From Wicklow to Paris via Belfast: An Irishwoman’s Diary on Fr Aidan Troy and St Joseph’s
Fr Aidan Troy: “You can’t just put plastic over violence and say it’s done. The trauma remains.” Photograph: Emmanuel Fradin
Few parishes can boast a history as eventful as that of St Joseph’s, the English-speaking Catholic church in Paris.
After the original church was consecrated 150 years ago, just a block from the Arc de Triomphe, the Passionist fathers who founded it survived the Prussian siege and the Commune.
The 1871 revolt was so virulently anti-clerical that an archbishop of Paris was assassinated in its wake. Then the Third Republic imposed a special tax on churches, on the pretext they had to make up for death duties not paid by religious orders. St Joseph’s could not pay the 16,699 francs the government demanded. It was bailed out by a rich American.
St Joseph’s was confiscated by the government under the 1905 law on separation of church and state. The Passionists bought it back. They ministered to British and American soldiers during the first World War, then witnessed the influx of Irish maids and nannies, and American artists and writers, in the 1920s and 1930s.
During the second World War, the Passionist order sent Irish rather than British priests to Paris, because their neutral passports afforded a degree of protection under Nazi occupation.
In the 1970s and 1980s, notes Fr Aidan Troy, the parish priest of St Joseph’s for the past 11 years, the lovely, 1869 neo-Gothic church began sinking into the ground, even as vocations in Britain were sinking. Control of St Joseph’s was definitively transferred from the mother house in Highgate in London, to Mount Argus in Dublin.
As the official in charge of the ecclesiastical province that included Paris, Fr Troy took the painful decision to demolish the old church in 1985. “It was too dangerous,” he recalls. “I would rather have no church at all than run the risk of one child being injured.”
The church was rebuilt, underground, in brutalist cement. The grotto-like sanctuary is spacious, with a shaft of daylight entering through a glass pyramid on the roof garden. “I’ve come to like it an awful lot as a building,” Fr Troy says. “The slanted floor is like a cinema, so you see the people in the back rows.”
Fr Troy, from Wicklow, is now 73. He became famous for shielding children from jeers and projectiles on their way to school during the Holy Cross dispute in Ardoyne in 2001.
The priest had just arrived in Belfast, after long stints in Soweto and Rome, when loyalists blockaded the school, claiming ill-treatment at the hands of Catholics. The ugly confrontation lasted six months.
When then-president Mary McAleese visited Paris in 2005, she asked to call on St Joseph’s.
“She was from Ardoyne and used to come and see me at Holy Cross,” Fr Troy recalls. “She brought me frequently to the Áras, from Belfast. Her husband Martin did a lot of cross-community work, talking to Protestants who hated me. He managed to sit us all down at the same table together.”
Paris, too, has known its sorrows, from the terrorists attacks of 2015 to the recent gilets jaunes revolt and fire at Notre Dame cathedral.
“You can’t just put plastic over violence and say it’s done,” Fr Troy says. “The trauma remains. Paris is a beautiful city, but violence puts a scar on people.”
Soon after the death of Grace Kelly in a car accident in 1982, Prince Rainier, Albert, Caroline and Stephanie came to Mass at St Joseph’s, which is near their Paris apartment. They came often, while the old church was standing.
The former US secretary of state John Kerry showed up for Mass one Sunday morning, when he was meeting his Russian counterpart for an emergency summit in Paris.
The church is also linked to Oscar Wilde, because Fr Cuthbert Dunne, an Irish priest from St Joseph’s, was sent for when the writer was dying in a left bank hotel in November 1900. Though Wilde was from a Protestant family, Dunne annointed him and administered the last rites.
A controversy ensued over Wilde’s deathbed conversion. Fr Dunne insisted that although Wilde had lost the power of speech, he “showed signs of a sincere conversion” and “died a child of the Catholic Church”.
Today, about 2,000 people from more than 40 countries attend five Masses every weekend at St Joseph’s.
The Irish are a relatively small contingent, since more attend Msgr Hugh Conolly’s Mass at the Irish College Chapel.
St Joseph’s is the place of worship for a host of Filipina and Sri Lankan domestic staff. There are many Nigerian parishioners, ranging in social status from oil executives to refugees.
“A lot of ambassadors come here,” says Fr Troy.
“Sometimes I see ambassadors and people who I know are undocumented, sitting on the same bench. At the sign of peace, they shake hands. It only lasts for an hour or two, but it’s an oasis.”