London: French Church celebrates restored Cocteau murals


Matthew Fisher (Pioneer Scout Group leader) & Florent David members of the parish Lay Community by murals

Matthew Fisher (Pioneer Scout Group leader) & Florent David members of the parish Lay Community by murals

A special Mass and reception took place at the Church of Notre Dame de France in Leicester Square - on Saturday, to celebrate the unveiling of the newly-restored Cocteau murals and the renovated organ.

Organist Duncan Middleton played improvizations during the blessing of the organ and accompanied the special choir who sang beautifully throughout the Mass. The celebration was dedicated to Fr Gerard Noblet SM, who died this year after serving at Notre Dame for 16 years.

In his homily, Fr Guy Wernert spoke of how each statue and image in the church had been lovingly chosen to praise God and lead the congregation to prayer.

The murals,  adorning the walls of a side chapel, were carried out in 1960 by the well-known artist, filmmaker, writer and poet Jean Cocteau. They depict the Annunciation, the Crucifixion and the Assumption of Our Lady.

It was Mr René Varin, cultural advisor at the French Embassy in London who thought of asking Cocteau to take part in the decoration work of the new Church. The building had been virtually destroyed by a bomb during World Wall II and was being rebuilt.

Cocteau, who was 70 at the time,  spent slightly more than a week on the project, from 3 - 11 November 1959. His films, particularly Le Testament d’Orphee,  were enjoying huge success in London at that time and he had to be protected from the invasion of reporters and fans by a wooden scaffolding all around the chapel.

Cocteau had only recently returned to practicing his Catholic faith after a long absence from the Church, and was very devout. According to eyewitnesses, he would arrive each morning at about ten and always began by lighting a candle before the statue of Our Lady of Lourdes.

He would then pray aloud while he worked on the drawings. When he spoke to the Virgin of the Annunciation, he was full of joy, and said: "O you, most beautiful of women, loveliest of God's creatures, you were the best loved. So I want you to be my best piece of work too...
I am drawing you with light strokes... You are the yet unfinished work of Grace..."

Once he had finished his tasks, Jean Cocteau was sad to leave. He told friends: "I am sorry to go. It is as if the wall of the chapel had drawn me into another world..."

He went on to comment: "I shall never forget that wide open heart of Notre Dame de France, and the place you allowed me to take within it."

Cocteau died nearly four years later, on 11 October 1963. He was buried according to his wishes, in the chapel of St Blaise of the Simple Ones, at Milly la Forêt, near Fontainebleau.

Notre Dame de France, served by the Marist Fathers, has a very lively pastoral outreach to London's French speakers and the wider community. There is a residential lay community of young people, an African refugee support project and homeless project.

Next month the parish is participating in Spirit in the City with other West End Catholic churches. On Thursday, 7 June, a Marian street procession will arrive there (from Our Lady of the Assumption, after a talk by Fr Christopher Jamison), for testimonies, sung night prayer and a social evening.

On Friday, 8 June, After Mass at 12.15, there will be a talk by Fr Keith Barltrop on  ‘the call to be witnesses in the world.’  From 1.15 – 5.30pm there will be Sanctuary in the City – Adoration in the church and outreach in Leicester Square. During the evening programme which starts at 7pm there will be music,  prayer and testimonies in Notre Dame before a talk by Sr Gemma Simmonds, CJ, on ‘the call to be witnesses of the Eucharistic Lord’. At 8pm a Eucharistic street procession  will set out to Corpus Christi in Covent Garden where there will be a time of Adoration, Benediction and Night Prayer.

Later, on 17 June, the entire parish of Notre Dame de France will have their annual picnic together after Sunday Mass. Nathalie Champel, who leads a team of about 100 catechists working in the parish and with children from the French Lycee, said:  “It’s a wonderful event which we all look forward to. We love our parish.”

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