The head of a religious order in Co Down who knew slain Father Jacques Hamel has revealed that Church land beside the scene of the murder was given by Catholic authorities to Muslims to build a mosque.
Father Mark Ephrem Nolan (58), Prior of the Benedictine Monastery of the Holy Cross near Rostrevor, said such attacks could happen anywhere, and confirmed Fr Hamel had good relations with those of the Islamic faith in the local area.
Belfast-born Fr Nolan, who met Fr Hamel (86) through his work in a neighboring parish in Normandy, added: “I spoke to a Sister there this morning who is a close friend of the Sister who escaped from the church and raised the alarm.
“She normally goes to Pere Jacques’ Mass in that church every morning, but had to go to her work as a prison chaplain on Monday. She is very shocked.
“The shock is worse now the news has had time to sink in. Fr Jacques was a quiet, holy man who worked all his life for people in impoverished areas, much in the mold of Pope Francis.
“He led a pure, simple life, with an emphasis on building friendships. Church authorities facilitated the giving of land beside his church to local Muslims to build a mosque, and they were given use of the parish hall and other facilities during Ramadan.”
Fr Nolan revealed his order included a monk who had been a seminarian for the Archdiocese of Rouen, where Fr Hamel was brutally killed by extremists in his church in an act Islamic State has claimed responsibility for.
Despite the attack, the cleric said Catholics and Muslims in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, the town in Normandy where Fr Hamel died, got on well with one another.
“There is a large Muslim population there, and relations are normally very good between the communities,” said Fr Nolan, who was born in 1958, the year Fr Hamel was ordained.
“Efforts have been made by the Christian community to be welcoming to Muslims.
“The Sisters even give reading lessons to Muslim kids in tower blocks.
“IS is trying to destroy those good relations. They target those areas, and Fr Hamel was very aware of that.
“I don’t think that there is an immediate threat here, because we don’t have a strong inter-faith connection – which is a shame – but no one thought it would have happened in Normandy on Monday. If it could happen there, then it can happen anywhere.
“IS activists are out to heighten tension and jeopardise good relationships where they exist.”
Fr Nolan met Fr Hamel while he was a monk at L’Abbaye Notre-Dame du Bec in Normandy in the 1980s and 1990s, close to the Archdiocese of Rouen, where Fr Hamel was a diocesan priest.
He facilitated community meetings and retreats for nuns who worked in Fr Hamel’s parish.
“I would have seen him at celebrations I attended, and he appeared as a discreet and humble man,” he recalled.
“More recently, around 2004, when he retired from the role of parish priest in the next parish, he became a priest in residence at St Etienne – probably working and administering all the more, since he was relieved of the administrative duties of parish priest.
“His proximity to the people was his major characteristic. He was regarded as a genuinely holy man. The way he celebrated the Eucharist and other sacraments in the parish made him extremely popular. His parishioners requested that he should lead their family and community celebrations.
“I was aware of Pere Jacques more recently through the many positive things I heard about him from the Sisters who continued to minister in the parish, or, having moved on to other ministries, retained links with it. Over the years a number of those Sisters have visited our monastery at Rostrevor.”
Ironically, Fr Hamel’s last pastoral letter to his parish in June, which was received by Fr Nolan, called for communities to live together and “accept each other as they are”.
“It’s a very poignant letter,” Fr Nolan told media.
“I think his words of encouragement to his parishioners in this are words he speaks from beyond the grave.
“His call today is the call he reiterated so often in his lifetime – a call to reach out to those who are different, a call to be welcoming, a call to seek to be friendly in others’ regard, a call to do everything that we can to foster and maintain good relationships so as to contribute to peace in the world.
“He talked about taking risks to build friendships, so people don’t feel alone. He never really retired, and kept on working for people. He was the favourite priest for weddings, baptisms and funerals, and he will be very sadly missed.
“A constant theme in his preaching and in the prayer intentions he formulated at liturgical celebrations was that each morning at Eucharist he encouraged the people gathered to pray for peace in the world.
“He asked people to be aware in their prayer of those who were less fortunate.
“He also asked that people pray that we might learn to better live together in accord and in harmony.
“He wanted people to be full of the joy of friendship, so that they can better walk the road together.
“His last word in his pastoral letter was ‘mercy’. I think that’s what he would want to come out of this tragedy.”