Sunday, August 16, 2009

When The Saint Goes Marching 'Round

He probably didn't exist, but if he did, dang it, he's ours. And like so many of us here in Montpellier, he was ahead of his time: he caught the Plague before it got to Europe.

St. Roch is the patron saint of Montpellier. The mythbusting Wikipedia article notwithstanding, the story goes that he was born here between 1348 and 1350, and went to the medical university, where he learned to be a doctor and hospitallier. He also got religion, and after getting his degree, although his father made him mayor of Montpellier (as he himself had been) on his deathbed, instead young Roch took off on a pilgrimage to Rome. In Italy he got involved in all sorts of good works, working in hospitals and living among monks. Unfortunately, he caught the Black Plague and the brothers, not wanting to catch it themselves, threw him out. He went to live in the woods, and a dog started showing up, bringing him food. Turned out the dog belonged to a local nobleman, who was so impressed with Roch's sanctity that he became his patron. Roch went on the road, doing good deeds, the dog hanging with him and curing his wound by licking it. Eventually he wound up in Montpellier, sat down on a bench whose location is still marked by a marble plaque, and was arrested by his cousin, who threw him in jail where he died five years later. If he existed at all.

At any rate, a large church was built to house his remains, although there's not much of him left, apparently. As you can see, the church is pretty barren of imagery: between the Wars of Religion and the Revolution, they pretty much stripped the churches in this city of all the statues and such, which gives them a pretty barren look. But Roch is stashed in there except for one day a week, his saint's day, which is today. According to the various posters around, this is a day to take St. Roch's example and take pity on our fellow man who has less than ourselves, and to generally deal with the afflicted.

Having misread the program (after Marie finally found it, that is: it wasn't easy), I went down to the church at 2:45 to watch the parade that would carry St. Roch around his old home town. I was a couple of hours too early, but instead I got to watch a really obnoxious and obstreperous beggar, who'd invaded the sanctuary, and was bellowing "M'sieu, m'dam, m'sieu" at everyone who was walking into the church while thrusting a paper cup at them, draw the attention of the police and a white-clad gentleman who I believe was a member of one of the societies around the cult of St. Roch and the official complainant. This set off a chain reaction with an elderly man whose face was so red I feared for him, who was sitting at the café immediately across the square from the church. I'm not sure what he was complaining about, but it seemed to have something do to with the price he was charged for his ice cream. In a nicely symmetrical series of events, the two cops, the beggar, and the white-clad dude got in the police car at the same time that the waiter from the café walked Mr. Angry back to his house. And the action hadn't even begun.

I went back at 5, after reading the instructions again, and there was a large crowd in the square. Clearly something was up.

I had thought the procession would leave from the front steps of the church, but instead, I saw motion down one of the side streets. Here comes the parade!

The shrine...

...and the reliquary with the bones of the saint, in a silver tube inside this rather tacky golden pagoda thing. These guys who carried it muttered "Roch" from time to time, under their breath, as if they were calming him. Hardly surprising: the place has changed a bit since he was walking around it himself. Even the old buildings he was being carried through are, for the most part, from a time well past his, since there was a terrible fire here during the Wars of Religion and nearly the entire center city dates from the 16th Century.

They walked down the street, various societies dedicated to the saint falling into line, the musicians now playing fifes with one hand, drums with the other, and, finally, a crowd of well-wishers taking up the end. I scooted across town and caught the procession coming up the rue St. Guilhem.

Then they turned and went down the hill and back to the church, where, as I'm writing this, they're distributing flowers to the crowd. The church closes at 7:30 if you have any business with Roch, who, as a patron saint of those afflicted with the Plague, is probably not doing a whole lot of business these days and is likely quite happy to see the diminishing and aging numbers of his fans (and their dogs) who come out on a hot summer afternoon to remember him.

And I wonder what the future holds for events like this. There were no young people to speak of, except for some Africans (one of the speakers at the church's afternoon program was a priest just back from Mali), hanging out at the parade, no young French couples with their kids showing them an old tradition (well, I say old, but this has only been going on for something like 350 years, which, as things like this go, isn't all that long), not much excitement or feeling that this was a ritual that was still binding a community. The Rochcentric organizations that marched only had a dozen or so members, and, again, they were older folk. As were the musicians.

I haven't been here long enough to say anything definitive about this, but now that I know what the deal is, I hope to be back next year for this and see how, and if, it's changed.


  1. By next year, you'll be turning up your nose at us for speaking English.

  2. Ed, what a nice firsthand description of the event. Thanks for posting this. I enjoyed it. My dear friend Claude Dorey, a literature prof in Paris, who was my houseguest for a year while teaching at UT, grew up in Gascony, not too far from Montpellier. Donna

  3. Wonderful post, Ed. I like the photos too. I was disappointed. I had not seen the procession for a few years. There were no foreign guests apart from a few Italians. The procession didn't even last an hour. I met my friend Roch (actually Roch-Gérard) Salager who said that the event has been "diverted" (that's not the right term, please help) by politicians. He said the "audience" clapped their hands during the mass this morning when the priest said the mayor was among them.

    Now Roch really existed but what is legendary, what is true in his story, we don't know.

    Roch Salager is a writer. You should meet him, I think. A lot of websites mention him.

  4. Darn, if I'd know this was on, I would've popped into town. I'm a sucker for quaint irrelevant dying tradtions like this (I became a big fan of morris dancing while living in England). Thanks for the report and photos!

  5. I've posted a link to your blog on mine.


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