An invisible crowd waits on the hillside, staring into a forest. They have waited so long their chairs of rocks are covered in moss, corners softened by heaps of pine needles.
Chapelle Sainte Geneviève is a very strange place indeed.
Rise and fall, and rise of the chapelle
The first chapel was built in 1856 by François Bonhomme, restored in 1900 by Adrien Bonhomme then destroyed by a tornado in 1923. The loss was felt heavily by local girls who liked to write their names on its walls as a prayer for marriage.
Then abbé Honoré Derouet inherited this high place in the Andaine forest. For many reasons in 1939 he decided to rebuild the little chapel, and did so using the old stones. He was also an artist and his creations can be see at the chapelle to this day.
Honoré was born in nearby Juvigny-sous-Andaine on 3 January 1900 and ordained a priest at Sées on 6 June 1925. He worked as the parish priest for Louvières-en-Auge then Epinay- Le-Comte. He was mobilised at the beginning of the war in 1939 then, devastatingly, taken prisoner in 1940.
During his captivity abbé Honoré kept his sanity with sculpture, carving whatever he could find and honing a simple but powerful skill.
Demobbed in 1943, he first returned to Epinay then on 6 July 1947 became parish priest for Saint-Front. He would stay there until he died. Saint-Front was very fortunate to have him.
His chapel was just 40 minutes bicycle ride away.
The joy of creating
Over the next few years abbé Honoré created a special place up on his hillside. He carved a huge calvary for Saint Hubert, a cross to proclaim his faith, and around the chapel many of his more unique sculptures including the chairs.
When asked he explained it was “a work of charity, intended for family leisure, simple and healthy”.
First he cleared trees from the hillside and revealed a vast panorama down across the Orne into the valley and the Bonvouloir tower.
Then he carved in earnest, using wood for sculptures inside the chapel and outside big gadage stones, granite discs used to crush apples for cider. He knew visitors would come and wanted them to be able to sit and enjoy the view and perhaps listen to a sermon, so carved chairs, benches and tables. He placed them all to face the sunrise and his beautiful view.
Abbé Honoré became president of an association for ex prisoners of war and, to afford meetings and travel for the members, would organise events around the chapelle. Held around Assumption, August 15, they would begin with prayer and celebration in the morning outside the chapelle, then move on to games; soccer and rifle competitions, in the afternoon.
Chapelle Sainte Geneviève became popular with visitors who came, as the local mayor remembers, ‘in lines of cars’ once the road was paved in the late 1960’s.
A restaurant was built and a Crêperie. Pony rides and games were put on for the children and families enjoyed the view sitting in abbé Honoré’s vast stone chairs, as he always hoped they would.
Abbé Honoré Derouet continued to sculpt for the church at Epinay-le-Comte and Saint-Front, creating doorways, votive plaques, an altar, lamps, benches, pedestals for the statues, the baptismal font. He also carved fireplaces, furniture, statuettes and many everyday objects. But his favourite occupation was to carve a calvary. During his lifetime abbé Honoré completed 22 calvaries and loved to say “When I come before the Eternal Father, I will present myself with my calvaries; He cannot close the door! … “
After a good life abbé Honoré Derouet died on 18 July 1974. We are quite sure he was well received.
The chapel and the land was inherited by his nephew and niece. To keep the precious hectare and chapel accessible to the public, the local municipality pays a small fee to the family who in turn maintain the chapel, calvary and furniture. The two restaurant have closed and are now private fenced homes. The car park they share with the public is still put in use by the family for the for the occasional game of boules.
The little chapelle Sainte Geneviève stands strong up on the hill but forest trees have crept up to it, hiding the view abbé Honoré loved so much. Around the chapelle his strangely ancient stone chairs now stare into the forest, as if expecting some long forgotten mythological beast to come crashing out to invisible applause.
The sunlight played tricks on shadows, and light seem to shine from eyes staring back at us from the forest. We left the Chapelle Sainte Geneviève before darkness fell.