution of the sisters. Forced to disperse her community, the superior remained at her post till she was dragged forth by the mob and the convent taken possession of in the name of the Commune. She returned to her father's home, but not long afterwards she was torn from this refuge, to be thrown into the prison of Saint-Didier, and scheduled to be beheaded at the guillotine. One day before that scheduled execution, she was freed after the fall of Robespierre.
Unable to regain possession of her convent at Monistrol, she returned to her father's house. Twelve years later (1807), Mother St. John was called to Saint-Etienne as head of a small community of young girls and members of dispersed congregations, who at the suggestion of Cardinal Fesch, Archbishop of Lyons, were now established as a house of the Sisters of St. Joseph. She restored the asylum at Monistrol, repurchased and reopened the former convent, and in 1812, the congregation was reborn.
In 1816 Mother St. John was appointed superior general of the Sisters of St. Joseph, and summoned to Lyons to found a general mother-house and novitiate, which she accomplished after many difficult years of labor. During the remainder of her life she was busied in perfecting the affiliation of the scattered houses of the congregation, and established over 200 new communities. An object of her special attention was the little band which she sent to the United States in 1836, and with which she kept in constant correspondence, making every sacrifice to provide them with the necessities.
Grave of Mother Jeanne Fontbonne
It was particularly touching to us to visit Mother Fontbonne's grave, located in an ancient cemetery filled with beautiful funerary statues and inscriptions of primitive Christianity in Lyon; the earliest dates from the year 334.
It is at the top of a terrifyingly long, winding hill, with many hairpin turns and cars lined on both sides of the impossibly narrow old streets. (Cars were not invented centuries ago when these streets were built.) The trip was punctuated with our gasps, and some of us had to put our hands over our eyes! How in the WORLD did that bus driver get us up there???!!!???!!!???
It was very moving to see the grave site of the brave woman who means so much to the SSJ community. On the gravestone is engraved "Reposent Reverend Mere Saint Jean nee Fontbonne, premiere superiere generale des Soeurs St. Joseph de Lyon.
Surrexerunt Filiae ejus et beatissimam praedicavorun eam (Please forgive me if I've misspelled this.) Sr. Eleanor translated this for us to mean: "Her daughters rose up an proclaimed her blessed."
Sr. Eleanor said a prayer of thanks to God for her, and Sr. Mary Quinn added special thoughts for the continuation of the work of the SSJs in Springfield in Mother Fontbonne's name.
As we were leaving, another woman approached the grave site, and we introduced ourselves. She was an SSJ from Ireland, Sr. Kitty Stafford of the London, Ontario congregation. It was truly a moment of shared reverence among Sisters from different countries, all of whom are descended in faith from this remarkable woman at whose graveside we stood.
After leaving the cemetery, we visited some Roman ruins in the center of town, including an amphitheater that reminded us of the Coliseum in Rome. Many of us were surprised at the Roman ruins we saw here, and their significance in Christian history. (OK, I have to brush up on my French and Roman history!)
Lyon was founded as a Roman colony in 43 BC by Munatius Plancus, a lieutenant of Caesar, and it was the second town of the Roman Empire after Rome. Its position on the natural highway from northern to south-eastern France made it a natural starting point of the principal Roman roads throughout Gaul, of which it was the capital.
The Romans built a theater, a forum, temples, shrines, baths, aqueducts and comfortable houses here. On the slopes of the Croix Rousse, the Amphitheatre des 3 Gaules became the political center, where every year representatives of 60 tribes from three provinces met. The Gauls adopted the pagan rites of their conquerors, and when they were exposed to Christianity from the east, there was harsh repression.
Christians here in Lyon were persecuted for their religious views under the reigns of the Roman emperors Marcus Aurelius and Septimus Severus. We learned that 48 Christians were martyred here at Lyon during the persecution of 177, including deacon Sanctus, bishop Pothin, and St. Blandine, who were fed to the lions in this amphitheater.
