The “Petite Eglise” of the Deux-Sèvres

This is a story of another time in history, which is little known in the English-speaking world. It is one I am posting today for the sake of historical knowledge and our general culture. This phenomenon is obscure because of its extremely local nature. The largest of the communities that refused the deal between Pope Pius VII and Napoleon Bonaparte in 1801 is that of the Deux-Sèvres. There were other dissidences, particularly in the Lyons area and the Walloon, the French-speaking part of what is now Belgium.

When I lived in the Vendée, I visited the village of Courlay and went to the Petite Eglise church. It was locked, but I could see quite a lot through the keyhole. The most striking thing about it is that there was no structure in front of the high altar for Mass facing the people. Otherwise it looked like any rural French village church. On the other hand, Mass has not been celebrated in this church since the early nineteenth century!

The Petite Eglise of the Deux-Sèvres is now mainly concentrated in the north-west of the Deux-Sèvres, essentially in Courlay, Cirières and Montigny. Those people describe themselves as “dissidents” or “those who share our ideas”. They are country folk, honest and hard-working, and remind me a little of the Amish in Pennsylvania.

doc-105The origin of this schism in readily available in history books. For those who read French, I recommend the following links:

A small bibliography can be found in the second of these two links.

Napoleon wanted a kind of settlement (idea familiar to us Anglicans thinking back to Elizabeth I) to settle the difference between the constitutional priests who signed the Civil Constitution of the Clergy and the non-juring or refractory clergy. It resembles something like the Russian Orthodox Church under Communism. There was the Patriarchate of Moscow and then the Russian Church in Exile, now known as the Russian Orthodox Church outside Russia and now back in communion with Moscow. Like the Greek Old Calendarists and the Old Believers, there remain a number of “non-juring” communities. Napoleon obtained a concordat with Pius VII, who was Bonaparte’s prisoner, to reorganise the dioceses of the French Church and have the clergy accept the authority of constitutional and refractory bishops alike.

It is the kind of problem that is found in almost all periods of church history, especially after the persecutions under the Roman Empire. The Donatists refused to have anything to do with Christians who had betrayed the Church or given secret liturgical texts to the persecutor. This was the essence of the controversy against which Saint Augustine fought. There is a point at which the moral conscience is excessively rigorist, across which the sin of betrayal or sacrilege is committed – and a point when some flexibility is required to obtain a greater good, across which too much complicity with the world destroys the whole point of Christianity. Those dividing lines are easy enough to understand in hindsight, but someone faced with such a moral dilemma has a hard time of it. This is also a part of our lot of being clergy and lay members of dissident Anglican Churches and broken-away Roman Catholic communities.

There is a close modern equivalent of the Petite Eglise, but one that is more urban and fragmented than those robust folk of the Vendée. “Home-alone” sedevacantists. These modern dissidents, whose ideology goes far beyond simple fidelity to the old Roman rite, orthodox doctrine or Christian political ideas, tend to be individuals. Here is a somewhat partial article on this subject by a sedevacantist priest – Home Alone?. This is an article by a home-aloner for objectivity. Home-aloners reject all clergy ordained since 1958 (death of Pius XII) and who have never been “compromised” by accepting the teaching of Vatican II. As most such priests are no longer alive, home-aloners do not go to church but rather practice their religion privately through lay devotions and other forms of prayer and worship not requiring a priest.

Back to our subject, Pius VII agreed to recognise the French Republic and the government of France in its turn recognised Catholicism as the religion of most of the French people. The Holy See let Napoleon name bishops to the various dioceses and require an oath of loyalty to the established government. The diocesan borders were changed to coincide with the Département. Thus the Archdiocese of Rouen covers the Seine Maritime, though there is now a suffragan Diocese of Le Havre for the western part of the Département. The part where I live is under Rouen. That arrangement was not changed by the Separation of Church and State in 1905.

The Concordat of 1801 was refused by a number of bishops like Bishop De Coucy who was at La Rochelle from 1789 until then and who was exiled in Spain to escape the guillotine. The grievances included the integration of constitutional clergy, the reduction of holy days of obligation, the obligation of contracting a civil marriage before the Mayor before being married in church, the oath of loyalty to the Republic and the retention of property seized at the Revolution (monasteries for example).

