In the 1960s, Mitt Romney was a Mormon missionary in the French cities of Brest, Le Havre and Bordeaux. Though the Church of the Latter-Day Saints is still a tiny minority in this Catholic country, it may finally build its first church in France. But loca
PARIS - There were 25 Mormons in the town of Saint-Brieuc, in northwest of France, when the missionary arrived from the United States in October 2010. By the time the young American left the town's cobbled streets a few weeks later, there were exactly the same number of Mormons.
Today, posted in the French capital, Nicolas Hujtyn, a tall, well-built 20-year-old from Missouri, says he doesn't let this get him down. As a missionary of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints, he fulfilled his mission to "share the message." Part of that means assuring his listeners that "the Church of Jesus Christ has been re-established on earth," thanks to the founder-prophet, Joseph Smith, a mystical 14-year-old born in Vermont in 1805.
Accompanied by Brookx Andrus, also 20, Nicolas works the streets of Paris. "The majority of people are polite, but they just don't have time to talk about Jesus Christ," acknowledges Hujtyn, just one of the 300 missionaries currently based in France.
Between the atheists and those in a hurry, very few passers-by agree to stop and discuss the merits of their beliefs compared to Mormonism. "I kind of believe, but not enough to start a debate with you," Gabrielle, 20, tells them, adding as an aside: "They're a bit like a sect, aren't they?" That is a recurring suspicion that leaves the two Americans frozen in place. Mormonism is not listed as a cult by France's Interministerial Mission for Monitoring and Combatting Cultic Deviances.
Despite the widespread mistrust in France, the Mormons have shed their usual anonymity over the last few weeks. This is partly thanks to Mitt Romney, of course; the leading candidate in the Republican primaries in the United States was a missionary in the French cities of Brest, Le Havre and Bordeaux between 1966 and 1968.
But beyond the Romney connection, there are other reasons why many Mormons in France see 2012 as the year of their "emergence." After 30 years of searching and disappointment, the Church has finally acquired land in Chesnay, 17 kilometers west of Paris, to build the first Mormon Church in France: an unadorned but imposing building.
Investing 80 million euros for a community of just 35,000 people – which grows by only a couple of dozen followers per year – may seem surprising. Moreover, top officials of the Church deem the main areas of potential growth to be Asia and South America. "This decision forms part of our campaign to build churches across the world," explains Christian Euvrard, director of the Church's training institute. "Our president-prophet an 85-year-old American, Thomas Monson wants the churches to come to the believers, not the other way round." The Mormon Church, financed by 14 million followers throughout the world, as well as income from proceeds of its properties, can allow itself the luxury of such an investment.
Not in my (Catholic) backyard
But the Church's attempt to put down roots on such Catholic soil, just around the corner from the Château of Versailles, has kicked off a debate. A petition, which has gathered as many as 4,000 signatures, is circulating on the Internet to demand "a public consultation" on this project, likely to "modify the town and its surroundings' and which critics say "doesn't correspond to the demand." Having appealed against the planning permission awarded by the town hall and given the political battles going on in the background, one of the town councillors has even resigned.
According to tradition, Mormon churches, closed to non-followers, are mainly used to celebrate marriage ceremonies and host spiritual retreats. French Mormons who want to get married in a Mormon church currently have to travel to England or Germany to do so. "Other than that, they followers come once or twice a year. There are no big celebrations or congregations," explains Dominique Calmels, Head of Communications for the Church, in an attempt to calm public concerns.
Calmels sees a real need for this new church for the 30% of followers who worship regularly, including several hundred Americans. Sunday services currently take place in unmarked buildings, in rooms with no religious decorations whatsoever. That is the case in Malakoff, a community 5 kilometers southwest of Paris, where French, American and African families, all dressed in their Sunday best, meet for three hours of education and traditional worship every Sunday.
Originally, non-believers from Catholic families, Calmels and his wife, Françoise, took part in Holy Communion this Sunday in Malakoff, where French and English are spoken on alternate weeks. The couple converted in the 1970s, inspired, like many others, by "a Church which doesn't place a priest between God and the believer," as every man has access to "the priesthood." In Mormonism, the prohibitions are known as "words of wisdom" and the rules as "advice on all aspects of life, from health to money management."
By means of "revelations', the founder and his successors respond to questions which arise throughout the decades. In 1978, a revelation inspired the then-president to "open the priesthood to men of color." Therefore, although they recognise a literal reading of the Scriptures, the Mormons stress their "pragmatism" to reject the label of "fundamentalists."
Read the original article in French