Coronavirus

Quiet Killer: When Coronavirus Got Inside A Capuchin Convent

No one knows how the coronavirus arrived in the historic convent nestled in the Drôme valley where elderly friars lived in close quarters. Today, jut six are left.

When there were 11: Capuchin Brothers from the Crest convent
When there were 11: Capuchin Brothers from the Crest convent
Solenn de Royer and Gérard Méjean

CREST — They're cut off from the rest of the world. Almost no one these days takes the path laced with forsythias and oleanders that leads to the Capuchin convent. At the foot of the high pebble walls strewn with curtains of ivy grow round boxwoods and rose bushes. Sitting to the west of the city of Crest in the Drôme valley of southeastern France, the sober facade of this 17th-century structure is plastered in gray with a single visible ornament: an immense wooden crucifix. Everything is covered in silence.

Under the vault in the neighboring chapel, a laminated encasing presents the names and pictures of the resident Capuchins. They include two friars from India, a chaplain to the nomadic Roma people, a hermit, the chaplain of a psychiatric hospital and an ex-missionary who served in Chad ... Three weeks ago, eleven portraits looked out from behind the laminated case. Now, there are only six. The photos of brothers Pierre, Emmanuel, Armand, Marcel and a second named Pierre, recently lost to the COVID-19 pandemic, have been removed and placed in the chapel where the Capuchins pray five times a day.

No one knows how coronavirus got inside. Even before the first symptoms were diagnosed, the brothers had followed instructions, social distancing and disinfecting surfaces with bleach. It wasn't enough. One after the other — sometimes at virtually the same time — they fell ill. Some recovered; others didn't.

Emmanuel Fabre, 94 years old, was the first to succumb on March 25. Ordained as a priest on March 10, 1951, this native of nearby Taulignan had spent 15 years in the Crest convent, which welcomes elderly friar. Brother Emmanuel didn't share much with his fellow friars, but was a solid, pragmatic man with a white goatee and small round glasses that made him look a bit like an Amish. He had flourished during his pastoral life in the central French city of Clermont-Ferrand, as well as in Angers in the northwest. "He was always up for a mission," recalls Brother Lucas, the "guardian," or manager, of the convent.

In the final days, Emmanuel stopped leaving his room, even with his cane. On March 25, Brother Hubert brought him some soup at 7:45 pm. He ate it. But when the friar came back to collect the tray, it was already over. Emmanuel died in his room just before nightfall.

We're just ordinary men placed in an extraordinary situation.

The convent, home to Capuchins since 1608, is the oldest of the orders. Built around the cloister, its members are called to live in a spirit of radical poverty, in the image of Saint Francis of Assisi. Throughout their history, the Capuchins — known for their pointed hoods and the cord that belts their robes — have stood out in major catastrophes for their readiness to help fellow citizens. They were the first firefighters in Paris, as Louis XIV entrusted them to extinguish fires with iron buckets. When a plague decimated a third of Crest's population in 1628, the brothers of the convent continued visiting the sick.

Now, the cook and domestic aid who had long helped the friars are no longer able to visit the convent, replaced by four nurses who visit twice a day. The rest of the time, including at night, the Capuchins fend for themselves.

The small "commando" of impromptu caregivers is led by Brother Hubert, 64. In normal times, this former nurse lives in Tiaret, Algeria on the high Oran plateau. In France to visit friends, he was ready to leave for the other side of the Mediterranean when France's nationwide quarantine was announced. Then, the brothers of Crest called for help. "I was happy to put on the nurse uniform that I had hung up," says Hubert Le Bouquin.

These past few weeks, the convent seems more like a rural hospital. The brothers run from cell to cell, hurried and busy. They pass by each other in the hallways, arms full of supplies, exchanging nods and supportive words: "Be careful," "Go rest; I'll take over." No complaints, no anger. "We're just ordinary men placed in an extraordinary situation," Brother Hubert says.