We heard the story of St. Blandine, who was a young slave girl, who with several others, was set upon by a pagan mob, arrested, tried and convicted of Christianity. After the other 47 prisoners were killed, she was thrown to the wild animals in the amphitheater, but they refused to eat her. (She was later burned at the stake and her ashes thrown in the Tiber River. What could be recovered of her remains is in the church of Saint-Leu, Amiens, France.)
It was sobering to see this well-preserved amphitheater here and know it was the site where many Christians were slaughtered for their beliefs.
We learned of a letter relating to this event addressed to the Christians of Asia and Phrygia in the name of the faithful of Vienne and Lyon, which is considered by Ernest Renan as "the baptismal certificate of Christianity in France." So much history…
Sisters of St. Joseph Heritage Center
Certainly a high point of the day was when Sr. Marie brought us to the convent of the SSJs, which contains a wonderful heritage center - a memorial to Mother Fontbonne and the SSJs.
It is filled with artifacts from Mother's life - her habit, her cross, her books and letters, even one of her teeth!
The Heritage center was recently designed and built by an artist, whose touches are everywhere. There is a lovely fountain inside the door - a small white vertical box, about the size of a small stove, that has layers of crosses on the top with water gently trickling in from the top and down over the layers. Sr. Marie told us that it represented the fact that Mother Fontbonne was the source, and the running water a representation of carrying on her mission.
Also inside the center there is a large glass case which holds gifts from SSJ congregations all over the world. We saw a touch from home! the SSJs of Springfield have sent something, which is displayed along with artifacts from congregations in places such as Kansas, Mississippi, and Boston. It showed a community that spread out over a very wide area, and certainly spoke to the SSJ mission - "Let All be One." We certainly felt that sense of unity here.
Cathédrale Saint Jean Baptiste de Lyons
In the center of old Lyon, we visited the Cathédrale Saint-Jean Baptiste, built starting in 1175 and named after John the Baptist. (Until the construction of the nearby Basilica Notre Dame de Fourvière in the late 1800s, this was the pre-eminent cathedral in Lyon.)
With its severe Gothic façade, the Cathedrale dominates Vieux Lyon, France's largest Renaissance quarter. Completion of the building took over three centuries, so the façade is a showcase for a number of architectural styles - a striking amalgamation primarily of Romanesque and Gothic.
Having decided to reconstruct the ancient 4th-century Cathédrale St Etienne and St Jean-Baptiste on its original site, the Archbishop of Lyon had to modify plans and shift the site 20 meters away, due to the limited space of the former area. The present site was available, largely because of its instability, having once been part of the Saone river. Consequently, today the cathedral slants slightly to the south and has cracks in the transept and choir.
It is a site of much important French history. For example, in 1600, Henry IV married Marie de Medici in this Cathedrale Saint Jean, thus reconciling the dissension between Catholics and Protestants.
Collected by Cardinals Fesch and de Bonald during the 19th century, the cathedral's treasures include gold and silverware, liturgical vestments, tapestries and enamelware, with some objects dating back to the Byzantine period. It is also the site of a famed astronomical clock dating to the 14th century, which accomplishes the most amazing feats, from calculating all Feast Days to the year 2019 to the position of the stars over Lyon!
Lyon sits between two hills, Fourviere, and La Croix-Rousse, and two rivers, the Rhone and the Saone. We spent a good deal of time on Fourviere hill.
Notre Dame de Fourviere
The Basilica Notre-Dame de Fourvière in Lyon was built between 1872 and 1896, and supplanted the older Cathédrale Saint-Jean as the city’s most important house of worship. It is certainly more beautiful to our eyes.
Perched atop the Fourviere hill, the basilica looms impressively over the city and may be seen from many vantage points. A jumble of forms and opulent flourishes, it has been criticized for being overly indulgent, but is still one of Lyon’s most unforgettable landmarks. Its unusual design draws from a variety of architectural influences. It features fine mosaics, superb stained glass, and a crypt dedicated to Saint-Joseph. This was of course of particular interest to our Sisters of St. Joseph!
