While the Congregation of the Sons of Charity celebrates its centenary, "La Croix" has gone to the city of Grande Borne in Grigny (Essonne).
Faithful to their mission in the heart of the popular neighborhoods, they maintain a Christian presence in cities that often feel abandoned.
The splendor of the façade of the modest church of the Holy Family, surmounted by a large cross, explodes in a neighborhood where buildings often look awful.
Built in the heart of the Grande Borne in Grigny (Essonne), a sprawling city with a sinister reputation, it does not escape a certain striptease.
The Church of the Holy Family, in the heart of the Grande Borne. / Chloé Sharrock for La Croix
"Our mission is to live with and appreciate people"
This Sunday morning, the hundred faithful greet with applause the announcement of the installation of benches to replace the old tired chairs of the church, temporarily without heating. "We have waited for them for a long time"said Father Jean Guellerin, a member of the Congregation of the Sons of Charity entrusted with the parish of Grigny.
Priests in the suburbs, two faces of the next generation
With two other priests and a 35-year-old deacon, ordained priest in September, he divided two apartments on the 4this plan of a building in this popular area that focuses on social difficulties. "Our mission is to live with and appreciate people"he emphasizes. This 72-year-old priest with easy contact is entering his third year at the Grande Borne.
He is not concerned at all with the fear that the city of Grigny, classified as a sensitive urban area, can cause those who watch it from afar. "I come from a modest family myself"he confides the one who appears embarrassed as surprised to be shown as an example of the "Church of the suburbs", dear to Pope Francis. "I'm like a fish in the water here."
Maintain a discreet Christian presence
Present for more than 25 years, the Sons of Charity maintain a discreet Christian presence among the inhabitants of the neighborhood, many of whom come from contexts of immigrants and Muslims. "We are sent to serve the entire population, not just the Catholics", recalls, of course, Father Jean Guellerin.
"They are well known here, they are our neighbors, soaked in our difficulties and our daily lives"insists Zekre, 46, a parish pillar and originally from the Ivory Coast. The small religious community wants to be "A sign of the love of God", according to Father Jean Guellerin, but "Difficult to measure"he says quickly, captured by his modesty.
Father Jean Guellerin and Zekre, pillar of the parish and native of the Côte d'Ivoire. / Chloé Sharrock for La Croix
For the Sons of Charity "evangelization" is first of all a matter of daily contact with the inhabitants: "The other night we rang the bell to ask for milk, and it happens that the big boys in the corner, when they see us with our shopping bags, come to help us."
"Here, more than anywhere else, there is a strong need for human relations", summarizes Étienne de Souza, the young deacon, who knows well the suburbs to be raised in Seine-Saint-Denis, in a family of Indian origin.
"Here, more than anywhere else, there is a strong need for human relations", believes Étienne de Souza, the young deacon (second from left). / Chloé Sharrock for La Croix
A Catholic community with a strong African and Caribbean dominance
Living in the heart of the Grande Borne, apparently quiet, without high towers but with small buildings that wind through multiple alleys, it is also to be faced with recurrent attacks of violence, drug trafficking and insecurity. Late church meetings – never labeled – are limited, for example, to prevent parishioners from returning home in the evening.
In a neighborhood where people indifferent to faith, Muslims, Evangelicals, or other Jehovah's Witnesses gather around, the Sons of Charity are a valuable support for the small but vibrant Catholic community, with strong African and Caribbean dominance. This Sunday, the church also echoes fervent songs in French, Creole and one of the Congolese languages to avoid the pitfalls of the two Interists.
Holy Mass at the Church of the Holy Family, Sunday 25 November 2018. / Chloé Sharrock for La Croix
While a feeling of abandonment thrives in the cities, the presence of the Sons of Charity assumes a symbolic value. "When we leave a neighborhood, it is because of the lack of vocations, he apologizes almost with Father Jean Guellerin. It is not a choice, but a bond that paints us. Sometimes the bishops call us and worry about a possible departure because they do not know if they will find a new generation that accepts to come to these parishes. "
In Montgeron, the farewell of the little sisters of the cities
The celebrations of the centenary of the congregation
In France, the celebrations of the centenary of the Congregation of the Sons of Charity, founded by Father Jean-Émile Anizan for the evangelization of the working class, began in July and will continue until June 2019.
On December 16th, the anniversary will be celebrated in the parish of Sant & Elena on the 18this district of Paris, entrusted to the Sons of Charity. The centenary will be closed in the Saint-Denis basilica, on 28 June 2019.
Present in 12 countries, 140 religious currently work in working class neighborhoods. In France, they are located in La Courneuve and Saint-Ouen (Seine-Saint-Denis), but also in Bourges or Valenciennes.