Office in Crest — Photo: Official website

After Emmanuel's death, Armand and Pierre were transferred to a local hospital. Pierre Mazoué died on March 28, on his 85th birthday. In the 1960s, this man, described by his brothers as a real working-class Parisian, was impressed by social Catholicism and the prêtres ouvriers ("worker priests') movement which, at the time, was booming in the French Catholic Church. The son of a railway worker, he was a postman in a northern French suburb before living in social housing alongside migrant workers in Lyon. The head of French Capuchins, Erid Bidot, who lived alongside Pierre in Istanbul, recalls that the friar "wasn't afraid of anything." His death created a void in the group. A vibrant, funny man, he loved sharing his memories of his time as a nurse in Algeria, where his lifelong passion for the study of Islam began.

On the morning of March 28, the brothers were reading the daily gospel. In the story, Martha, who had just lost her brother, tells Jesus that if he had been present, her brother would not have died. Jesus replies, "I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die." At that exact moment, the telephone rang. It was the Crest hospital, announcing Pierre's death.

It feels a bit like my family has gone.

Then, there was Armand Donou. The locals of Crest who came for mass called him "the long-haired brother," and his photograph showed the soft, serious eyes of a lost child. Brother Hubert once told him to cut his hair, and Armand replied with a smile, "You know I'm a loser — this is the only way I could find to be like Jesus."


Brother Armand died at 78 years old, on March 29, 24 hours after Pierre. In the convent, this Brittany native born to a family of farmers was the "porter." He welcomed visitors and answered the phone. He also maintained the lodgings for the homeless, referring to them as "pilgrims." Discrete and solitary, Armand had a melancholy air that sometimes veiled his gaze was rooted in a painful experience in Ethiopia, where he was a missionary during the famine of the 1980s.

"He was forbidden from distributing food," explains Hubert. "He watched people starve to death and couldn't do anything about it. It marked him forever, gave him a permanent fragility." Until the very end, Brother Armand followed the news about forgotten conflicts, and always prayed for peace.

Pierre and Armand were buried together on April 1, in the Crest cemetery. Then, it was Marcel Connault's turn. At 99, the elder of the convent and an ex-missionary was very shaken by the death of two of the brothers, whom he had trained at the very beginning of their religious lives more than 50 years ago.

A "gentle" and "good" man according to the worshippers who confessed to him every Friday afternoon, Marcel loved to spend hours in the garden, in his blue apron and rubber boots, shaded by fruit trees. He kept melon and squash seeds, dried them on a sheet of paper and planted them in little pots neatly lined up in his greenhouse.

Marcel Connault, two weeks before he died from COVID-19 — Photo courtesy of Hubert Le Bouquin

On April 3, Brother Hubert helped Marcel get dressed for mass, but the older friar asked to carry out communion in his room. By the morning's end, the friar-nurse found the the old man's eyes had closed. Hubert sat next to his bed, and told him: "You can go peacefully if it's time, Marcel. Or you can stay with us a bit if you'd like."

Hubert called in the nurse Sylvie and the other brothers. Forming a circle around their dean, they took their turns saying goodbye, reciting the Lord's prayer and singing the Song of Mary. At noon, Marcel was gone, in Sylvie's arms.

Finallly, on April 10, two days before Easter, Pierre Domergue, the artistic soul of the convent, who sang and composed music, departed at 85 years old.

Says Hubert, "When everything is over, we'll have a big celebration in memory of our brothers."

Earlier this month, the city and the region's health agency raised the possibility of removing the remaining brothers from the convent, but decided against it. The hardiest Capuchins — who hadn't been tested — had already resisted the virus. The surviving brothers remain confined in their convent.

Inhabitants of Crest like Arlette Maillet learned about the deaths of Emmanuel, Armand, Marcel and the two Pierres from afar. "First one, then two, then three, four, five … It feels a bit like my family is gone," mourns the retired caregiver, who has worshipped at the convent for 20 years. "Their stories deserve to be known."



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January 15-16

  • Kazakhstan’s vicious circle of strongmen
  • COVID school chaos around the world
  • The truth behind why we lie to ourselves
  • … and much more!

🎲 BUT FIRST, A NEWS QUIZ!

