Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of May 5, 2003
In search of Ste. Jeanne d'Arc
A spiritual, radiant joy quietly permeates the place of death of this heroic saint
Jeanne d'Arc -- National fete -- May 11
By TED FITZGERALD
Special to the WCR
Jeanne of Arc murmured, "Ah Rouen, Rouen. "Is it here that I have to die?"
Parasols and people create a sea of moving colour in the exuberant spaces of the Old Market Square. Many loiter at outdoor tables, enjoying, in this festive milieu, a mid-morning galette with their caf‚-au-lait.
Many will visit the centrepiece and most unusual structure here, modern Eglise Ste. Jeanne d'Arc, architecturally out of place with most buildings in the ancient city core. This ulta-modern edifice of glass and steel, despite being a reminder that nearby, a famous saint and national heroine suffered rather than compromise her faith, is not a sombre place.
On May 30, 1431, 19-year-old Jeanne d'Arc, the Maid of Orleans, betrayed by fellow Frenchmen and abandoned by her king, was burnt at the stake. The spot is marked by a simple, tall metal cross.
Many are pleasantly surprised on entering the church to find the semi-circular interior bathed in multi-coloured light from 13 spectacular stained glass windows. These had been removed for safekeeping from the nearby 16th century church of St. Vincent before it was bombed in 1944.
Most visitors are familiar with the inspirational story of the French farm-girl whose visions instructed her to recover the country's throne for her liege lord, and how she led an army to raise the siege of the city of Orleans and saw her beloved dauphin anointed King Charles VII in Rheims.
Her death two years later gained "la Pucelle d'Orleans" a sympathetic following although it wasn't until 1920 that Jeanne was canonized. Then, in her honour, the government of France instituted the Fete Nationale de Ste. Jeanne d'Arc to be observed annually on the Sunday following May 8, the anniversary of the relief of Orleans (and also now the VE day holiday). Her feast day is celebrated May 30.
Sold to the English masters of Rouen, Jeanne was imprisoned there and subjected to a series of trials and indignities. She was condemned on charges of schism, idolatry, invocation of demons, etc. Bound to the stake in the city's Place du Vieux Marche, as the flames were about to consume her, the saint accepted a crude cross fashioned by an English boy.
Then in her torment she requested that a crucifix be held before her eyes. Jeanne died invoking Jesus, Mary and the saints and asking forgiveness for her tormentors. (Her trial was declared null and void by Pope Callistus III 25 years later.) The spirit of the saint still permeates the old stones and streets of Rouen. Tour Jeanne d'Arc, place of her captivity, has been reconstructed as a museum. From there, she was taken to a cemetery on the town's outskirts to be tried. This solemn place is barely recognizable now as it's been replaced by quiet, flowered gardens behind City Hall.
And in the great Cathedrale Notre Dame de Rouen, a statue of Jeanne, rapturous in chains while being consumed by the flames, graces her chapel/shrine. Displayed on the altar beneath is a replica of her great sword and the words from her victorious personal banner, "Jesus Maria." She is a patron of France, and of soldiers.