Thursday 23 June 2011

Béziers' best kept secret...

If you like your France à la Peter Mayle, then Béziers isn't the city for you: try Aix or St Remy or some of the pretty Luberon villages instead. There's nothing easy or gentle about Beziers: it rises jagged and arid above the vineyards of the Herault; life on its narrow streets slightly tinged by a shimmering heat haze of madness. It's a Babylon where North African, Gitane, French, Catalan, and Occitane words and dialects colour the local accent. It's beautiful but hard work; invigorating but tiring. In short: not the sort of place you'd expect to find a tranquil haven.

I should come clean here and admit that I'm a glutton for punishment when it comes to cities: many of my favourite places are those that don't instantly reveal their charms, the kind of place you either love or hate. I remember some 15 years ago a colleague at work almost spitting in indignation that anybody could possibly love that hot, noisy, rude city... Béziers. But I do.

Take a look at this link to Google maps: This is Place Garibaldi. Click on StreetView and do a 360' tturn on the spot. Remarkably unremarkable, it's in the heart of a commercial, predominantly Arab district - busy, noisy and dusty: a major arterial route through the centre of town. The narrow side streets have excellent small grocery shops that sell Raz-el-hanout and "maison" tagine spice mixes. Yum. But today we're not here for physical sustenance, rather something longer-lasting.

This is the doorway of 2 bis Pl. Garibaldi, Beziers (you can see it on the StreetView link above behind a large blue van that's in the foreground). Even an observant passer-by would spot very little to attract attention; and if such a passer-by were overtaken by curiosity and feel impelled to duck inside this particular doorway to see what he might find, he would discover an entrance hall like a hundred thousand others in French urban buildings, with an unremarkable staircase leading to appartments on the upper floors. Unless, that is, it was a Sunday or Holy Day.

On a Sunday or Holy Day our observer's eye would be led to an open pair of doors at the back of the entrance hall, leading into a large bright vestibule with a tell-tale statue of Saint Rita with votive candles lit before her at one end. If it was a Sunday or Holy Day he might also hear the pure strains of plainsong. Our traveller would have arrived at Chapelle Sainte-Rita: Bezier's best kept secret.

For the past 12 years the Extraordinary Form of the Mass has been prayed here every Sunday morning and every Holy Day. The chapel is devoted to the EF. Years before the Motu Proprio, a traddie-friendly Bishop gave permission for the older form of the Mass to be said here on a regular basis, and a new parish was born. Strictly speaking, it's a "parish within a parish" as the Chapelle is attached to the parish church next to the Cathedral and many parishioners attend their daily Mass there in the Ordinary Form. But what a parish - probably the youngest, most dynamic parish that I can recall: at 41 I felt like an oldie! Large families, new families, teenagers, young couples in their 20s, lots of babies, and a fair sprinkling of older and elderly parishioners as well. I'm used to parishes that pray the Extraordinary Form being far more demographically healthy than the average parish, but this group was positively thriving. The Parish Priest appears to have boundless energy and is wonderfully orthodox, having been ordained in 2005 by the Institut du Christ-Roi Souverain Prêtre, and it is wonderful to see his relationship with both young and old. He also turns out to be a friend of our local Parish Priest (in France) with whom we get on very well - another advocate of the Benedictine reforms. As a family we were welcomed to the Chapelle Sainte-Rita community as though we were long lost parishioners, and instantly invited to events, our eldest son invited to serve the following Sunday. The choir is wonderful, the chapel acoustics lovely. Can you tell that we're delighted?

We've found a true home from home in France, and I heartily recommend any devotees of the old rite looking for Mass in the western Herault to come to Chapelle Sainte-Rita in Beziers (2 Bis, Place Gambetta). There's a hidden pearl of great price behind that innocuous doorway.


  1. I don't know Beziers at all but I never fail to be impressed by the Institute, a very fine body of men, very fine priests. (And contemplative Sisters, too!)

  2. The main ICRSP community here is in Montpellier, although there is a house in Beziers. We've been invited to visit the community in Montpellier and are hoping to take up the invitation later this year. I agree -- they are wonderful, I'm really impressed by the solidity and orthodoxy of their young priests ... and a good number of vocations too!