Tonight, many of us on the Historic Organ Study Tour attended the special St. Fiacre mass at the Cathedral Notre Dame de l’Annonciation in Nancy, France, and it was a spectacle the likes of which I’ve never seen!
We had visited the Cathedral a couple of days ago and they were just starting to decorate, but tonight, I was simply blown away by the enormous displays of plants, flowers, fruits and vegetables used to decorate the place. With about a thousand people in attendance, you could certainly say this was a BIG DEAL in Nancy, an annual event celebrating the death of Irish St. Fiacre who died on August 30, 670 AD.
If you check out Wikipedia, you’ll find that Fiacre lived in a hermitage in County Kilkenny. His unwanted fame as one skilled with herbs, a healer and holy man, caused disciples to flock to him. Seeking greater solitude, he left his native land and sought refuge in France, at Beaux. He approached St Faro, the Bishop of Meaux, to whom he made known his desire to live a life of solitude in the forest. St Faro assigned him a site at Breuil, in the region of Brie. Here Fiacre built an oratory in honour of the Virgin Mary, a hospice in which he received strangers, and a cell in which he himself lived apart. He lived a life of great mortification, in prayer, fast, vigil, and the manual labor of the garden. He died on 18 August 670. St Faro allowed Fiacre as much land as he might entrench in one day with a furrow; Fiacre turned up the earth with the point of his staff, toppling trees and uprooting briers and weeds. A suspicious woman hastened to tell Faro that he was being beguiled and that this was witchcraft. Faro, however, recognized that this was the work of God. From this point on it is said St Fiacre barred women, on pain of severe bodily infirmity, from the precincts of his monastery.
The statue of St. Fiacre was carried into procession at the beginning of the service, along with a huge parade of people dressed in gardening clothes and carrying baskets of fruits, vegetables and rolls of bread. At the end, we were all to remain in place while the statue was carried out and returned to the side chapel where it normally resides.
Even though the Mass was all in French, it was so easy to follow the service order: Kyrie, Gloria (Gloire à Dieu), first lesson, Psalm (psaume), second lesson, Alleluia, Gospel (Evangile), Creed (Credo), Prayer of the Church (Prière universelle), Offertory procession (procession des offrandes), Sanctus, Lord’s Prayer (Notre Père), Lamb of God (Agnus), Invitation to the table (Partageons le pain du Seigneur à la table de l’univers), Ave Maria and Blessing (Oraison-Bénédiction). In the program, it said that the soloist would sing the Ave Maria (the Bach-Gounod setting) but the lady sitting behind us decided to chime in and sing along, even though it was pitched in the key of F and had a high ‘A’! I must say that every time I hear the service in a foreign language, I am always convinced of the universality of the church.
As for the Jean Bizot’s organ playing, this was certainly the model of what French service playing is all about, and it reminded me so much of my months sitting at Saint-Sulpice listening to Marcel Dupré improvise three services every Sunday (1968). Tonight’s organist improvised throughout, beginning with a grand entrance which led into the opening responsive hymn. A female cantor led all the singing from a microphone at the front, as is the custom in many Catholic parishes, and then sang the verses accompanied by the organ, with the congregation joining in the refrains. Even though I was frustrated that only the words were printed in the leaflet, and not the music, much of the congregational singing was in “call and response” style, making it easier to join in.
I would say that the organist improvised throughout most of the service, especially during the communion. The only piece of literature he played was for the postlude, and naturally, it was Widor’s Toccata from the Fifth Symphony.
By the way, the rolls of bread were distributed to all the congregation as they exited the church, and the huge doors of the church were opened, with the city street in plain view. By the time we exited, however, they had run out of rolls and gave us each flowers.
What a memorable service!