CHURCH leaders in France have expressed shock after a prominent Roman Catholic priest, Fr Olivier Maire, was killed in Nantes by an African migrant who is facing trial for setting fire to the city’s cathedral last year (News, 24 July 2020; 31 July 2020).
“The author of this killing, who handed himself in to the gendarmes, was being sheltered by Fr Maire,” the French Bishops’ Conference said in a joint statement with the Conference of Religious Orders.
“While the circumstances of this drama are not yet fully known, the priests and brethren of his order, present in five continents, will continue their founder’s project, evangelising with closeness and care for all.”
The statement was issued after the 60-year-old priest was killed on Sunday night. Fr Maire was the Provincial Superior of the Company of Mary, also known as the Monfort Missionaries, founded by St Louis Marie Grignon de Montfort (1673-1716).
The Bishop of Nantes, Mgr Laurent Percerou, said that he had worked closely with Fr Maire, and confirmed that the priest had been hosting his Rwandan killer, Emmanuel Abayisenga, in the missionaries’ house at Saint-Laurent-sur-Sèvre while Mr Abayisenga awaited his arson trial.
“I appreciated [Fr Maire’s] qualities as a listener, his benevolence and sense of the Church,” Bishop Percerou said in a message on the diocesan website. “He was faithful to his religious calling, even to the point of giving his life — a brother to all, preaching God’s mercy.”
The French daily paper La Croix said that Mr Abayisenga, who was released from a psychiatric hospital on 29 July, had turned himself in on Monday morning; initial investigations had suggested that Fr Maire had been beaten to death.
The paper’s report added that the Rwandan, a survivor of the 1994 genocide, had also been taken in by Franciscans after reaching France in 2012, and had met the Pope during a visit to Rome in 2016.
Mr Abayisenga faces a ten-year sentence for setting fire to Nantes Cathedral, in July last year. The fire wrecked parts of the interior, including a 17th-century organ and 15th-century stained glass.
The former Superior General of the Montfort Missionaries, Fr Santino Brembilla, told French TV that Fr Maire had been a “missionary of great value”. The president of the Bishops’ Conference, Archbishop Eric de Moulins-Beaufort, said that many people would be “traumatised” by his killing.
Tributes also came from the President, Emmanuel Macron, who said in a post on Twitter that the priest had shown “generosity and love for others even in his facial features”, and France’s Interior Minister, Gérald Darmanin, who told journalists that Mr Abayisenga had not been “listed in any radicalisation files”, and could not be expelled while his arson case was pending.
The head of France’s far-right Rassemblement National, Marine Le Pen, however, attacked French judicial authorities over the case. “One can now be underground in France, set fire to Nantes cathedral, not be expelled and reoffend by murdering a priest,” she posted on Twitter on Monday. “What’s happening in our country is of unprecedented gravity — the complete bankruptcy of the state.”