Mystery Worshipper: Tukai
Church: St Jean-Marie-Vianney
Location: Pointe aux Piments, Mauritius
Date of visit: Sunday, 24 June 2012, 9:30am
The church is of a modern, concrete block construction, painted in a creamy colour, with louvred windows reaching to the ground comprising about 25 per cent of the side walls. There are no internal pillars. The sanctuary takes up the full width of the building but is quite shallow in the other dimension. Nevertheless, there is room for the celebrant behind the altar and a modern plain lectern beside it, as well as seats for the cast and a low rail in front. There is no separate choir space. Above the sanctuary on plinths stand three statues (life-sized and painted but unlabelled): Jesus and the Virgin Mary at the sides of the church, and an 18th century gentleman who I had initially thought to be one of the early priests in Mauritius, but I now presume was St Jean-Marie Vianney (who never left France in his life but is the patron saint of parish priests). On the side walls there is a set of local oil paintings of the Stations of the Cross, well done in a fauvist style.
Mauritian mix, but noticeably more toward the African end of the mixed race spectrum that makes up the Mauritian population. This was a youngish congregation, mostly below the age of 40 or so, and including at least 60 children of primary-school age, who sat in a group at the front for the whole service and were kept in order by a middle-aged lady in what looked like a Girl Guide uniform, but was actually that of a Catholic ladies' group. A pre-school next door has connections with the church.
Mauritius is a tropical island about 80km across, located in the Indian Ocean about 900km east of Madagascar. Before 1507 it had no human inhabitants but large numbers of the famous flightless bird, the dodo, which were soon rendered extinct by hungry Portuguese and Dutch sailors. The island was a French colony from 1715 until 1810. The British took the government as one of their prizes for winning the Napoleonic wars, though most commerce remained in French hands. Mauritius gained its independence in 1968, and is now a thriving democracy and one of the most prosperous of the small island developing states, with an economy based not only on sugar and tourism, but also textiles and IT services. Mauritian Creole (based on French) is universally spoken, but everyone learns both French and English at school. Pointe aux Piments is a fishing village in the north-west of the island, around which several hotel resorts have sprung up, catering mainly to wealthy tourists from India, Europe and South Africa. Extensive sugar cane fields lie inland of the village. The church itself occupies land down a side street, with its location indicated by a small (and somewhat deceptive) sign on a fence.
The celebrant was identified only as Father Jean. Two middle-aged women read the lessons and another led the choir. There were four altar helpers: a boy and girl of primary school age, and two teenage boys.
What was the name of the service?Sunday Mass.
How full was the building?
It was full as the service started, and by 10 minutes into the service the congregation were overflowing onto the back verandah, by which time I estimate there were 200-300 people present. They were about two-thirds female, all of whom (except one see below) were bare-headed and wore modest western dress: long skirts, trousers, or knee-length dresses. In noticeable contrast to the main street of the village, there was not a shalwar kameez (Indian-style trouser suit) to be seen.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
No. Guided by an out-of-date notice in the main street, I had thought the service would start at 9.00am. So I rushed in at that time, only to find a disconcertingly empty church, though the doors were open and a couple of sidesmen were chatting amongst themselves.
Was your pew comfortable?
The pews were widely enough spaced to allow leg room for people taller than myself or the average Mauritian. The wooden kneelers were unpadded, but most of the congregation did not use them for every prayer.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Unsurprisingly it was very quiet when I arrived 30 minutes early. But even when most people arrived about 10 minutes before start, it was basically quiet, with an occasional murmur of conversation. Most said a few quiet prayers as they settled down.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
We were greeted with "Bonjour" by a woman (one of the readers for that day) from the lectern. This was followed by a couple of songs led by the choir, and then the priest (who had entered the sanctuary from the vestry during the songs) swung some incense and then said the formal opening words of the mass: "Au nom du Père, et du Fils, et du Saint Esprit."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
None. All the adults (except me) knew all the responses by heart, though only a few knew the words of most of the songs (or were game to sing them).
What musical instruments were played?
Three young men played competently on electronic keyboard, guitar, and a wind instrument that had a keyboard rather than the usual buttons. They supported an equally competent and well-practiced choir of about 15 women, who occupied the front few pews on one side.
Did anything distract you?
My eyes wandered occasionally to the one female whose appearance stood out from the crowd: a young lady in a short black cocktail dress and high heels. Then, while the congregation processed to the front to receive communion, a toddler left alone in the pew cried out for his mother. But I was most distracted by the young altar boy who could not stifle a very visible yawn as the service neared its end.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Though reverential throughout, the service was at the less formal end of the Catholic spectrum, with only a minimum of bells and smells. The whole service was in standard French, as distinct from Mauritian Creole. Incense was waved before the opening formal words of the mass and before the gospel, but that was all. The Bible was read from a lectern in the sanctuary by two local women, who read with commendable clarity. The priest faced the congregation throughout.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 – Father Jean spoke clearly and slowly in standard French, and it was not his fault that I could not follow fully, hence my neutral score. Im sure everyone else there could do so.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
My oral French is not as good as it used to be, so unfortunately I could not say for sure!
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The feeling of being in a thriving and young Christian community.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The misleading notice of the service time meant I rushed in at 9.03 thinking that I was already late. That could be awkward in a strange congregation, but in fact it left me sitting in an almost empty church wondering if I was going to be the odd man out in a very small congregation. And not so much hell but more the Tower of Babel: the awkward realisation that my French language skills, though still adequate for reading, are too far out of practice to follow properly even a clearly spoken sermon. However, since they came in a familiar context, I could follow the words of the mass itself, and even make some of the responses.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Most people had a brief word or two to friends in the sunshine outside before quickly disappearing up the road on foot. (I dont think anyone came by car, except perhaps the priest.) However, the priest himself, recognising me as an obvious visitor (I was the only Caucasian there besides himself), did stop for a few words with me.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was no coffee, but the aforementioned lady in uniform had a stall outside from which she and few helpers were selling the local snack of fresh dhal puri (lentil curries and chilli sauces wrapped in unleavened bread). Very tasty it was, too.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
7 – I would be pleased to worship here in the unlikely event that I ever get to Mauritius again. But though the vibe was good, I would need to improve my French language skills to get the most from it. I believe there are some English-language churches in the capital city of Port Louis, but that is 20 km away.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes. I enjoyed the feeling of being in a thriving and young Christian community, and the universality of the mass.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The reminder it gave me about how badly my comprehension of spoken French has deteriorated in recent years.