Many local communities split away and gathered in very localised areas. In 1820, the Petite Eglise numbered around 20,000 souls. That number quickly declined as the clergy died out and the bishops were not prepared to consecrate schismatic bishops. [It was probably this consideration that weighed most in Archbishop Lefebvre’s mind in 1988 as he consecrated four bishops against the will of Pope John Paul II.] Indeed, the last bishop died in 1830, and only the worst quality of priests could be found: immoral priests, alcoholics, adventurers, charlatans, false priests, etc. After a time, they gave up on priests and entrusted the responsibility of their communities to laymen. Worship was definitively lay-led from 1847. Thus, in Courlay, the leader is chosen from the same Texier family, descended from the parents of Fr Pierre Texier (1758-1826). The women have their responsibilities in the schools and looking after the churches. Here is the church at Courlay.

petite-eglise-courlayThe particularity of the Petite Eglise, like the Amish in America, is not to proselytise or recruit converts. They kept themselves to themselves, and to this day, it is difficult for newspaper reporters of academic researchers to find what they are looking for or to visit a church. By 1958, they were down to about 3,150 souls.

There have been concessions by the Roman Catholic Church in regard to the dissidents, Archbishop Gerlier of Lyons in particular, in the 1950’s. The dissidents were acknowledged as Roman Catholics despite their separation for political and historical reasons. They could receive Roman Catholic sacraments like any Roman Catholic, but it seems that none have availed of this provision. Likewise, a dialogue with the Dutch Old Catholic Church in the nineteenth century came to nothing.

Worship is in the church, but many devotional practices are at home in families. It consists of parts of the Mass without the offertory to the communion, a spiritual “communion of desire”, the Office and traditional lay devotions. A Sunday service takes about two hours. Their fasting practices are very rigorous, and they also abstain from cheese and eggs. Women must wear the veil, and modest dress is a must, as in many traditionalist RC chapels in our own times. Men sit on one side of the church and the women on the other.

The Petite Eglise has two true Sacraments: Baptism and Marriage. The French government dispenses these people from a prior civil wedding before being married in church. One would suppose that the lay leader has delegated powers from Monsieur le Maire. They make confession directly to God and choose their own penance (people can be very hard on themselves).

They use an old catechism from before 1789, so it would be more or less based on the Catechism of the Council of Trent. The children are taught intensively for a month preceding their solemn “communion”, and are dispensed from school. They have their own cemeteries, and are not buried in the regular Roman Catholic cemetery. The graves are oriented to the west.

Their social mores are very similar to the Amish, though young people often leave the community, marry a Roman Catholic and enter secular life. Modern secular life is taking its toll on the Petite Eglise as on all religion in France. I have no accurate information on current statistics or numbers of faithful.

A word of warning to the unwary. Some of the episcopi vagantes of our own times have attempted to claim legitimacy through some kind of connection with the Petite Eglise. At no time has the Petite Eglise accepted ministrations from “wandering” clergy or even from the Dutch Old Catholic Church. They have been totally without clergy from the first half of the nineteenth century.

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12 Responses to The “Petite Eglise” of the Deux-Sèvres

  1. Michael Frost says:

    I suspect you’re probably right when you opined:

    “Many local communities split away and gathered in very localised areas. In 1820, the Petite Eglise numbered around 20,000 souls. That number quickly declined as the clergy died out and the bishops were not prepared to consecrate schismatic bishops. [It was probably this consideration that weighed most in Archbishop Lefebvre’s mind in 1988 as he consecrated four bishops against the will of Pope John Paul II.]”

    He likely had the history of the Diocese of Utrecht in mind. The attempted ties which you mention between these respective French and Dutch Churches is interesting. Too bad Utrecht eventually went horribly wrong regarding WO and homosexuality. While they may have kept their bishops, priests, and sacraments, they, and their Old Catholic brethren, aren’t growing and appear to be headed for the eventual dustbin or museum of history. Though I suspect the same may end up being true for Lefebvre’s Church as well?

    • Michael Frost says:

      Many thanks for providing this fascinating information. Certainly not something I was previously much aware of. And I was most heartened by this:

      “The dissidents were acknowledged as Roman Catholics despite their separation for political and historical reasons. They could receive Roman Catholic sacraments like any Roman Catholic, but it seems that none have availed of this provision.”

      We should keep them in mind when discussing things like apostolic succession, ministry, and valid sacraments. In their own mystical way, under the Holy Ghost, they have maintained their link with Christ’s Church, her ministry, and her sacraments.

  2. Rdr. James Morgan says:

    I had never heard of this group before your post, Father, and I immediately thought of the Russian Old Ritualist communities in Oregon (I have a friend there who is a member), who practice a ‘non-priestly’ liturgy (only baptism and marriage are their sacraments) but whose fasting is also ‘rigourist’, and they separate men and women in church.
    East and west meet, in some ways!
    Rdr. James Morgan

  3. Alan Robinson says:

    Two questions.

    Didn’t many of them believe that Pius had gone mad and lost the faith and the papacy after the Concordat and thus become the first (?) sede vacantists ?