What do you remember from the news this week?

1. What extreme measure did the Canadian province of Quebec take to encourage people to get vaccinated?

2. What caused a massive power outage in Argentina’s capital Buenos Aires, leaving 700,000 in the dark for hours?

3. Norwegian soldiers were asked to return what piece of clothing at the end of their military service, so that future recruits can reuse them?

4. What news story have we summed up here in emoji form? ❤️ 🐖 🏥 👨 👍

[Answers at the bottom of this newsletter]

⬇️  STARTER

Djokovic, BoJo, Xi Jinping: rules & power in pandemic times

It was the phrase of the week down on Fleet Street, the historic HQ of the London press corps: “Bring your own booze” — BYOB — the instructions secretly sent around for the garden party held at 10 Downing Street in blatant violation of the first coronavirus lockdown, back in May 2020.The revelations of the event (the second such scandal to emerge in the past two months) has left British Prime Minister Boris Johnson barely holding on to his job after his admission to Parliament this week that he was there … and he was, well, quite sorry.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the former British empire, Australians are following how their public representatives will resolve the latest twist in pandemic policy that has captured the sporting world’s attention. Back and forth, like a tennis match. By the end of the week, Australia had reversed a Monday court decision, and canceled Novak Djokovic’s visa that would have allowed him to defend his Australian Open title. Immigration Minister Alex Hawke said the visa was revoked on the grounds that the presence of the unvaccinated Serbian star risks fueling anti-vax sentiment on home soil.

This is high-stakes political gamesmanship indeed. The unprecedented health crisis, and associated restrictions to limit the spread of the virus, requires our elected leaders to react to ever-changing information and a chain of lose-lose public policy choices. COVID continues to make the hard job of being a public representative that much harder. The best, we can agree, are doing the best they can. The worst, well … are the worst.

The British public has rightly taken offense to the idea that the very people charged with making and enforcing COVID rules, were also busy breaking them. In the Djokovic saga, skeptics of vaccination mandates — in Australia, Serbia and beyond — will have new ammunition if the world’s top tennis player is kicked out of both tournament and country.

The good news is that in our eternally flawed democracies, the public eventually (though not always!) finds out what goes wrong, and ultimately has the final say of who’s in charge. The same can’t be said everywhere, including the country that has been cited for having the most successful methods for controlling the virus and limiting death tolls. That is, of course, China … where it all began.

Yet the authoritarian regime's “Zero COVID policy” comes with deeper questions that largely mirror the downside of authoritarianism in general: ruthless enforcement, quelled dissent and the sometimes blind following of the masses. It’s hard to imagine that Xi Jinping has had any “BYOB parties” in the past two years. But if he did, you can be sure we’d never know.

— Jeff Israely


🎭  5 CULTURE THINGS TO KNOW

• Makar Sankranti 2022: The Hindu festival of Makar Sankranti is celebrated on January 14 and 15 in almost all parts of India and Nepal in a myriad of cultural forms. The festival marks the end of winter, the beginning of a new harvest season, and has ancient religious significance.

• Parthenon fragment returns to Greece: A marble fragment from the Parthenon temple has been returned to Athens from a museum in Sicily. Authorities hope the move will rekindle efforts to force the British Museum to send back ancient sculptures from Greece's most renowned ancient landmark.

• 400 years of Molière: France honors its seminal playwright on the 400th anniversary of his birth. His influence, comparable to that of Shakespeare in the anglophone world, is such that French is often referred to as the "language of Molière."

• Vinyl surpassed CDs sales for the first time in 30 years: For the first time since 1991, annual sales of vinyl records surpassed those of CDs in the U.S, according to MRC Data and Billboard, with an estimated 41.72 million vinyl records sold in 2021 (up 51.4% from 27.55 million in 2020). This means that vinyl is now the leading format for all album purchases in the U.S.

• Kendrick Lamar teams up with South Park creators: Grammy-winning rapper Kendrick Lamar and his former longtime manager Dave Free are working with South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone to produce a live-action comedy for Paramount Pictures.

