· Vatican City ·

On a mission to the Marxist city

27 June 2020

Madeleine Delbrêl’s frontier was in Ivry-sur-Seine. To get there, we have to take line seven of the Parisian subway; leaving behind the grandeur of Haussmanian buildings and boulevards, the luxury of glittering shop windows and crowded, noisy cafés. There we arrive in one of the satellite cities that once surrounded the capital and are now part of its suburbs. These low public modern architecture housing buildings in the Marie is where we find uncultivated and unkempt gardens, faces from afar, and ethnic markets.

Ivry-sur-Seine was called the city of 300 factories and was until the 1970s a melting pot of tensions, wage claims, workers’ struggles, and social and ideological clashes. It was hegemonized and ruled by Maurice Thorez's Communist Party. The parish is in Boulevard Stalingrad.

At number 11 Rue Raspail, a few meters from the main square, in a two-storey building with green windows, is where Madeleine Delbrêl, a poet, social worker, and mystic, lived until 1964. With her one or two companions also lived, and at times as many as twenty. The group was called Charité de Jesus. It was made up of lay people without any institutional ties whose mission was to go to the street, to support those who were suffering, and open their homes to everybody. No order, no hierarchy. Only Madeleine.

She had arrived in Ivry-sur-Seine, which was inhabited by the working class and Marxism, in 1933. She had chosen “to give herself voluntarily to God as a human creature can belong to the one she loves”. And, to fight on the frontline of poverty, for the working class, amidst the workers and the exploitation. Her allies against poverty were the Communists. In her confrontation with Marxism she led a close struggle in the name of Christianity and God. Without hating those who supported him, but rather collaboratively and with friendship “Jesus told us to love all our brothers and sisters. But he did not tell us ‘except the Communists’”.

When you happen to be next in the center of Paris, by the front of the Saint Sulpice Church, there you will find La Procure, the Catholic bookstore. On its shelves you will find everything a layman or a Catholic might want to read. There are dozens and dozens of volumes of and about Madeleine: her writings, her poems, her philosophical confutations and then many biographies, because many have been seduced by this woman who lived in the trenches. “Begin with this, ‘Ville marxiste, terre de mission’ her autobiography. It’s a wonderful book”, says the kind lady who I had asked for information. Her enthusiasm rubs off on me. I take the book and decide to look for the places associated to Madeleine. Why? I cannot really say.

At number 11 Rue Raspail, the house with its small door, and closed green windows is still standing. Nobody lives there anymore. Until a few years ago Susanne Perrin, who had shared Madeleine’s years of social and Christian commitment, still lived there. Next to the front door there’s a gate and behind that a large, abandoned courtyard. I opened it and found the Romani family who used to cook Madeleine’s lunch. The woman was hosted there in the part of the house that was Madeleine’s, perhaps in memory of her work among the lowly, and waiting - they say - for the house to be renovated. Because the Ivry municipality intends to return Madeleine to public memory.

Madeleine’s tomb is in the local cemetery, which is a large square, in the middle of the city, surrounded by large residential buildings from which that late afternoon I could hear voices, songs, and noises.It is hard to find her grave. It is covered with leaves, there are no flowers, just a half-dried plant and a small crucifix on which someone has placed a rosary held together with a pink cord. Then her name. It is only possible to put my hand down and caress the tombstone.

Madeleine was from a bourgeois family and openly atheist. She wrote angry nihilistic poems “God is dead, long live death”.

Then came conversion. A violent one. That is what she called it; a “violent conversion”. How it happened and why, we do not know. Not even she, who wrote so much and analyzed everything, so as to find an explanation. She fell in love with God. She did not look for him. It is God who found her and never abandoned her again, she says.

The rest of her life flows with the naturalness with which a river finds its bed and continues to flow calmly or impetuously according to the moments and places.

Madeleine was officially a social worker for the Red Communist commune, led by the communists, yet in reality she was much more than that. In addition, she was a point of reference, a guide, a companion of the poor. There is war and after the war ends, the poor, the refugees, the homeless, children without schools, the sick without hospitals. Then the factory, exploitation, misery. She and her sisters were dedicated to alleviating suffering and inequality, and for them Ivry became a laboratory in the fight against poverty and exclusion. And thanks to Madeleine, a place of mission against atheism.

While working to alleviate the suffering of the lowliest, she continued to write and produce works. Madeleine's output and the subjects she covered, be it meditations, poems, or treatises, is incredible. She was free, and never a conformist, and on numerous occasions she found herself disagreeing with the official positions of the Church.

When Madeleine’s book Ville marxiste, terre de mission [Marxist City, Land Of Mission] was published she gave a copy to the deputy mayor of Ivry with whom she was a loyal collaborator.

To understand how Madeleine fought and on what frontier she stood, it is worth reading the dedication she wrote to the deputy mayor of Ivry, and his response as a communist.

“To Venise Gosnat, to whom I was a bad Marxist pupil, but of whom I am also a faithful friend, respectful of his goodness and concrete generosity, I offer this book with all my heart, certain that even if he does not approve of it, he will understand it”.

Venise Gosnat replies:

“After the Marxist, that I am, has expressed the principal reason for the deep disagreement that exists on the social question with the Christian which you are, the friend wants to tell you now that you are correct and assure her that I will understand you. With your undeniable talent you have created a fine mess; but, as far as our friendship is concerned, I am sure you are as untroubled as I am. You've been given the strength to speak to everyone by God. Consciously faithful to my communist party and its politics, I am part of the local frameworks of the Marxist network. Each of us will continue to proclaim our certainty, but the professor will not forget the qualities of heart and the delicacy of his bad Marxist student”.

One can stand on a frontline and not hate one’s enemy, but rather esteem him or her and be esteemed. One can fight together against a common enemy. This is what Madaleine teaches us from her frontier life.

As a supporter of the broader involvement of the laity in the Church, she died suddenly at her desk  on February 13, 1964, the same day on which, for the first time, a layman had taken the floor during the Second Vatican Council. At her funeral, which had been organized by the municipality, thousands arrived with red flags to bid her a final farewell.

by Ritanna Armeni