By Steven C. Wick, AOMI
Part III of a three-part series. Click Here to see Part I Click Here to see Part II
Aix en Provence: Oblate Foundation House
The Oblate Foundation House served as our base during several side trips described in the previous Oblate Pilgrimage article. However, living in the very house St. Eugene purchased to establish the Oblate Congregation was of itself a great experience and privilege. The house is located in Aix en Provence on a main boulevard which is lined with towering trees, wide sidewalks and ornate, ancient, but well kept, three story houses on either side. Charming little Aix is highly prized by the French today as a very desirable place to retire assuming one has the means.
The building Fr. Eugene purchased two hundred years ago from the Carmelites was already just two hundred and thirty years old! From the street, the most impressive feature of the house is an ecclesiastically carved façade above wide stairs: the street access to the public chapel. This chapel is very beautifully decorated and highlighted by a statue of the Blessed Mother. Located between the public chapel and the private Oblate chapel directly behind is the tabernacle shared by both facilities with an access door on either side. It struck me that the two adjoining chapels are a perfect physical emanation of St. Eugene’s balance between his public ministry toward the salvation of souls and his deeply intimate personal spiritual growth and development always with Christ the center.
The team of resident Foundation House Oblate priests and brothers is led by Fr. Bonga Majola, OMI who warmly greeted us and gave out room assignments to all with our own key to the front door. Our spacious well-furnished room was on the third floor directly over the private Oblate chapel. The multi-cased window set in two foot plus thick walls looked out over a beautiful inner courtyard with a central fountain. At 6:00 PM, individuals and groups of two or three fell silent and began ambulating to the darkened Chapel for the traditional daily Oblate L’oraison or Oratio as prescribed from the earliest days by St. Eugene. With a taper, someone lights a candle on the altar. All sit together in silence. The Oratio is a profoundly beautiful experience. There was something deeply peaceful and compelling about sitting before the Blessed Sacrament with some thirty people in total silence save for the occasional throat-clearing and creak of wooden pews while all are in prayer, meditation, or contemplation. I found myself looking forward each day to this simple half hour before vespers followed by dinner and always surprised at how fast goes the time.
We hike downstairs and line up in front of tables loaded with steaming platters set up in the grand hallway by the always busy staff to await the blessing. After serving ourselves cafeteria style, we move to two smaller dining rooms still decorated for Christmas with an international crèche display. The meals are simple but delicious and plentiful with a surprising variety and always, in true French fashion, served with wine. We also were offered the famous Marseilles specialty, Pastis, nicknamed “Pastaga”, an anise-flavored liqueur. Taste was not too bad but takes some getting used to.
The morning of our first full day at the Foundation House, our pilgrim group was assembled in the Oblate Chapel. Fr. Santucci, OMI led us in prayer with a gospel reading (Christ recruiting fishermen) and talk about how St. Eugene purchased then restored the building and this very chapel where all the major decisions about establishing the religious order along with building public ministry occurred in this very room.
We then broke into two groups; each led single file up a narrow twisting staircase to the Foundation Room. This consisted of two spaces: the hallway which was where St. Eugene originally slept and the main room which featured a poorly vented fireplace where they cooked their primitive meals. In the center was a plank resting upon two barrels for a table. Our small group all sat around this table. We were read several descriptions of those first days when Fr. Eugene and his first three companion priests began their “Missionaries of Provence”. On the table was an Oblate Cross and in the center was a glass capsule on a stand. This was introduced as the physical heart of St. Eugene encapsulated in glass. Upon his death he cried explaining he was not crying because he was dying but because he was leaving his brothers he so loved. His heart was as big as the world. Fr. Bonga, OMI then reverenced the heart and passed it to each one of us to hold and kiss. Amazing! This was an extraordinarily moving experience. We then went back to the chapel without a dry eye in the group while the second group went up. St. Eugene’s last words to his brothers were: “Practice among yourselves charity… charity… charity… and outside, zeal for the salvation of souls.”
This Anniversary Pilgrimage underscored an enriched meaning of Oblate charism and heightened our appreciation of what a great privilege and blessing it is to be associated with this two hundred year old congregation and its thousands of dedicated and committed priests, brothers, and associates all under the spiritual leadership of Bishop St. Eugene de Mazenod and his faithful successors. Praised be Jesus Christ and Mary Immaculate!