Small city, close community: being Catholic in a small town

With its narrow streets, its small stone bridges over the river and its old city centre, Chartres attracts by its charm. Situated in the “Centre” region in the north of France about an hour south of Paris, the city is famous for its Cathedral set on top of a hill that’s visible from miles out of town. 

A small town is more likely to form a community in which everyone has a role to play. And inside that community, smaller ones exist that will have to do mostly with the identity of the town. In Chartres, the centre piece is the cathedral built on top of the hill and at the heart of the old city centre, looking over the shops, the city and its surroundings. Being the first – and main – attraction of the city, it is natural that a big Catholic community lives here. 

At a time when religion is no longer a main trait of the daily life, it is easier to see communities building and growing over time, having an identity and almost a label. So, in small towns like Chartres, practicing a religion means belonging to a group, an identity and a set of ideas. 

A decline in religion 

We are currently in what the French sociologist Jérôme Fouquet calls “a new era post-Christianity.” He gives importance to anthroponomy, the study of names which reflect society. There is nowadays a decline in the traditional Christian names such as the famous “Mary”. While religion is no longer at the heart of people’s life and religious practice has declined over the years, more and more people don’t even affiliate with a religion anymore, or present themselves as atheist. 

According to a study from WIN/Gallup, 29 per cent of the French people studied said they were “convinced atheists” and 34 per cent affirmed they belonged to no religion. Meanwhile, a study by the French Institute of Public Opinion (IFOP) in 2010 said that 64 per cent of the French declared themselves Catholics, among which 57 per cent don’t attend Sunday mass. People who do go to mass represented, in 2010, only 4.5 per cent of the French population against 27 per cent in 1952. 

This shows that religion – in this case Catholicism – lost its importance over the years and that less and less believers devote their time to it. 

The benefits of a small town

According to the French National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies (Insee) from their last study, there were 38,578 inhabitants in Chartres in 2017. Although this number might seem big, Chartres is actually not that big of a city and is considered small by its inhabitants. In Chartres, everyone knows everyone, whether it’s personally or indirectly through someone else. As for every small town, there are the “famous” family names that everyone knows, such as the mayor’s family – the Gorges – or the owners and directors of the old classy hotel in the city centre – the Jallerats. Something that almost always happens there, is getting out and recognizing at least one person, if not five or ten. From the homeless man asking for cigarettes from everyone on the streets, to your hairdresser to the local optician; everyone is someone. 

Living in a small town obviously has its perks, such as easily finding more like-minded people. It makes it easier to be part of a community and create bonds with a group of people, like through religion for example. In Chartres, the most visible religion is Catholicism, and the Cathedral – a little more than eight centuries old – probably plays a central role in the formation of the community over time. In addition to attracting Catholics from out of town, the cathedral “Notre-dame of Chartres” is the main place for gatherings among the town’s Catholics. 

Mathilde de Sorbay, a 21-year-old catholic student from Chartres, said that “being a catholic in a small town like Chartres is practical because you know families fast, you find yourself in diverse events with other Catholics and you push each other to participate in them.” 

“Chartres is a human size city,” said Father Sébastien Robert, a priest in Chartres and the area around. “It enables people to know each other more.” He explained for example, the 4×4 dinners. In winter, 50 pairs of people have dinner at each other’s place. “We don’t necessarily know each other. When we do, it’s a way among others to see each other. In any case, these dinners are makers of links.”

The Schools’ role 

The private schools in Chartres are an important channel in building this catholic community. Coming back to the fact that Chartres is a small town and communities are created, people usually go to the same schools. It starts with primary schools, and then chances are you will be in secondary school with at least half the people you already know. Then the same goes for high school, and the fact that there is only one private high school in Chartres means you end up with everyone you’ve been to school with since you were little. 

Going to private schools means being taught the history and principles of Catholicism through religion classes. Mandatory at first – no matter your religion, or lack of – the classes loosen up and disappear in high school. And then only believers form a group, go to the occasional lunch mass and participate in voluntary actions and events. The private schools are thus the place where children – whose parents most likely know each other already through their church – strengthen their belonging to the catholic community. According to Mathilde, “You find yourself with people you know from the mass, the scouts… and it enables nice discussions about faith questions and values. And it’s true that between catholic families, we know each other fast.”

Interlinked 

The thing with small towns is that they have more of a sense of growing up together and more links exist between institutions such as schools and church. A priest can act as a medium between these two by acting as a chaplain in schools for example. He is then an actor in the teaching and conveying of Catholicism to the young. Most importantly, he has a direct contact with children and teenagers; and by being priest in a small town, is able to follow young Catholics through their youth and faith. 

Father Sébastien Robert is 39-year-olds and has been chaplain in some private schools in Chartres for seven years, thus following a promotion from their entry in secondary school until their graduation. “Having a priest following me from secondary school into high school is great because you can have a true relation with him and trust, and then involve yourself in the events or activities proposed” said Mathilde de Sorbay. 

The chaplain along with an entire team, offers young Catholics guidance through their school cycle to “elevate them spiritually and physically.” Because according to Father Robert, supporting them in their faith isn’t just done by giving spiritual guidance, but also by helping them grow mentally and physically. “We are a team, helping through schooling and sports as well. Because religion does not manifest only spiritually.”

Catholics can gather and exchange through diverse activities in Chartres. For example, the cathedral has a choir where they can take classes of religious songs and perform at masses. “Having participated in the choir enabled me to pass on faith through singing, and it’s quite impressive to be able to help people praying at the mass, and especially at the cathedral,” said Mathilde. 

Separated but connected 

During these times of coronavirus, it has become challenging for the church and believers to keep their religious habits. It is the entire way religion is organized that has changed. People can no longer attend masses, gather in groups or participate in events. However, according to Father Robert, the catholic community in Chartres has been very creative and quick to react to changes. “I was amazed! Lots of people have ideas, and everyone is adapting.” 

While masses are filmed and uploaded online, young Catholics gather online to speak and do games together. “For the lonely, there are telephone channels that are created, and we also help people with grocery shopping,” Father Robert said. Churches are still open for those who want; with respect of the confinement and distances. As for praying, it can be done online or through praying groups on the telephone. “Links have not faded, they’ve been transformed.”

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