The natural region of Trièves, in the French Alps south of Grenoble, is a haven of spiritual, natural and architectural treasures. For the few missionary priests in this vast, secularized territory, keeping parishes alive is no easy task.
Father Guy-Alexandre Kouya, who has come to the Alps from Côte d’Ivoire, has launched a prayer event this year, from Aug. 1 to Aug. 15, the Solemnity of the Assumption, to revive these mountain churches and their communities.
Cordéac, Cornillons, Sinard, Treffort, Mens, Roissard … villages along the road that winds between the cities of Grenoble and Gap reveal picturesque bell towers of the Trièves, which can be seen on the mountainsides. But despite the beauty of these places, workers are few and far between. For lack of priests and faithful, some churches are rarely open.
In this rural environment, Father Kouya has been in charge of the 27 small churches belonging to the Notre-Dame d’Esparron parish for the past four years. The parish covers an area of more than 600 square kilometers (232 milies), perched between 500 and 2,800 meters above sea level.
“It’s the largest and poorest parish in the Grenoble-Vienne Diocese,” the young priest, originally from the Ivory Coast, tells CNA.
To reach out to those who live further afield, he and his parish team have launched a unique initiative in the mountain pastures. Every evening, for the past two weeks, he has led a meditative Rosary and the celebration of Mass, on the altar of one of the forgotten mountain churches, to end on the feast day of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
This two-week prayer event has been an opportunity to let the daylight in behind the quaint wooden doors and to remove the cobwebs from the rustic benches. It has also been an opportunity to rediscover the statues of Sts. Thérèse of Lisieux, Anthony of Padua, Joseph, Joan of Arc, various apostles and Michael the Archange, nestled in the whitewashed side chapels.
Father Kouya hopes to “give the church some visibility” in the Alpine mountains, where only about 2% of the population — out of 10,000 inhabitants — attend Sunday Mass.
“We’re grafting onto the incessant call of Pope Francis, who invites us not to remain within ourselves but to go towards others. We have decided to go to the peripheries by keeping our churches alive, which were closed,” he told CNA.
The priest intends to tour the entire parish, which covers a vast area.
“We‘re making our way slowly, going to the little chapels to inaugurate visits,” he explained. “I take the opportunity to encounter this or that person. For the years to come, we’d like to combine this initiative with a visit to the whole village, for a time of fraternity, a time of exchange, just a free time with everyone, before our evening of prayer,” he said.
Each evening, the parishioners involved in the initiative prepare a meditation based on the words that popular tradition attributes to the Virgin Mary at apparition sites officially recognized by the Church on every continent. This has included prayers from Our Lady of Guadalupe (Mexico), Our Lady of Vailankanni (India), Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal and Our Lady of Lourdes (France), Our Lady of Knock (Ireland), Our Lady of Fatima (Portugal), Our Lady of Banneux (Belgium), Our Lady of Akita (Japan), and Our Lady of Kibeho (Rwanda).
The idea was first and foremost to give “space” to the mother of Jesus, he explains to CNA. “In France, we have Mary as our patron saint, and she has a fundamental place in the Church,” said the priest, who notes with regret that the Solemnity of the Assumption used to be celebrated “with great processions,” while today it goes “virtually unnoticed.”
“We give less meaning and less place to the Virgin Mary,” he lamented, adding, “As John Paul II used to say, France is the ‘eldest daughter’ of the Church, so we can’t afford to just watch and do nothing, without getting moving,” he said, urging everyone to follow the model of Mary, “who rises up in haste, to propose something else to people.”
Father Kouya is convinced that if there are crises and wars in the world, it‘s because Christians have given up. “We have no common weapons; the only weapon we have is prayer,“ he said, encouraging his small flock to “not give up,” and professing his faith in the power of Christ’s message.
Over these last 15 days, a few local residents have invited themselves into the churches, intrigued.
“People who don‘t usually travel to other villages are happy to see that there’s a prayer in their own village, that their own bell tower is open,” said Father Kouya. “A number of them have thanked me because these initiatives help to support these small, threatened churches, which municipalities sometimes want to close.”
“Some are not Christians but are happy to see an activity that opens the church, to hear the bell ring, to feel a presence,” Father Kouya shared. “Some of us were … thinking that in some places there would be no one … and there are 20 of us! One lady told me yesterday that she felt refreshed.”
“This preparation for Aug. 15 creates a mutual welcome,” said a faithful parishioner named Myriam, who is involved in the initiative, ahead of the feast day. “It‘s a special time, a special moment of rediscovery of the Virgin Mary,” she said. “This pilgrimage to all these chapels and churches we don’t know creates a sense of unity in a very large parish.”
The participants are ultimately few, but Father Kouya intends to encourage further evangelistic activities and remains confident about the future.
“People will come. … It‘s not worldliness or development that makes a world stand upright — it’s love.”