Ten Days in the South of France:
How the President of Fenwick High School Spends His Summer Vacations
The inspiration to establish the Order of Preachers came to St. Dominic during his time living in the South of France. There he encountered people who had been led astray by the Cathar heresy. Before too long, it became clear to him that the Church needed a religious order dedicated to preaching the gospel. Pope Honorius III agreed and in 1216 formally approved the Order of Preachers with Dominic as its first Master.
There are a number of significant places in the South of France that tell the story of the founding of the Dominican Order and that evoke the presence of St. Dominic and the early Dominicans. I have had the privilege of helping to lead a summer pilgrimage to these “lands of St. Dominic” for the past 12 years. Sr. Jeanne Goyette, O.P. (Caldwell, NJ), Sr. Mary Ellen O’Grady, O.P. (Sinsinawa, WI) and I take 25 pilgrims on a trek to St. Dominic’s country in France. We stay in Fanjeaux with the Dominican Sisters of Sainte-Famille who operate the “Couvent St-Dominique”—a guest house that had been a Dominican priory in the 15th century.
The goal of the pilgrimage is to deepen one’s sense of Dominican life and spirituality. Most of the participants are lay women and men who serve in Dominican ministries—usually in Dominican schools. Since I became president of Fenwick High School, we’ve sponsored one faculty member a year to participate in the pilgrimage. The only stipulation is that he or she must give a presentation on the experience to the full faculty and staff at one of the first meetings of the new school year. This past year, Ms. Toni Dactilidis from the Mathematics Department was our Fenwick pilgrim.
Each day of the pilgrimage begins with Morning Prayer and a conference. The conferences that I present include “Dominic in Fanjeaux,” “Dominic the Itinerant Preacher,” “Dominic and Prayer,” “Truth and Compassion in Dominic’s Life,” “St. Thomas Aquinas and Study,” “The Life and Legacy of Henri-Dominique Lacordaire, O.P.” and “Art as a Means of Preaching in the Dominican Order.” Each day includes an excursion to a significant Dominican site and time for personal and communal reflection. I celebrate Mass for the group several times during the course of the 10-day experience. I can’t help but note that, since it is France, each meal is exquisite!
It is wonderful to watch the participants come together as a community, deepen their Dominican spirit and claim their identity as collaborators in the Dominican mission.
Snapshots of the places on our itinerary each year:
The village of Fanjeaux sits on a hilltop. The view from the “Seignadou”—a lookout point associated with St. Dominic—is spectacular. The fields below alternate between wheat and sunflowers. As you can see, it’s easy to imagine that you’re in the 13th century!
In honor of its Dominican connection, Fanjeaux is formally “twinned” with the village of Caleruega in Spain—the birthplace of St. Dominic.
The “Maison St-Dominique” (St. Dominic’s house) is in Fanjeaux. It is adjacent to the village Church and is historians’ best guess as to where St. Dominic stayed during the years that he lived in Fanjeaux. The main room, with its early 13th century fireplace has been transformed into a chapel. We have Mass in the “Maison” and other prayer services during our stay.
During Dominic’s time in Fanjeaux, nine women converted from the Cathar heresy to Catholicism and asked to be associated with Dominic’s mission. Thus began the Dominican monastery of Prouilhe (1206). We visit the nuns of Prouilhe and pray Evening Prayer with them. (Their chanting of the psalms is beautiful.)
The medieval, walled city of Carcassonne is perhaps the finest example of its kind anywhere in the world. During his time in the South of France, St. Dominic visited it many times.
The Basilica of St-Nazaire is within the walls of the old city. On a plaque inside the main entrance, one reads: “The founder of the Friars Preachers—St. Dominic—preached the Lenten mission in this church in 1213.”
The first house of the Order is in Toulouse. Pierre Seilhan gave his family home to St. Dominic and became a friar. The building is embedded in the old Roman wall surrounding Toulouse and is adjacent to the “Institut Catholique de Toulouse.” The dormitory of the first friars of the Order is now a small chapel.
The first church built under the auspices of the Dominicans is in Toulouse. It is known as the “Église des Jacobins”—the Church of the Jacobins. (The early Dominicans received the nickname “Jacobins” in France because they were associated with the Church of St-Jacques in Paris.)
One of the most significant Dominicans of the modern era was Fr. Henri-Dominique Lacordaire, O.P. (1802-1861). He re-established the Order in France after the devastation caused by the French Revolution. The French provinces of the Order set the stage for a true Dominican renaissance in the 20th century.
Lacordaire spent his last years in the village of Sorèze. His tomb is in the village Church and his last ministry site was the Abbey-School of Sorèze. The school has several museum-quality memorials to Lacordaire.
Chapel of the Rosary, Vence
The pilgrimage ends in the village of Vence. There we celebrate Mass at the famous Chapel of the Rosary. It is the masterwork of Henri Matisse. He spent the last three years of his life at work on the chapel. It was a gift to the Dominican sisters in honor of one of their members who served as his nurse before she entered the convent.
The “Deepening the Dominican Spirit” pilgrimage has been an important means of ensuring that institutions sponsored by the Order remain true to their mission. I have been so privileged to have a role to play in it each year.