Interview with a regular parishioner of Notre Dame de France:
- When did you first come to the church?
End of August 1964. On my way to London, from Mauritius, I passed through Rome,which was getting ready for the final Session of VATICAN II. I had the rare privilege of visiting the Sistine Chapel and the Vatican Gardens, under the guidance of the secretary of my friend Juan Vasquez, who had been appointed as one of the lay auditors of the Council
- When did you first come to the refugee centre?
I joined the Notre Dame Refugee Centre, which had opened its doors in December 1997, in March 1999. I had retired from teaching the year before and and was looking for some work which would keep me busy and active. I had also retired from the national executive committee of Great Britain of the International Peace Movement ” PAX CHRISTI “, where I had been active for nearly 30 years. I am still a member : 50 years in 2018 !
- What does the building mean for you?
The building, and the people living within its walls and periphery, means a lot to me, a kind of refuge from the problems I was meeting every now and then on questions of ‘racism’ and matters of ‘ Peace and Justice. Remember the sixties, when there was an influx of Indian refugees from East Africa and people were talking of being overwhelmed by immigrants, i.e. Peter Griffiths in Smethwick and Enoch Powell’s “ River of Blood “ speech.
- How were you treated by the French community as a non-white person when you first arrived?
When talking of racism, I avoid using the word community, it is more a question of individuals. I would not know how to qualify the answer to my query from the Rector of Notre Dame, when I asked him about the existence or not of a Frech Catholic Action movement called “ Action Catholique des Milieux Indépendants “. He acknowledged that such groups existed but were not for people like me . What about the answer of that black Mauritian to me when I suggested to him to join the Africa Centre where he would meet a lot of lovely people, that he felt insulted as he was not an African or felt part of these kind of people! So racism came from all sides and from where you least expected them!
But on the whole, the support and acceptance were very positive I felt I could confide in people such as Father Noblet, Father Bozon, Father Raabe and Father Le Crureur and always got the support and comforting words I needed.
If I have to mention or name people who were really close supporting comforting friends, they would be François and Denise Batisse and their children, Françoise Moore and her husband, John and children, Karine and Isabelle, and Chantal, Robert and children, Bernadette Rattigan. These were but a few of the many, many friends I had and they are only friends of the sixties and seventies. I will never forget them!
I also joined groups such as “ Centre de Walsingham “ made up mainly of French Assistant/es and attended many conferences, concerts, theatre groups’ plays and retreats organised in cooperation with the French Protestant church.
We used to meet after the 10 o’clock mass at what is now the ‘Salle Yolanda Cantu’ and was then known as the ‘Centre Charles Péguy’. There were usually about 10 to 20 parishioners and their friends passing through London in the room. How I miss these ‘rencontres’ nowadays: the whole place have become so functional due understandably to the growing activities of the church and lack of space. What a pity as so many solid and long-lasting friendships were made there !
The same feeling applies to the crypt, now a theatre but then a warm-hearted meeting place for the whole parish !
5. How have things changed in terms of the racial diversity of the parish?
Before the departure of the Marists at the end of the eighties, the bulk of parishioners were French, with a very small, rather self-centred group of Mauritians.
When the Marists returned in the early nineties with a team made up of french-speaking English, Irish and American priests and one national from France, a real effort were made to include all francophone or francophile people and therefore the parish became more racially diversified.
It benefitted from this diverse influx both culturally and spiritually and both in richness and diversity. , with a predominance of more African -orientated activities, i.e. prayer groups, pentecostal ones and a fantastic African-dominated choir.
I wish however that there was at least one catholic action movement, based on the: “ SEE, JUDGE and ACT” of Cardinal Cardyjn of the ACTION CATHOLIQUE OUVTIERE.
6. What is special about this space?
The round shape with the focus on the Altar with its near-centre position, following the Vatican Council emphasis on such a disposition for liturgical reasons and changes.
I also think that it is like the sun and its rays, it represents the church and its missionary attitude, the church being like the sun and its activities the rays.
7. If you could redesign one element of the building what would you do?
To have all the seating arrangements more altar orientated, instead of having the rows on the aisles facing bare walls.
A small wish that we get back the crypt from the Leicester Square theatre