📚😷 COVID SCHOOL CHAOS AROUND THE WORLD


The decisions to close schools have been some of the toughest choices made during the pandemic, with students suffering both academically and socially from online learning or no education at all. It’s universally acknowledged that children most succeed with in-person classes, but the question still remains whether the health risk to students and those around them is worth it.

The Omicron wave has only caused this debate to heighten, with teacher strikes in France, rising drop-out rates in Argentina and shortages of staff in South Africa. But there are signs of hope: Uganda has finally reopened schools, ending the world’s longest shutdown, and some American parents have decided to offer more personalized education with homeschooling.

Read the full story: COVID School Chaos, Snapshots From 10 Countries Around The World

🇰🇿  KAZAKHSTAN’S VICIOUS CIRCLE OF STRONGMEN


The real transition of power in Kazakhstan was supposed to have taken place in 2019. Former President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who had ruled the former Soviet Republic with an iron first since its independence in 1991, finally stepped aside to allow his successor, Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev, to take power.

However, Nazarbayev retained enormous influence behind the scenes. The real transfer of power is in fact happening only now, following large-scale unrest and protests around the country. Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev promises a new way of doing things, but his methods are strikingly similar to his predecessor. For Russian daily Kommersant, Vladimir Soloviev and Alexander Konstantinov ponder why strongmen are able to keep power in Kazakhstan — but can't ensure its peaceful transfer.

Read the full story: Kazakhstan, When One Strongman Replaces Another

🐟 DENMARK, A SMALL FISH IN THE SALMON INDUSTRY’S BIG POND


Things are getting fishy over Nordic fishing regulations, as the Danish government has banned further growth in sea-based fish farming, claiming the country had reached the limit without endangering the environment. In Danish newspaper Politiken, marine biologist Johan Wedel Nielsen explained why Demark’s policy has given Norway a de facto monopoly on the lucrative salmon industry. This is particularly significant as changing diet habits are increasing demand for the nutritious pink fish, and Norway has taken advantage, accounting for about half of the world’s salmon production.

Nielsen argues that environmental concerns aren’t warranted, as fish have an inherently small impact on the environment. Denmark has the potential to establish 150 salmonid (a family of fish including salmon and trout) farms in the Baltic Sea, producing some 500,000 tons of trout per year with a value of 2.7 billion euros and employing tens of thousands. But the Danish government has so far given no indication of allowing any addition to Denmark’s 19 existing farms.

Read the full story: Norwegian Salmon v. Danish Trout: Lessons On Ecology And Economics

💡  BRIGHT IDEA

French start-up Airxôm has unveiled its unique respiratory device at Las Vegas’ CES tech event. Their plastic and silicon face mask is the first capable of destroying particles of all sizes and has inbuilt decontamination properties, hence protecting against pollution, bacteria and viruses including COVID-19. Oh and, as a bonus, it also prevents your glasses from fogging.

#️⃣ TRENDING


Boris Johnson memes flooded social networks this week, mocking the UK’s prime minister's excuse for attending what was quite obviously a party at the height of the pandemic: “I believed implicitly that this was a work event.” The quote was shared alongside a toe-curlingly bad 2013 video of BoJo dancing to Lionel Richie’s “All Night Long” which resurfaced on Instagram, while Irish low-cost carrier Ryanair puts its own spin on the lame explanation.

🤦‍♀️🛴🤦‍♂️ FACEPALM OF THE WEEK


A Belgian national was intercepted by the French police while riding his e-scooter on a highway in eastern France. The confused trottinette user said it was his first time riding in France, and that he’d failed to select the “no toll roads” option on his GPS.

👉   OTHERWISE ...

