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.
- La Petite Eglise
- Pérennité du mouvement anticoncordataire: deux siècles plus tard, les fidèles de la “Petite Eglise” persévèrent – Entretien avec Bernard Callebat et Jean-Pierre Chantin
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.
The 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.