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Jefferson Hennessy is a Webmaster and feature article journalist with a Master of Arts degree in Creative Writing from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Jefferson is available for feature and profile story writing assignments. He is willing to travel. Click on the "view my complete profile" link to send Jefferson an email message.

Saturday, May 07, 2005

Father Jean-Marie Jammes: Part One

A gentle spirit enriches the Acadian tapestry.

Evidence to support the existence of divine intervention can be found in abundance while listening to Father Jean-Marie Jammes (pron. Shom) tell his life story.

On this quiet Saturday morning, Father Jammes’ journey of 75 years finds him silently reading historical clerical documents while fighting a losing battle against growing stacks of paper and precious books in his crowded office at the Saint Martin de Tours Ministry building in St. Martinville, Louisiana.

During an interview Father Jammes' tireless energy often causes him to rise from his chair to search his bookshelves for the perfect passage that will best illustrate his point in English. His most used reference books appear to be placed at eye level, or higher. While searching the shelves he strokes the dark whiskers on his chin and speaks aloud to himself in his native French tongue. Finally, after a careful search he says, "Ah yes. This will be very helpful to you I think," as he steps down from a small stool with prize in hand. While explaining his love of books he says, "I became an historian a little bit by accident, because what I like is to read all the time."

Jean-Marie Jammes was born in Marvejols, a small village nestled near the feet of the Margeride Mountains of central France, just northwest of Mende. During a return trip home a few years ago Father Jammes found more evidence of divination in his life in the form of a small, six by four inch green book.

While walking among a haphazard pile of childhood books which were scattered across the floor of a barn near his home, his eye spotted a little book that he did not remember owning. A closer look revealed the title of the book to be "An Anthology of Poems by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow," which included the famous St. Martinville poem "Evangeline." He discovered later that the book had been given to him by his mother's friend on the occasion of little Jean-Marie's first Christmas in 1920.

After hearing the story of how Father Jammes overcame so many difficult obstacles to arrive safely in St. Martinville, that little green book will make even the most ardent skeptic give pause. Often in Father Jammes life in times of difficulty he has been helped - somehow. His story of miraculous release from a Nazi prison in occupied France, and his story of last minute rescue from obscurity by a tall American who chose him among hundreds to attend school in America both deserve telling, allowing the listener to decide between chance or providence as the source of Father Jammes' eventual good fortune.

A Miraculous Release

Nineteen forty-three was a dark time in French history. Hitler's Nazi army occupied the northern half of France until the American army landed in North Africa in late 1942, forcing the Germans to steal the southern half of France as quickly as possible.

On October 13th of 1943, Father Jammes found himself in a sudden and serious confrontation with the Nazi army. He was only 20 days into his 22nd year of life, and as a young priest at that time he was responsible for a group of 100 students who were members of the Chantiers de la Jeunesse (SHAN teeAY de LA ju NESS), which was a community service organization for people in their late teens and early twenties who were not in the army.

Father Jammes remembers that fateful autumn morning, high in the mountains where he was to administer a special feast for those students whose service with the Chantiers was over.

"It was during the night," says Father Jammes, "all of a sudden I heard...rup, rup, rup, rup...I knew the Germans are coming.”

"We were at that time near a river, the Dordogne. At 6 o'clock in the morning I crossed the river without taking off my shoes, there was not very much water. We found a small place hidden completely on both sides, a valley, very little, with hills on both sides and trees."

Then Father Jammes whispers, "I said to my group of Chantiers, 'You stay quiet here. And if by 4 o'clock tonight I am not back, you go back to the camp.'"

Father Jammes had a plan. He would walk back to his center, about 14 miles away, and seek help to protect his youngsters. As he walked in haste it was a beautiful, cool blue sunny morning which created for Father Jammes the happy illusion that everything may work out for best.

"So I start walking," says Father Jammes. "I found a farm where the people were verrry nice. They gave me the best breakfast I ever had, bacon and eggs, you know?

"They said, 'Don't move! The Germans came here this morning. They are down in the valley. They are all over the place. Please don't move!' I said, 'Look, I have really to go because of my youngsters,' I told them. So I left."

As he was walking back to his hidden Chantiers he remembers, "Then all of a sudden, coming out from behind the bushes I hear two Germans with guns. They arrested me."

Later that afternoon at about 6 p.m. Father Jammes was taken by the Germans to an old French military prison where he was locked up with five other Frenchmen "the same age as my father" in a small cell with a narrow window in the ceiling high above.

Father Jammes says he is still ashamed of himself because of something he did that first day in prison. Those five undernourished prisoners asked him questions about himself, and eventually discovered that he had not eaten since breakfast.

At the time Father Jammes did not know how precious food would become, but today he realizes how precious food was to those five men.

"They were very nice to me," he says as he recalls the moment. "And when they discovered I had not eaten since early that morning, they didn't realize what I had done in the morning with that breakfast. Much better than anything they had eaten the whole day." Father Jammes stops, becoming touched with emotion then says, "So one of them gave me a little piece of bread."

For the next 39 days Father Jammes shared his cellmate's pangs of hunger during the long, quiet night hours, and the mental anguish of not knowing why he was imprisoned, or if he would ever be released. He knew there was no chance of escape by force of wit or weapons...but perhaps, thought Father Jammes, escape may be arranged in a different, more powerful way.

Because the Germans did not discover the small book that Father Jammes had placed inside his cossack, while reading that book he learned about a man named Felix de Valois, who every year has a feast given in his honor.

In silent desperation, Father Jammes decided to pray to the famous Felix de Valois who is admired in French history as the liberator of French refugees during the war against the Turks seven hundred years ago. Father Jammes explains:

"I had two aunts, sisters of my father, who had joined the order of Felix de Valois, but they were no longer helping to save people in captivity. So I said to Felix de Valois, 'My aunts have given their lives to the liberation of people in captivity. They never had the chance to do anything to liberate anyone today. We have the chance. I want to be out on the 20th in order to be able to say mass on the 21st.'" As a point of clarification he says, "The feast of the 21st is the feast of the presentation of Mary which is important to me."

Then he states his final point with confident assurance, "And so, on the 20th...the Germans came for me." After a momentary spell of silence in the room he councils, "Prayer is a reality."

"They didn't tell me, 'You are free,'" he continues. "They said, 'Take your things,' and my things were very little. I left with a plate and a cup I had been using for thirty-nine days."

Father Jammes did get to say mass like he promised he would, and eventually he worked for the French Air Force against the Nazi army. His brave efforts surely helped to liberate many.
And in typical Father Jammes fashion he wants to be very clear about those days, and how he feels about them today, when he says at interview's end, "Don't be too hard on our German friends. They have suffered too."

(End of Part One)


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