The MEP Martyrs’ Hall
Welcome to the Paris Foreign Missions Society (MEP), a Catholic missionary society whose priests have departed for Asia and the Indian Ocean for the past 360 years. In addition, each year more than 150 lay volunteers use their skills to serve in the missions.
History of the Martyrs’ Hall
In 1842, the Paris Foreign Missions Seminary at Rue du Bac received the relics of Father Pierre Borie who had departed for the missions in 1830 and was martyred 8 years later in Vietnam. This event stirred great emotion and enthusiasm. As the circumstances of his death became known, the relics of the martyr began to be venerated. They were placed in an upstairs room and people quickly developed a tradition of spending a few moments each day in front of the relics.
The relics of Borie were not to remain the only relics. In the following years, relics of other victims of persecution in Vietnam and China were sent to Paris. The seminary had to adapt to the large number of objects and the influx of visitors, so the relics were moved to the ground floor in 1867.
Beatifications in the first quarter of the 20th century led to other modifications and relocations: monumental urns were made and can still be seen flanking the stairway leading to the crypt. Continuing its downward movement, the Martyrs’ Hall has now moved from the ground floor to one level below the crypt.
The upright yoke of Saint Borie
The upright yoke of Pierre Dumoulin-Borie is in an unusual position and at first sight seems misplaced. However, the yoke forms the central axis of the hall and is a pure, refined symbol.
The yoke, resembling a wooden ladder, was a restraint placed around the prisoner’s neck. Here it is also a symbol of the cross and takes the central position in the crypt. Standing in front of the yoke, you can see the whole of the rest of the crypt.
One can imagine rays emanating from this central axis. The metallic boxes placed on the walls, underneath the paintings, are the endpoint of these rays. These boxes contain chains, ropes, swords and knives. Once ordinary tools used for normal work, they have been transformed into tools of violence and cruelty.
Seeing these instruments of violence, one might wonder about our predecessors and about the path that led them to this kind of death, to martyrdom. Vertical glass cases display many items including articles used by the martyrs in their daily lives. Through these glass cases and, as if connecting what is in them to what is around them, one can see other items and paintings that depict the final scenes in the lives of the martyrs.
Beginnings and principles
Under the first arch are allusions to the origins and structure of the Society: Foreign Missions, various symbols of the apostolic vicars associated with the Martyrs including the stole of François Pallu and some hand-written documents and letters.
Veneration and Devotion: the Unchanging
The second arch contains three showcases.
The first, with the sign of the cross: crosses of various origins associated with the memory of the Martyrs.
The second containing small items of devotion to Our Lady that bear witness, within the context of persecution, to a constant, solid faith that can brave anything.
The third with objects used for celebrating mass. The objects shown here are often known as being of ‘Saint Sulpice’ quality, meaning that they are cheap fabrications. Many of them were made in Asia after western models. But there are some clandestine objects, made in Japan, which seem ordinary, but actually have hidden Christian symbols .
Under the third arch, are shown: clothes from Tonkin, China and Tibet. These are fairly exotic clothes worn by the Martyrs. There are also personal objects whose use is unfamiliar to us. The exhibits testify to hospitality offered and received, as well as to the adoption of different habits, food, clothing, and a way of life in places which became new homes for the Martyrs.
This showcase is meant for playful reflection of the objects presented on display. The cane of Saint Théophane Vénard with inscriptions in ink: about walking. The telescope of Saint Auguste Chapdelaine: about a way of seeing. The flute of Father Brieux: for fascination. The large cutlass at the bottom of the display reminds one of destiny. Stopped watches: time that has run out.
A road map to death containing moving lines of poetry A little ball which fits in the palm of the hand when it is not being used.
It is a motley collection of objects that remains at the end of life. Looking at them creates some feeling of harmony.
Letters and testimonies
There are also diverse writings which illustrate different destinies. These destinies are exemplified by the writings of the Prior of Tibhirine, slain in Algeria. ‘When a goodbye is coming’…
With a little patience, you can decipher a letter by Saint Pierre Mauban written in April 1837 in Korea to Saint Jacques Chastan who is about to join him. With some sketches, he describes to his fellow priest what signals to place on the boats. Or these words of St. Chastan: ‘today, September 6, around 3 in the morning arrived a confirmed order that Monsignor is going to martyrdom…’
In one of the three desk drawers, you can see original documents which describe the diverse adventures of the travellers, the methods they used to arrive at their missions, and the difficulties they encountered during their journeys.
Passages, relics, souvenirs
The Martyrs’ Hall and the Crypt, which are extensions of each other, share the memory of the Martyrs.
We have established a distinct principle, which may seem arbitrary, but which proves useful for the presentation: we call the remains of martyrs’ body parts ‘relics’, and
all other objects related to the martyr and those who suffered because of the persecution ‘mementoes’. The mementoes are in the Martyrs’ Hall and the relics are now placed in the Crypt, as well as in the passage between the two rooms.
Memory and the Eucharist
In the crypt, the Tomb is ready. But it has not yet completely fulfilled its function: under the impressive list of the Martyrs of Asia engraved in stone, are wooden boxes; reliquary urns will be placed there as the Feasts of the Martyrs are celebrated throughout the year. Thus, by going around this tomb, we have a kind of chronology of the Society reminding us of the Martyrs’ anniversaries. The urns containing relics are brought to the chapel and elevated near the main altar on the feast of the Martyrs. In this manner, we see that the Tomb is not separated from the community, used solely for personal devotion, instead it is a part of the liturgy and the celebration of the Eucharist.