We thought it was particularly gorgeous when we saw it later from the steps of the old Cathedrale at the bottom of the hill; All lit up, it looked like a fanciful dream castle floating above the old city.
We took a funicular to the top of the hill to attend Mass at the Basilica. The car travels 1414 feet up a hill with a 30% incline - that was an adventure!
We were impressed that so many people were taking the funiculars to go to Saturday afternoon Mass; there is nothing else to do at the top BUT go to the church. The funiculars carried car after car of people up the steep hill, and the church service was packed.
Inside the grand Cathedrale, the music of the pipe organ and the voices of the hundreds of worshipers echoed through the huge stone hall, and sounded like the music of angels. Well, at least until the priest lifted up HIS voice in song. He was completely tone deaf, but what he lacked in musical talent, he made up for in enthusiasm.
Our Infamous Sausage Caper…
Tonight, we ended our jam-packed exploration of Lyon with a walk through the beautiful cobblestone streets of Vieux Lyon, which has been named a world heritage site by UNESCO, and which has an undeniable charm, with its boutiques and its many 'bouchons' (restaurants which specialise in Lyonaise cuisine).
And speaking of Lyonaise cuisine, this was where we partook in a dinner to remember!
Lyon has been called the world capital of gastronomy. Second only to Paris, Lyon boasts over 700 restaurants in and around the area; many of them feature such world-famous gastronomic delights as black truffle soup, roast pigeon in puff pastry with baby cabbage leaves and foie gras, red snapper served in a potato casing, and Bresse chicken cooked in a pig's bladder (!).
They are particularly famous for their saucisson - air-dried pork sausage, flavored with garlic and pepper and studded with chunks of pork fat. Sounds appetizing, doesn't it?!?
The travel company had arranged for us to have a "traditional" dinner in a small bistro right in the heart of the old city, and there was only one thing on our menu — sauccison!!
A couple members of our group were semi-vegetarians, so this option was NOT appetizing to them. There was much discussion as to whether they would be able to order an alternative. (In fact, they did get plates full of au gratin potatoes and vegetables - which they appreciated.) Other people in our group were hesitant at best.
But God bless Sr. Eleanor - always trying to make the best of every situation; she talked about how lucky we were to be able to sample such a famous regional specialty, and how she was sure it would be wonderful.
Then as we walked into the restaurant, she leaned over to me and said softly, "I hate sausage…" It was the ONLY negative thing I have EVER heard Sr. Eleanor say!!!! I looked at her with big eyes and said, "Sr. Eleanor, I can't believe you just said that!" and then we laughed uproariously.
Well, we went inside and the sausages were delivered to our table - and I think most everybody sat for a minute looking at them on our plates. They were pink, about 4 inches long, and thick like bratwurst. I think everyone at least TRIED them - when in Rome, right? But I have to say, being of Italian and German descent - both of which like sausage - I thought it was one of the best I have ever tasted. I may have been alone in that opinion, though - I saw a lot of uneaten sausage going back to the kitchen!!!
It was a really busy day, and we are tired.
Oh, and some of us are hungry… ;-)
Here is a reflection from one of our number, Kathy Riordan '67, who was a French teacher for more than 25 years before her recent retirement. She has led many groups of students on tours through France.
France Through Different Eyes - 38 Years Later
My first visit to France was in 1968 to finish my master's degree from Assumption, a most memorable experience. And now in 2006, 38 years later, another memorable experience.
It began with Sr. Eleanor's commentary as our bus approached Chartres. Her vast love of and knowledge about the Cathedral, its past and its contribution to church history, is so profound. We were well prepared for our guided visit directed by the reknowned Malcolm Miller. Such an experience!
This trip is truly a pilgrimage. Our visit to Notre Dame of Paris, Sainte Chapelle, la Chapelle de la Medaille Miraculeuse, Sacre Coeur. Very moving spiritual experiences!
And now we are off to Lyon and Le Puy to continue this spiritual pilgrimage.
Each one of my 10 trips to France has been unique. This 2006 experience is very special.