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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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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