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What would you do, if this was you in Perrou, in 1942?

The shrine to the Virgin Mary, and grotto in Perrou, Orne Normandy - match!
The shrine to the Virgin Mary, and grotto in Perrou, Orne Normandy – match!

Sometimes the smallest place can be hiding a big story, like the tiny village of Perrou in the Orne.

A humble shrine

Our postcard is of a rather forgotten shrine to the Virgin Mary, over a natural spring that tumbles down into Perrou. Catholic readers may see a resemblance to the grotte de Massabielle at Lourdes and this is no coincidence; there are many Lourdes replicas across France and the Perrou shrine is one.

Pathway to the shrine for the Virgin Mary and the grotto, abandoned orphanage buildings to the left.
Pathway to the shrine for the Virgin Mary and the grotto

A thousand acts of kindness; the Franciscan community of Perrou

Perrou’s shrine is close to a large complex of buildings that overshadow the hundred or so houses of the village.  The oldest and grandest of these buildings has stood for less than 200 years.

They are here because Father Lemoinie and Sister Elizabeth had a dream to care for orphaned children, the disabled and elderly in the peaceful surroundings of the Orne. They chose this place for its isolation by the Andaines forest, and because it was a place of pilgrimage.

The Bishop of Séez blessed their endeavours and the land in 1868, and work began on a convent and hospital, to be home and workplace for Franciscan nuns; Franciscaines de NotreDame de Pitié de Perrou. As the buildings grew so did a village around them, until in 1886 it earned a name, Perrou.

The old hospital
The old hospital

War brings battles to the forest

Plans and prayers were soon disrupted in 1870; France was at war in Prussia and not doing very well at all. The Orne teemed with enemy soldiers, estimates say up to 40,000.  After one particularly fierce battle in the forest around Perrou, over 50 injured soldiers were rescued by the Franciscan Sisters.

In 1874 another tragedy; smallpox.  over just a few weeks 200 local children lost their parents to this terrible disease.  They were taken to the community at Perrou and cared for by a growing community of 56 Sisters. Over the years the buildings are extended to accommodate separate orphanages for girls and boys, and hospices for men and women.

By 1934 over 700 people are living here. Then in 1940, Germany invades France.

Statue in the church
Statue in the church

War comes again to Perrou

Around the convent the Andaine forest was soon crawling with enemy.  A recent archaeological survey in the Forêt domaniale des Andaines recorded nearly 900 earthwork bunkers, building foundations, trenches, and other features associated with WW2 German fuel, munitions and logistics depots.

A small story of great bravery

During those terrible years many families were forced to flee from Paris, their religion now a death sentence.  One of many families who fled in 1941 were the Kwiatecks; father, mother and 6 year old twins.  They made their way to the demarcation line between the occupied north and the ‘free’ south of France then, tragedy.  At the border M.Kwiateck was arrested and deported. To Auschwitz.

Rywka Kwiateck and the twins Alfred and Lilliane escaped and made their way deep into the Orne where in 1942 the small desperate family came to the attention of Fernand Jouvencel, mayor of Perrou.

Fernand was the local mechanic with a reputation for being an anarchist and ‘free thinker’. Somehow this made him the best choice for mayor of Perrou in 1942. Fernand was married to Madeleine, a local teacher and town clerk. They were proud parents of four young Jouvencels’.

Fernand Jouvencel
Fernand Jouvencel

With his wife’s agreement Fernand bought the Kwiatecks into their home. Then he went to speak to Mother Saint-Léon at the convent. Quickly, false papers were prepared in the name of ‘Carreau’ and the children taken to the priest, who baptised them.  Then, like so many lost children, they were taken to the Franciscan Sisters who carefully integrated them with the many orphans in their care.  Alfred and Lillian would stay with them until 1944.

Rywka was desperate to help her friends still in Paris.  Protective, Fernand could not let her make the journey on her own. We do not know how they travelled but do know that in peacetime the walk between Perrou and Paris takes at least 48 hours.

Abandoned rooms of the old Orphanage
Now abandoned rooms of the old Orphanage

More Jewish refugees to hide, in Perrou

Rywka and Fernand returned safely with Danièle Sapoznik and her two children Fanny and Michael. Their father had already been arrested.  Again, the Sisters took in the children, whose new papers named them as from the family ‘Sapon’. The also took in at Fernand’s request the Boker family.

Fernand’s next trip to Paris was as the Kwiatek’s representative.  Forced to abandon their knitting factory, it was being sold. He carefully concealed the sale money, spending not a franc.

Requisition and patients in danger

In 1943 the enemy requisitioned the convent as a military hospital and expelled everyone.  The sisters needed a miracle but made it happen themselves; they found homes for 700 disabled men and women into the Orne community, saving them from probable extermination.

The church, Our Lady of the Assumption, was used by the Germans as a hospital ward.
The church, Our Lady of the Assumption, was used by the Germans as a hospital ward.

The Paris mothers were moved out of Pirrou and into quiet forest places.  Madeleine took them regular food parcels.

The Jouencels, the Kwiatek’s, Saponzniks and the Boker families all survived WW2. In 1944 Fernand returned the factory sale money to the family, stepped down as mayor then disappeared from the history books. He died in 1957.

After 144 hard-working years the Sisters left Perrou in 2013.

Most of the buildings were left when the Sisters departed in 2013.
Most of the buildings were abandoned when the Sisters departed in 2013.

A story seldom spoken, unforgotten

And that is all we know about the mayor, his wife, the Mother superior and the Sisters who risked their lives to save others, in a small Normandy village.

Although their story is not well known, it will not be forgotten by the people they saved.

Righteous of Nations

On 5 February 2001, Yad Vashem awarded Fernand and Madeleine Jouvencel the title ‘Righteous of Nations’, the highest civilian honour of the State of Israel. Their names have been entered into the Book of the Righteous, a book that will never be closed out of respect for those whose stories will always remain unknown.

Sunlight through stained glass onto the church floor tiles, Perrou
Sunlight through stained glass onto the church floor tiles, Perrou

 

There are two rare polychrome limestone statue in the church: a Pietà and a statue of saint Roch of the xvii th century, both classified as objects to the historic Monuments 
There are two rare polychrome limestone statue in the church: a Pietà and a statue of saint Roch of the xvii th century, both classified as objects to the historic Monuments

 

Stained glass Our Lady of the Assumption Perrou
Stained glass Our Lady of the Assumption Perrou

 

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