The church at Laroque d’Olmes has a very fine organ. It’s an instrument with an illustrious history. Built in the 18th century, it was moved from its original home in the Chapel Royal at Versailles in 1989. For the last 4 years, it has been the subject of a Battle Royal.
You’ll know that France is a proudly laïque (secular) nation. In the UK, most of us perhaps became aware of this through the foulard controversy, when Muslim schoolchildren were no longer allowed to wear headscarves or other symbols of their faith in school. It was easy for the British to interpret this as racism, but in fact Christian symbols such as crosses are equally frowned on unless very discreet. Religious studies are not taught in school, and the very idea of a Christian school assembly seems completely bizarre to the French – as it increasingly does in the UK too of course. Because of this laïcité, church buildings and furnishings are the property of the community in which they are situated, and that community pays for much of their upkeep.
Over the years then, communities such as Laroque have had the responsibility for buildings that may be in poor shape, even to the extent of being a public danger (towers in danger of subsidence – that sort of thing). In addition, Laroque, keen at the time to see such a prestigious organ installed in its midst, has over the years, together with other public bodies, made available 74% of the monies need for its upkeep.
The council in Laroque didn’t want the organ simply for the regular congregation, or even for the draw that it represented to renowned organists, keen to accept concert engagements enabling them to play on such a prestigious instrument. Small as the town is (2000+ inhabitants), it has a School of Music, with the usual range of after-school classes, bands and orchestras. With such an organ as this, what a chance to give a new generation of young people the opportunity to learn to play this very special instrument!
They made the decision that the School of Music should appoint a well-qualified teacher of the instrument. A protocol (2003) and a convention (2006) was worked out between the École de Musique and the curé, allowing access for up to 20 hours per week to the teacher and pupils; a highly qualified young musician was offered the post, and accepted.
Since then, it’s all gone wrong. Quite simply, the curé refuses them admittance to the church: no reason given. He HAS offered very limited access from time to time, but at periods that are quite simply impossible for either the teacher or her students. So she now teaches the basics on – a synthesiser. He no longer permits the free concerts staged in the church at Christmas and on St. Cecilia’s day (patron saint of music). Parents, pupils, town councillors and many parishioners and citizens are enraged by this turn of events, but nothing so far has persuaded the curé to change his stance. Nor has the Mayor demonstrated any leadership over this issue.
The magnificent organ has its Society of Friends, who organise regular concerts with prestigious musicians. These draw audiences from far afield. There’s one of these concerts on Sunday. And this time, there’ll be a protest to go with it: letters to the musicians themselves, asking for support, and leaflets to the audience – general awareness raising. We’ve all been writing letters to the Bishop, to the press – anyone with possible influence. A State Mediator’s been requested.
And today, the lead story in our local paper tells how the Mayor and the curé plan to work together to solve the problem. Nobody much believes it. Quite simply, the commune’s entitled to keys to the church, and the curé’s not letting them out of his hands. The Mayor’s within his rights to demand those keys, and use them to let the musicians in. If he’d done this in the first place, Laroque’s young would-be organists wouldn’t still be practising on a synthesiser, and the École de Musique would still be giving regular – free – concerts in the church