Monday, June 29, 2009

Home Away from Home

Basilique Ste.-Clotilde, 2007

My wife and I were in Paris. It was mid-May, springtime in Virginia, but unexpectedly wintry in Paris. We arrived early on a Sunday morning when there was almost no traffic or anyone out on the streets yet. It being too early to check into our hotel, we explored the neighborhood in search of a warm place to eat and while away some time. But even after a leisurely meal of croissants, hot chocolate and tea, it was still too early to return to the hotel. So, like all good fallen children and grandchildren of clergy faced with a bitter cold and gray morning with a hint of rain in the air, we went to church.

The Basilica of St. Clotilde was just around the corner from our hotel. The parish priest, standing at the door and noticing us gawking from the square out front—we were actually debating whether there might be heat inside—invited us in. We responded with the usual, “No thanks, we’re not Catholics” look that works so well in other places. But whether it was my fractured French that was too vague to make our intentions clear or his sense that we needed some community, the priest continued to beckon us in. (And let’s not forget, there was the prospect of heat indoors.)

A congenial group of three score or so parishioners of all ages—and all stylish in that way that so many Parisians aregathered for the service. Even on an overcast day light pouring through stained glass windows painted the interior in a spectrum of colors. We sat politely toward the back of the group, feeling a little out of place and underdressed from our overnight flight. But the people sitting around us welcomed us graciously and drew us into their company.

I can’t say it was any warmer inside, but we soon forgot about the cold as the service proceeded. Before it was over, the priest had delivered a stern homily, visitors from several countries were welcomed and my wife and I cheered two new babies into Christendom as if we’d lived in the 7th Arrondissement and known their families all our lives. Soloists perched way above and behind us were accompanied by a magnificent organ. (No slouch, this place, when it comes to music. César Franck was the organist here for more than forty years.)

Throughout our stay in Paris, we visited St. Clotilde several times to watch children play in the square out front, to watch a stylish wedding party process into and out of the church, and to relax in the small park outside on afternoons when the weather finally turned warm. Whenever he saw us on the street or in shops in the neighborhood, the priest greeted us like family and invited us to return to St. Clotilde for whatever was going on that day.


  1. There are such beautiful churches and cathedrals in Europe, so one pretty much has to go see them, right? It's the rules, right? And how lovely that you actually felt welcomed there like family. That photo of the little girl is wonderful!

  2. Love the photo and the story. I think you should go back and find the baby who was christened for a follow-up :)