Climate, COVID, Costa Concordia: why humans are wired for denial

This past week marked 10 years since the sinking of the Costa Concordia cruise ship off the coast of Tuscany. Writing in Italian daily La Stampa, Guido Maria Brera sees connections between the way passengers and crew reacted in the minutes and hours after the ship ran aground to other calamities we face that may seem to be moving more slowly:

In 2012, the same year the Costa Concordia cruise ship sank off of Giglio Island, David Quammen published his book Spillover, which predicted that somewhere in Asia a virus would be attacking the human respiratory tract on its way to becoming a global pandemic. And so it was. This terrible shipwreck, which the world watched in slow-motion exactly ten years ago on January 13, 2012, now appears to us — just like the COVID-19 pandemic, like the trailer of a horror film we are now all living for real.

Millions dead, ten of millions sick, and the psychological collapse of entire generations, the youngest and most defenseless. In the meantime, climate change is spiraling out of control: sea levels are rising, land is drying out, ice caps are melting, not to mention hurricanes, storms, floods, droughts, famines, wars, migration.

The correlation between climate change and the pandemic has been demonstrated countless times by scientists. Soaring temperatures, intensive livestock farming, deforestation and the devastation of the natural animal kingdoms have led to zoonosis: Species-hopping, in which a bacterium or virus escapes from its host and spreads to another, creating a chain reaction with devastating results.

Finding the correlation between the sinking of the Costa Concordia and the current situation is more a subtle exercise: by looking at the decisions we made to respond to the disaster — or rather, how we failed to take action.

"The Concordia has become a maze of choices in the dark, deciding whether to open a door or not, whether to move or stay put, can be the difference between life and death,” Pablo Trincia said recently in his podcast “Il Dito di Dio.” (The Finger of God). A cruise ship with more than 4,000 people, including passengers, crew and ship personnel, is a microcosm in itself: it contains everything. And indeed, in these very long and slow moments, when time seems suspended, a tragedy was in the making.

There were reported many notable demonstrations of solidarity, as strangers helped each other. There were also those who fled as quickly as possible, seeking their personal safety at the expense of others. There were those who, between the ship crashing into the rocks and the dropping of the first lifeboats, seemed not to care.

If it is true that there are lessons to learn even from the worst tragedies, then we must make sure that the terrible wreckage of this small world can help us understand and identify the rocks we are heading towards today: the climate crisis and the pandemic. Time is the discriminating factor, as always. Director Adam McKay explains it well in his movie Don't Look Up, showing us how people react as they face slow-motioned tragedies.

In this scenario, the slowness of the film is the central narrative choice: there is initially plenty of time before the comet would hit the earth, ineluctably ending human life, and there remains plenty of time to live and love and enjoy.

Hence, we also have time to expect that the asteroid is still far away, to imagine that it will deviate from its course. We even have time to forget that the impact is inevitable, and to continue to live as if nothing is happening.

This is the most common reaction to pandemics and environmental disasters. Turn your head away, pretend you don't see, don't look up.

Denial is the work of politicians incapable of questioning the only development model they know, of the billionaires who built bunkers to survive in New Zealand, (where it seems that the crisis will have less impact), of the Silicon Valley gurus have already bought coolers to preserve their bodies for eternity by cryogenics.

On the Costa Concordia, refusal to look the disaster in the eye wasn’t just the work of those who were supposed to give the alert and manage the evacuation: we are all in the same boat when it comes to denial. When a disaster happens in slow motion, it feels as though there is still too much time to bother rushing for solutions now.

We tend to think about the time we have left, about the costs and benefits to our tiny lives, without even realizing that never has the need for salvation been more collective.

Ten years ago, as today, we convinced ourselves that we are absolved of responsibility precisely because we know that everyone shares the same responsibility.

⏩  LOOKING AHEAD

• Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov set next week as the ultimatum for a confirmation that NATO will neither expand nor deploy forces to Ukraine and other ex-Soviet nations.

• Next Sunday will mark two years since the World Health Organization declared during an emergency meeting that COVID-19 was a Public Health Emergency of International Concern.

• On Tuesday, a 3,400-foot-wide asteroid will make a safe flyby of Earth, whooshing by our planet at the equivalent of five Earth-Moon distances (still pretty close from a cosmic point of view).

• Monday is Ditch New Year’s Resolutions Day, so you still have a few more hours to decide whether that gym membership really was a good idea.

News quiz answers:

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