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Saturday, May 07, 2005

Father Jean-Marie Jammes: Part Two

Father Jammes decides he will try to go to America, and he would have been left behind like another face in the crowd if not for the unsolicited kindness of an American stranger.

A Tall American

The year before his arrival in the United States in the fall of 1950 is a story of repeated attempts to enter America that is not well known by St. Martinville parishioners. He says of those days, "I had been teaching English in France without knowing English very well. So I went to London during the summer of 1949 to learn some English."

After six weeks of English class at the University of London an invitation to hear the Lord Mayor of London give a speech was offered to him and a dozen other foreign students at the university. This invite was intended to make up for a beautiful boat ride on the Thames River that they all missed because at the last minute no more space was available on the riverboat. Fortunately for St. Martin de Tours Church parishioners Father Jammes went to hear the Lord Mayor that autumn day. He recalls the moment:

"The majority of the people there were Americans. I found myself in contact at once with an American girl whose father had been running to become Senator of Rhode Island. But he had died just before the election so he was never elected. Nevertheless, she was from a good family in Rhode Island.

"So she saw a priest and she is the one who came to me, I am dressed as a clergyman, you know, so she came and asked me questions. Too many questions because all of a sudden a guard came and said, 'Aren't you ashamed to talk while the Lord Mayor is giving a speech?' So, in any case, she is the one who told me, 'Why don't you come to the States?' I said later to myself, 'Okay, let me try.'"

In Paris, after leaving London, Father Jammes followed a twisted bureaucratic road that eventually landed him at the desk of a hardheaded secretary with an overblown sense of importance because she held the keys to America. The first thing that secretary told our hopeful Frenchman was, "You're too old." Father Jammes says, "At that time I was going to be thirty."

He continues, "She said, 'You don't have a diploma.' It is a fact at that time I didn't have a diploma, but I had been in Rome. I had a religious diploma, but for her it was not too good. And then she said, 'You've come too late.' Because that was in November and in the selection, I found out, there were 1200 people in France who had applied. And there were only 200 going to be selected. So she said, 'Bye.' And she left."

But Father Jammes was not going to be that easily deterred.

He had one more address to try. A woman at an all girls school, his earliest point of inquiry into a new life in America, gave him the name and address of the vice-president of New York State University who was living in downtown Paris near the Seine River. When Father Jammes knocked on his door, the vice-president had no time to talk, so Father Jammes told his story quickly while walking down one flight of stairs.

In the lobby he was instructed by the vice-president to go back to the office of that same secretary, but this time Father Jammes had an official invitation.

"So the following day," continues Father Jammes, "I return and passed in front of the secretary! And I said to a man, 'I have an appointment.' The man said, 'Look, we are very sorry, but tomorrow is definitely the last day in which we interview the people who have been pre-selected out of 1200.' Some of them had kind of been good material and he said, 'So look, come tomorrow. Here is a list of the papers you should have. You need three letters of reference by people who know you and can testify on your behalf.' Father Jammes says disappointingly, 'I didn't have that.'"

Father Jammes returned the following day without any letters of reference, but a convincing letter was on its way. He was told to wait his turn while each of the pre-selected applicants were interviewed by an intimidating panel of four Frenchmen and one American.

As he sat outside the interview room he watched every applicant walk out of the door in tears. Their wet eyes told Father Jammes the door to America is closed and made of heartless iron.

"So I went through the 'interrogation,' and I left," he recalls, "but I was still inside the building on the same floor saying to myself I should go back and tell them, 'Don't worry! You didn't receive any letters of recommendation, I didn't bring you any letters. But you are going to have good letters!'

"I had already asked the man with the Legion of Honor who had been in jail with me, who had been liberated after a year in Dachau concentration camp. A very, very brilliant man, an artist for many years.”

"So I was standing there wondering and all of a sudden...the man who was the American came out of the room. So we are there, and first of all he is very tall, and second he is an American, and you know in America you are more straightforward. He put his hand on my shoulder and said, 'What's the matter Father?' I said, 'I was wondering whether I should come back to tell you that you will have..."

Father Jammes stops, touched with emotion. He finishes his sentence, "The American said, 'Don't worry. We put you at the top of the list.'"

So in spite of all his agonizing worries and difficulties - being too old and too late, with no "impressive" diploma, and no letters of reference on his behalf - finally, Father Jammes' new life in America was born. And from the moment he stepped on American soil Father Jammes has been very busy.

At the University of Chicago he earned a Ph.D. in Sociology in 1954, then he traveled back and forth between France and America every year for the next nineteen years working for the U.S. Embassy in Paris and the French government, always in the service of others.

In 1973 he was invited to work in Louisiana. James Domengeaux, the founder of an organization dedicated to the preservation of the French language called CODOFIL (Council on the Development of French in Louisiana), must also be considered a pivotal player in Father Jammes life.

At the end of three years of work with CODOFIL Father Jammes began to organize exchanges of information between the many French-speaking nations of the world.

Plus during this time he was invited often to be the guest speaker on television and radio programs to talk about French speaking people and their language. To list his energetic contributions to Louisiana and French speakers all over the world would take more space than is provided here.

In 1983 Father Jammes became an American citizen. Listening to another one of his "almost didn't" stories, once again the hearer of the tale finds that Father Jammes miraculous good fortune is still at work.

Remember that little green book Father Jammes recently found in a barn near his childhood home, scattered among dozens of books in a pile on the floor? The book was an anthology of poems written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

Inside the book on the first page is written "Christmas 1920" by his mother's friend in black ink, a gift for the newborn son of Urbain and Josephine Jammes.

Reading the following lines of a poem in that book titled "A Psalm of Life," the words seem to predict the energetic life to come in little Jean-Marie, born September 24, 1920. A long life that has brought him to his current Ministry Building office behind St. Martin de Tours Church, within 75 steps of Evangeline's legendary oak tree. *

A Psalm of Life
by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Tell me not, in mournful numbers,
“Life is but an empty dream!”
For the soul is dead that slumbers,
And things are not what they seem.

Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time; -

Footprints that perhaps another,
Sailing o’er life’s solemn main,
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,
Seeing, shall take heart again.

Let us, then, be up and doing,
With a heart for any fate;
Still achieving, still pursuing,
Learn to labor and to wait.