France mourns priest allegedly killed by man he had sheltered

Police in Vendée say man awaiting trial for Nantes cathedral fire confessed to murder

The 60-year-old French Catholic priest was found in his room in the monastery at Saint-Laurent-sur-Sèvre, western France. Photograph: Sebastien Salom-Gomis / AFP via Getty

A 40-year-old man turned himself in to gendarmes in Vendée, western France, on Monday morning and confessed to having murdered Fr Olivier Maire (60), superior general of the order of Montfortain missionary priests in Vendée.

Fr Olivier was found in his room in the monastery at Saint-Laurent-sur-Sèvre. He had suffered blows, according to a police source quoted by the Agence France Presse.

Emmanuel Abayisenga, the alleged killer, is a Rwandan asylum seeker who had been interned in a psychiatric hospital from June 20th until July 29th, 2021. He was lodged by Fr Olivier in the monastery before and after his internment. He was returned to psychiatric care on Monday night.

The deputy prosecutor of La Roche-sur-Yon, Yannick Le Goater, said there was no question of radicalisation or terrorism. It was Fr Olivier who had called the gendarmerie last June 20th to alert the authorities that Mr Abayisenga wanted to leave the monastery, he added.


Santino Brembilla, the leader of the Montfortain fathers, told France Info radio that the order was "in a state of intense suffering" over the priest's murder. "He was a religious man of great value. He was a specialist of our spirituality."

The Montfortain order is known for taking care of people no one else will look after.

Fr Olivier had grown up in Besançon, studied in Rome and lived in Uganda before settling in Vendée. President Emmanuel Macron rendered homage to the priest "in the name of the nation". Photographs of the victim show a smiling man with a gentle expression, grey hair and beard and glasses. "Generosity and love of others were written on his face," Mr Macron said.

On July 26th, 2016, Fr Jacques Hamel was stabbed to death while saying Mass in a small town near Rouen by two young North African Arabs affiliated with the Islamic State group.

Mr Abayisenga arrived in France in 2013 and was awaiting trial on charges of having set fire to Nantes cathedral in July 2020. A Catholic, he was a volunteer in the diocese of Nantes and was entrusted with responsibility for locking the cathedral. He confessed to the arson attack and was under police surveillance. Three expulsion orders had been lodged against Mr Abayisenga, in 2016, 2017 and 2019.

Political issue

The murder case quickly became a political issue. "In France, you can be an illegal alien, set fire to the Nantes cathedral, never be deported and murder a priest," the far right-wing leader Marine Le Pen tweeted.

The interior minister, Gérald Darmanin, who visited the scene of the crime, responded to Ms Le Pen’s tweet with indignation: “Rather than expressing compassion to the Catholics who welcomed this murderer, Madam Le Pen wants to have an argument without knowing the facts. This foreigner could not be deported despite an expulsion order, because he was under judiciary surveillance.” Ms Le Pen claimed that Mr Abayisenga could have been deported since 2019.

Mr Abayisenga was described by the Catholic newspaper La Croix as a Hutu whose family had participated in the Hutu genocide against Tutsis when he was 15 years old. His father was executed in reprisals. At the age of 24, he reportedly became an officer in the Rwandan judiciary police, but left his country for France where he applied for political asylum. His application was repeatedly rejected and he was ordered to leave the country. The diocese of Nantes had sponsored him for several years and continued to support him, even after he set fire to the cathedral, the right-wing magazine Valeurs Actuelles reported.

“To attack a priest is always to attack France,” Mr Darmanin said in a press conference in Vendée.

Senator Bruno Retailleau from Vendée described Fr Olivier as "a man of great faith and culture... who said beautiful homilies with Biblical references... He lodged marginal people, in particular the homeless."

Lara Marlowe

Lara Marlowe

Lara Marlowe is an Irish Times contributor