On the southern outskirts of Paris, Grigny-2 is an often desolate, and dangerous, place. Three Catholic nuns have chosen to move into the vast housing project and spread the gospel by, first of all, being good neighbors.
GRIGNY - The apartment is large and almost empty, the paint on the walls is peeling and browned. On the kitchen table, medicine boxes and an ashtray reflect a life of unhappiness and solitude.
Solange is standing in the smoky air of the kitchen. She is a "friend" of Maïté, Bernadette and Marie-Armelle, three nuns of the Congregation of Notre Dame. The women live on the tenth floor of the same apartment building, located in the vast housing project of Grigny-2, in this town on the southeast outskirts of Paris.
"After 20 years of living here, these are the first neighbors I've ever spoken with," says Solange.
The "sisters of the 10th floor" also regularly spend time with Awa, a native of Mali. The young woman lives with her four children on the ground floor of the same building, in an in a tidy yet degraded flat. Laughing, Marie-Armelle Girardon, the former superior general of the congregation, who has been part of the religious group for 52 years, hugs the youngest child and reminds Awa that she is still waiting for him in French class. Maïté takes the opportunity to give them the hours of the street library, which Awa's children visit on Wednesday afternoon.
Such is life in the community of Notre Dame, where the three women, aged 74, 73 and 46, are connected by their faith in the rough heart of the Parisian periphery, known as the banlieue. The Sisters of Grigny live their apostate quietly: by developing individual relationships, they strive to create a link where solitude and communitarianism rarely intersect. This is their way of "living the Gospel," without proselytizing or the modern trends of promoting a visible identity.
Their project began in 2007. Maïté, who was then engaged in social work in Grigny, wanted to extend her life and experience "real life with people." While most people who live here think of nothing else but leaving, Maité and her two sisters have chosen to settle here, to be closer to "today's needs."
Conversions, prison choirs, discreet crosses
Both alone and in collaboration with other organizations in the city, the sisters provide literacy activities, homework help, nursing home visits, and a street library. They have taken disadvantaged children on short "vacations' in a house of the congregation, but have also settled for impromptu "chats' with them at the entrance of the building.
The eldest, Bernadette Valles, a former nurse, also accompanies a group of African, Carribean, and Laotian adults who wish to convert to Catholicism. Sometimes all three sisters go sing for men "who are not at all Catholics' at Masses celebrated at the nearby prison of Fleury-Merogis. "The idea is to give a vivid picture of one's gift of grace without being cut off from reality," says Bernadette.
In the building, their interlocutors are barely aware of the women's religious status. The crucifix that they wear under their blouses or sweaters are particularly discreet. "I do not need to display crystal clear what I think. It's more important that I build a true relationship with others," Maite says.
By choice, they have affixed no distinctive sign on the door of their apartment. One must enter the home to see that it is simple and organized around a "chapel." This area of prayer unfolds in what could just be a lounge overlooking the forest and nearby lakes. The three women pray every day, either alone or together.
"Here, everyone prays," Marie-Armelle says, smiling, "but for Muslims, who are the most numerous in the neighborhood, the notion of a segregated religious life is a quirk of Christianity. They often do not understand why we women live alone, without husbands and without children."
Awa describes her Catholic neighbors as "nice."
For these women, who have lived in Africa and Brazil, the diversity of Grigny-2 is a "richness' that balances the harshness of the surroundings. Maite's car has been broken into four times. Recently, Marie-Armelle bought "a jacket with lots of pockets," and now she never goes out with her handbag. Despite this "deteriorating" climate, it is out of the question for the three women to give up their communal life together.
This type of life, which was popular after the Second Vatican Council, the 1960s Catholic Church reform movement, is becoming increasingly rare. Maité, who entered the congregation nearly 16 years ago, was the last to say her vows. "To be, at 46, the youngest of the 150 sisters of France, it makes you think," she says."
Bernadette admits to "the difficulties that the Church faces in spreading the message of the Gospel."Maïté has a more blunt assessment of contemporary society as a whole: "It's unfortunate that there aren't more occasions to be able to talk openly about our values," she said.
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