The Catholic Worker House in Calais is named for St Maria Skotbsova, also known as St Mary of Paris, and under her patronage. Not someone I had heard of before, and I suspect relatively unknown in the UK, St Maria was born in Riga, which was then part of the Russian Empire. During a life which included being poet, mother, would-be assassin (she planned to assassinate Trotsky), she came to be in France, and agreed to a vocation as a nun, on the condition her Archbishop allow her to be free to minster to the poor and live amongst them. Following the Nazi invasion of France, her house began sheltering Jews, and providing false papers. She died in Ravensbrück concentration camp on Easter Saturday 1945, and was ‘glorified’ (canonised) by the Orthodox Church in 2004.
The Catholic Worker House in Calais tries to follow her example, being prayerfully present with and amongst the poor. Br Johannes shared that when “the jungle” (the large camp which was demolished in October 2016) was standing, his work was mostly pastoral, but the last year - and the refusal of the authorities to allow any permanent site to be established - has changed this. Increasingly, the work is about mitigating the worst of the situation in Calais; not easy when over the summer bans were introduced on provisions of showers, and at one point even the distribution of food.
But if, by the end of this article, it reads as a depressing, or despairing piece, I will have failed. The living conditions are harsh; the young migrants there are facing great challenges, in many cases having overcome many already to get to Calais. But there is joy.
Bishop Nolan talks to staff at the Refugee Community Kitchen
On the Tuesday we visited a warehouse where several organisations are housed. From here, donations from the UK and across Europe are sorted. Nothing is wasted: if something won’t be of use for the young people in Calais (the population is mostly male, and in need of smaller sizes of clothing) it will go to Paris, or to local groups working with homeless groups, or for charity re-sale. It is from here that the Refugee Community Kitchen operates – providing 2,500 meals every day, taken out in Calais, Dunkirk, and other areas. Nearly everyone is a volunteer, those who have been there a bit longer ‘co-ordinate’, and the atmosphere shows this. Music is played not just in the kitchen, but out at the distribution points, transforming what could be an aggressive, or tense struggle to be first and avoid missing out, into a celebration. The volunteers always make sure there is enough to go round (and some to spare), and on Tuesday evening with music playing, some young people played football while the queue died down. Everyone joins in in collecting rubbish, trying to make sure nothing is left, and no reason for the business next door, or the onlooking police to find fault, before taking bottles of water, and trying to find somewhere they can shelter for the night, knowing someone will be back with tea and breakfast in the morning.
Sitting in Maria Skobtsova House, I found myself remembering the accounts I’ve heard of Valdocco, the Oratory founded by Don Bosco. The House is busy, full of young people in need of both material and spiritual support, and relying on donations and goodwill to provide for nearly everything. But it’s also full of music, and prayer. While the morning prayer was in English, each evening we joined in English, French, Tigrinya, and Amharic prayers, both over meals and to end the day. On our last evening, Br Johannes asked that only 2 devotional songs took place at the end rather than 4 or 5 as normal, as we had an early start for our journey back the next day, and it was already late by the time we had bid farewell to Bishop Paul (visiting from London) and the guests, both volunteers and refugees living at Taizé in France. This was pushed back, as the following day (St Andrews for us) was an Orthodox devotion for Our Lady; it was settled at 3 songs!
Since returning, our visit has enjoyed increasing press attention, and with motions being raised in both Scottish and UK Parliaments this hopefully will help get the situation back on the agenda. But while the Church here can use its voice, it is those people - of any and all faiths - cooking, cleaning, accompanying to food distribution points, or offering lifts to clinics, who are being the hands and feet of Christ in Calais. We heard that many will donate whatever they can, or offer a shower, or bed for a night or two. This is done even though there is local opposition, and the political far-right in the region is highly organised. Doubtless some there would object, and in some case, hate this assessment - but certainly there are saints walking in Calais right now. And I agree with Johannes; we should take our saints seriously.
An appeal from Justice and Peace Scotland:
From 27 – 30th November 2017 a delegation from Justice and Peace Scotland were guests of the Maria Skobtsova Catholic Worker House in Calais, France. Bishop William Nolan (President, and Bishop of Galloway) and Danny Sweeney (Social Justice Co-ordinator) went to witness first-hand the situation on the ground, over a year after the migrant camp, known as “the jungle” was dismantled, and the situation disappeared from the public consciousness of many. They were joined on Thursday 29th November by Bishop Paul McAleenan (Lead Bishop for Asylum and Migration, Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales) and Tom Burke (CBCEW International Affairs Department).
Together the Bishops joined staff from Secour Catholique in Calais meeting with young migrants who are sleeping rough, and learning about the challenges since ‘the jungle’ was demolished. Read the joint statement they issued
An Early Day Motion has been tabled in Parliament (EDM 651) recognising the visit by Bishop Nolan and Bishop McAleenan, and joint statement which was issued calling on the government to expedite applications for family reunion under the Dublin III Regulations; to commit to the true spirit of the ‘Dubs’ Amendment’ offering sanctuary to vulnerable young people in Europe; and to establish safe legal channels for applications for asylum/ entry to the UK to be established. The joint statement also calls on both French and UK governments to develop infrastructure in Calais to support dignified living conditions for those who are there.
Please contact your MP (https://www.theyworkforyou.com/) and ask them to support EDM 651.