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|2419: St Jean-Marie-Vianney,
Pointe aux Piments, Mauritius
St Jean-Marie-Vianney, Pointe aux Piments, Mauritius.
of Port Louis.
The building: The
church is of a modern, concrete block construction, painted
in a creamy colour, with louvred windows reaching to the ground
comprising about 25 per cent of the side walls. There are no
internal pillars. The sanctuary takes up the full width of the
building but is quite shallow in the other dimension. Nevertheless,
there is room for the celebrant behind the altar and a modern
plain lectern beside it, as well as seats for the cast and a
low rail in front. There is no separate choir space. Above the
sanctuary on plinths stand three statues (life-sized and painted
but unlabelled): Jesus and the Virgin Mary at the sides of the
church, and an 18th century gentleman who I had initially thought
to be one of the early priests in Mauritius, but I now presume
was St Jean-Marie Vianney (who never left France in his life
but is the patron saint of parish priests). On the side walls
there is a set of local oil paintings of the Stations of the
Cross, well done in a fauvist style.
The church: Mauritian
mix, but noticeably more toward the African end of the mixed
race spectrum that makes up the Mauritian population. This was
a youngish congregation, mostly below the age of 40 or so, and
including at least 60 children of primary-school age, who sat
in a group at the front for the whole service and were kept
in order by a middle-aged lady in what looked like a Girl Guide
uniform, but was actually that of a Catholic ladies' group.
A pre-school next door has connections with the church.
The neighbourhood: Mauritius
is a tropical island about 80km across, located in the Indian
Ocean about 900km east of Madagascar. Before 1507 it had no
human inhabitants but large numbers of the famous flightless
bird, the dodo, which were soon rendered extinct by hungry Portuguese
and Dutch sailors. The island was a French colony from 1715
until 1810. The British took the government as one of their
prizes for winning the Napoleonic wars, though most commerce
remained in French hands. Mauritius gained its independence
in 1968, and is now a thriving democracy and one of the most
prosperous of the small island developing states, with an economy
based not only on sugar and tourism, but also textiles and IT
services. Mauritian Creole (based on French) is universally
spoken, but everyone learns both French and English at school.
Pointe aux Piments is a fishing village in the north-west of
the island, around which several hotel resorts have sprung up,
catering mainly to wealthy tourists from India, Europe and South
Africa. Extensive sugar cane fields lie inland of the village.
The church itself occupies land down a side street, with its
location indicated by a small (and somewhat deceptive) sign
on a fence.
The cast: The
celebrant was identified only as Father Jean. Two middle-aged
women read the lessons and another led the choir. There were
four altar helpers: a boy and girl of primary school age, and
two teenage boys.
The date & time: Sunday,
24 June 2012, 9.30am.
What was the name of the service?
How full was the building?
It was full as the service started, and by 10 minutes into the
service the congregation were overflowing onto the back verandah,
by which time I estimate there were 200-300 people present.
They were about two-thirds female, all of whom (except one –
see below) were bare-headed and wore modest western dress: long
skirts, trousers, or knee-length dresses. In noticeable contrast
to the main street of the village, there was not a shalwar
kameez (Indian-style trouser suit) to be seen.
Did anyone welcome you
No. Guided by an out-of-date notice in the main street, I had thought the service would start at 9.00am. So I rushed in at that time, only to find a disconcertingly empty church, though the doors were open and a couple of sidesmen were chatting amongst themselves.
Was your pew comfortable?
The pews were widely enough spaced to allow leg room for people
taller than myself or the average Mauritian. The wooden kneelers
were unpadded, but most of the congregation did not use them
for every prayer.
How would you describe the pre-service
Unsurprisingly it was very quiet when I arrived 30 minutes early.
But even when most people arrived about 10 minutes before start,
it was basically quiet, with an occasional murmur of conversation.
Most said a few quiet prayers as they settled down.
What were the exact opening words of the
We were greeted with "Bonjour" by a woman (one
of the readers for that day) from the lectern. This was followed
by a couple of songs led by the choir, and then the priest (who
had entered the sanctuary from the vestry during the songs)
swung some incense and then said the formal opening words of
the mass: "Au nom du Père, et du Fils, et du
What books did the congregation use during the
None. All the adults (except me) knew all the responses by heart,
though only a few knew the words of most of the songs (or were
game to sing them).
What musical instruments were played?
Three young men played competently on electronic keyboard, guitar,
and a wind instrument that had a keyboard rather than the usual
buttons. They supported an equally competent and well-practiced
choir of about 15 women, who occupied the front few pews on
Did anything distract you?
My eyes wandered occasionally to the one female whose appearance
stood out from the crowd: a young lady in a short black cocktail
dress and high heels. Then, while the congregation processed
to the front to receive communion, a toddler left alone in the
pew cried out for his mother. But I was most distracted by the
young altar boy who could not stifle a very visible yawn as
the service neared its end.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or
Though reverential throughout, the service was at the less formal
end of the Catholic spectrum, with only a minimum of bells and
smells. The whole service was in standard French, as distinct
from Mauritian Creole. Incense was waved before the opening
formal words of the mass and before the gospel, but that was
all. The Bible was read from a lectern in the sanctuary by two
local women, who read with commendable clarity. The priest faced
the congregation throughout.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 Father Jean spoke clearly and slowly in standard French,
and it was not his fault that I could not follow fully, hence
my “neutral” score. I’m sure everyone else there could do so.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon
My oral French is not as good as it used to be, so unfortunately I could not say for sure!
Which part of the service was like being in
The feeling of being in a thriving and young Christian community.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The misleading notice of the service time meant I rushed in
at 9.03 thinking that I was already late. That could be awkward
in a strange congregation, but in fact it left me sitting in
an almost empty church wondering if I was going to be the odd
man out in a very small congregation. And not so much hell but
more the Tower of Babel: the awkward realisation that my French
language skills, though still adequate for reading, are too
far out of practice to follow properly even a clearly spoken
sermon. However, since they came in a familiar context, I could
follow the words of the mass itself, and even make some of the
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Most people had a brief word or two to friends in the sunshine
outside before quickly disappearing up the road on foot. (I
don’t think anyone came by car, except perhaps the priest.)
However, the priest himself, recognising me as an obvious visitor
(I was the only Caucasian there besides himself), did stop for
a few words with me.
How would you describe the after-service
There was no coffee, but the aforementioned lady in uniform
had a stall outside from which she and few helpers were selling
the local snack of fresh dhal puri (lentil curries
and chilli sauces wrapped in unleavened bread). Very tasty it
How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
7 I would be pleased to worship here in the unlikely event that I ever get to Mauritius again. But though the vibe was good, I would need to improve my French language skills to get the most from it. I believe there are some English-language churches in the capital city of Port Louis, but that is 20 km away.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a
Yes. I enjoyed the feeling of being in a thriving and young Christian community, and the universality of the mass.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The reminder it gave me about how badly my comprehension of
spoken French has deteriorated in recent years.
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