    Is it true that every Saturday the vestments are arranged in the Sacristy; do they hope for a mystical appearance or divine intervention and thus a Mass ? Thank you. Alan Robinson

    • I’ll have a look in the two French articles I linked to. It would appear that Pius VII was under constraint and not free in his acts as Pope – he was a prisoner of Napoleon. It would be interesting to find out if they believed the Roman See to be vacant. I think they lay out the vestments as an act of nostalgia rather than hoping for some kind of miracle.

      I don’t scoff at those people, because they have hung on now for two centuries and are still going without having lapsed into paganism. It is all a question of where the dividing lines are – and I perfectly understand why most people nowadays have given up religion altogether.

      The institutional Churches need to be more sensitive to the “gut reaction” Catholic with what the French call the faith of the coalman. Those people were the bedrock, not us urban intellectuals.

  4. Alan Robinson says:

    Yes, the faith of the Breton Fisherman. It is madness and unkind to mock or to tease people like this; a bit like The Old Believers or the Home-Aloners. From what you write they are serious,devout an good.

    • You obviously read my article about my sailing escapade in Brittany and my comments on the old fishermen who sailed over to Canada in brutal conditions to catch tons of cod. I’m sure the west of Ireland and Cornwall are no different. The toughest response to the Revolution in France came from the people of the Vendée and Brittany. Against the Reformation in England was the western uprising from Devon and Cornwall. My conclusion is that the sea makes a man of you and forms your character. Someone like that is just not going to take crap coming from bureaucrats and exalted characters in Paris and London.

      I’m sure most of the Orthodox Old Believers were country folk, and farmers are tough too. They don’t take nonsense and they are the hardest working people. There is a big divide between those folk and us urban intellectuals and “thinking” people (the evidence being our being literate, using computers and expressing ourselves). The nature of the “clerical state” has changed and now includes the elite of intellectual laity. Now the Church consists of two opposing clerical castes – one ordained and the other non-ordained, and the working folk are alienated.

      One of the greatest inspirations of the twentieth century was the Worker Priest movement, paralleled in the Church of England by Non-Stipendiary ministry. It took priests out of the clerical elite and put them with the people. It’s just a crying shame it all become political and forgot about Christ, the Gospel and the spiritual life! This is a great opportunity for many of us clergy in the Continuing Anglican Churches. Our Churches don’t have the money to make us a professional elite, so we just live in the world and do what we can. What an opportunity for something new!

      The “home-aloners” are not simply lapsed Catholics and not interested in religion or “spiritual but not religious”, but have made a conscious decision based on intellectual convictions to continue as devout Catholics but refuse to have anything to do with “bad” or “bogus” priests. They are more of the lay “clerical caste” than any kind of bedrock community. They are individuals, and probably their only social life is secular and outside religious circles. Their conviction is a variation of Donatism.

      I don’t judge them as “good” or “bad”, but respect their conscience. Sedevacantism is merely an attempt to solve the dilemma of an infallible Pope who isn’t infallible. For them, there is no Pope, because “heresy” automatically deposes the Pope. For the rest of us, the Pope isn’t infallible, so there’s nothing else to worry about. The Pope is simply a bishop with a historical primacy of honour and canonical authority, normally like any of the other Patriarchs descended from the Apostles.

      The position of Old Believers, Petite Eglise folk and sedevacantist “home-aloners” must make their life very hard and alienate them from even their families and create tensions in their social circles. They are deprived of the social dimension of the Church, and their spiritual life must be made very hard, requiring a lot of self-discipline. They seem to be devout and sincere, even if we believe them to be mistaken.

  5. Which side do the men and women respectively sit/stand on in church please?

    • Dale says:

      It depends. In most Orthodox churches the men stand on the right, which has the ikon of Christ on the Ikonostasis, and women on the left, which has the ikon of the BVM. In Switzerland, when I was a very young man, in more traditional Roman Catholic parishes, the men and women were separated in the same manner. In more traditional country churches in Greece, at least the last time I was in one, the men stood in the front and the women in the back.

      • I have seen the same thing (men on the right, women on the left) at funerals in a parish in France where I served as a deacon. Needless to say, the people who “follow the old traditions” never go to church except for this kind of occasion.

      • Thank you however I meant in regards to Petite Eglise in particular. Which side do men and women stand on in the Petite Eglise if anyone knows please?

        For your interest, in the Oriental Orthodox Churches (Coptic, Ethiopian, etc.) men stand on the northern side (left facing the altar) as it is written, “At thy right did stand the queen”. Thus the women are symbolical of the Queen (St Mary) and the men of Christ.

        From what I understand, the Eastern Orthodox approach is based upon the same verse but it is viewed from the perspective of Christ’s throne (on the altar) looking out into the congregation such that the women stand on the right when perceived from there. Hope that made sense.

  6. When I was in Kefalonia, it didn’t seem to matter where men and women sat. I stood (naturally) on the south side but was surrounded by old women. Indeed, most of the congregation were old women as I recall.

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