While I lived in France in 1979, working as an au pair, I had a chance to attend mass with the family at Saint Gatien’s Cathedral, the Gothic Roman Catholic cathedral in Tours. My visit to this ancient building, built between 1170 and 1547, was an an unusual experience and I write about it in my memoir, French Illusions, My Story as an American Au Pair in the Loire Valley. Here is an excerpt:
“Eventually, we crossed over the Wilson Bridge into Tours and pulled up in front of the Cathédrale Saint-Gatien. I spun toward Monsieur Dubois, open-mouthed. “The church service is here? I had no idea.”
Walking toward the building, I took in the massive, flamboyant structure and my stomach lurched. Towering above us, the ornate cathedral displayed a complex combination of Romanesque, Gothic and Renaissance architecture.
“How old is the church?” My voice was filled with wonder.
“Twelfth century, I believe. Named after Bishop Saint Gatien.”
Monsieur Moulon led the way to the west façade of the church admired for its intricate spires. We entered through one of the three ornate doorways, dwarfed beneath elaborate stained-glass panes.
Once inside, one by one we immersed our fingers into holy water and then made the sign of the cross over our faces and chests. While everyone moved forward and found seats, I held back—drinking in the nave’s soaring heights, admiring the incredible apse, embellished with elegant multi-colored glass windows. To my left, a grand organ sat poised, ready to bring joy and music into the space.
Soon after I joined the group, organ music filled the nave. A somber priest in elaborate robes entered, along with a deacon and altar boys. They progressed down the aisle while the congregation sang a French hymn, their bodies bent toward the priest as he blessed them with holy water.
Once the procession reached the altar, the priest greeted his congregation in French and then performed a series of tasks, including ceremonial swings of a golden vessel containing lit incense toward the congregation. The scent of spices mixed with citrus from the frankincense wafted toward us, prompting memories of countless services my family and I attended in the past.
Throughout the service, Colette cooperated fully. Catching her eye, I mouthed the words “bien fait” to show my approval.
Monsieur Dubois noted her behavior as well, and I watched as he draped his arm around her shoulders, pulling her close with obvious pride. When the Mass ended, the priest gave us his final blessing. We all sang a hymn as he left the nave followed by the rest of his entourage.
On our way out of the cathedral, Monsieur Dubois helped with translations and I thanked Monsieur Moulon for his invitation.
“Merci pour l’invitation.”
“Je suis bien content que vous ayez assisté à la messe,” he responded kindly. “Je ne manquerai pas de vous inviter à nouveau la prochaine fois.” He was glad I had come and promised to invite me again.”