Bright orange passion fruits hang from vines that cover most of a stuccoed stone wall and creep over the edges of an old wooden shutter. Blue paint peels from it with characteristic charm. A plum tree is so laden with fruit it seems to have more plums than leaves, requiring the stone walkway to be swept daily so as not to track a purple mess into the building. The odor of lavender fills the air as one follows a garden path. "It’s planned that way," says Jacqueline, who does the gardening here. "Your legs are meant to disturb the lavender, releasing its scent so you may enjoy it when walking by." And the white blossoms have been positioned to stand out in the evening, almost glowing, for people to admire while having their evening meal amid the flowers and fruits of Maison Quaker, home of the Quaker Center, in the village of Congénies, France.
We, the new amis résidents, Friends in residence, arrived here at dusk when the blooms seem their brightest. We’d had several long days of travel: flights had been late, long, and many; luggage lost, trains canceled, and on this day we found ourselves running to make a train only to learn it had been delayed, then waiting and running and waiting again. A long, hot ride finally brought us to Nîmes, where we retrieved our bicycles to ride through the noise and traffic of the commercial belt around the city.
Then we broke away into the countryside via the Voie Verte, a greenway built on an old railway line, one that used to travel between villages, filling tank cars with grape juice at each stop. The tracks have been paved over, and it now attracts cyclists, roller-bladers, and walkers escaping the presence of the automobile. The instant we left the road to ride its smooth and quiet surface we were transported to another world. We’d arrived from two months of cycling in Africa, in countries that were dry, dusty, hot, and sometimes uncomfortable, and suddenly were surrounded by the beauty, climate, and comfort that is the south of France. You know what it looks like, even if you’ve never been here. It’s the picture you already have in your mind of what the French countryside should be: pastoral rolling hills, endless rows of grapevines and olive trees, fields bright with sunflowers— and here, not far from the Mediterranean, the beautiful white horses of the Camargue. Later, we would spend our days cycling along quiet country roads, around and over these gentle hills; through the ancient stone villages that are tucked into their folds.
But the only village we were to see this evening was our destination, Congénies. The road leading here is lined with plane trees; the pale green and grey of their mottled trunks stood out in the dusky light against the dark stone walls lining the street. Their leaves, at the height of their summer greenness, provided a canopy of welcome leading to the gate of Maison Quaker. We were greeted with warmth by contemporary members of the Quaker community here, and over a garden table filled with food and wine we heard stories of ancient Friends.
Maison Quaker was built in 1822. But its history started long before, with a group of people in the region who called themselves "les Couflaïres," or the "Inspired Ones." They had lived in the region around Congénies even before George Fox founded Quakerism in England. The Couflaïres, whose basic tenants of faith were very much like ours, joined with early British Friends through the most remarkable series of events. It all had to do with piracy.
French support for the American Revolution prompted the British monarch to encourage merchant ships to attack and rob French vessels. Privateering could be quite lucrative, and many English shipping outfits took advantage of the Crown’s invitation. Three of the boats whose owners profited by this state-endorsed buccaneering were co-owned by an English Friend, Joseph Fox (no relation to George). Not being a "hands on" type of partner, he had no idea he was a "partner-in-crime." When he discovered this, his Quaker principles led him to react in a way that was markedly different from what might have been considered normal business practice under the circumstances: he decided to make restitution.
In 1785 he dispatched his son, Edward, to Paris. Edward placed a full-page advertisement in the Gazette de France. In it, he explained that Quakers do not support war or theft, and expressed his regret over the buccaneering performed by his family-owned ships. Most unusual of all, he offered compensation to the victims. Claims were made and paid, one of them to a boat owner in Sete, a port town located on the Mediterranean, not far from the village of Congénies. When this news reached the local population, members of the Couflaïres were impressed to learn there were others with a philosophy so close to their own. They wrote to Edward to claim not compensation, but friendship. One of them, Jean de Marsillac, traveled to London. The two groups joined, and the first Quaker meeting in France was formed in 1788.
The meetinghouse in Congénies is the only building in France built specifically as a Friends meetinghouse. Some weighty Friends came to meeting here, and when my husband wore sneakers with bright blue laces to meeting one day, an English Friend told us a story about one famous visitor. As a youth, Elizabeth Fry was reprimanded one First Day for wearing colorful shoes to meeting. Undaunted, she continued to wear them, although I suspect that by the time she came to worship with Friends in Congénies, her footwear was much quieter. I must say, I may have missed the opportunity to learn more by neglecting to question a descendent, a tall British man with a quiet manner, whom I met during my sojourn in France.
Visited often by English Friends, but primarily French, Maison Quaker flourished for 60 years. But the Quaker community, which never exceeded about 200 people, was hit hard in the early 20th century when forced military conscription resulted in the emigration of pacifist young men. With too few Quakers left, the building was sold in 1907, serving as a hospital during the First World War and occupied by German troops during the Second. The building began a journey to retrieve its heritage when English Friends purchased it as a holiday home.
The early 21st century brought Maison Quaker full circle and back into the hands of the Religious Society of Friends. Purchased by France Yearly Meeting with help from various sources, including U.S. Friends, the building has been renovated into a Friends Center with a full kitchen, bedrooms, and conference rooms.
We attended le Colloque, an annual multi-day conference held in the fall. Historians, clergy, and interested Friends from all over arrived for lectures and discussions. We strained to follow the discussions in French about Calvinism and Quakerism, and the history of la Société des Amis in France. One French lecturer was an expert on our own William Penn. These lively lectures and discussions were punctuated by meals that held all the conviviality of a Quaker repas but with French cuisine—Oh, how the wine flowed at lunch and dinner! And fresh-baked French bread for breakfast. It was our job to go to the village bakery in the morning, bringing back baguettes still hot from the oven.
We often brought fresh croissants for those who were here simply to visit: often fellow Friends, but not always. People vacation here for a few days, or a couple of weeks. Only 20 kilometers from Nîmes and its magnificent Roman arena, and not much farther from the Pont du Gard, Centre Quaker Congénies is a wonderful base for visiting both the Languedoc region and Provençal towns like Avignon, St. Rémy, and Arles. Some come just to enjoy the peace of Maison Quaker, the surrounding countryside, and the lovely old village of Congénies, just big enough for a bakery and greengrocer’s shop. There are several excellent restaurants nearby, and Congénies is only a short distance from market towns such as Sommières, a flower-filled medieval town on an emerald green river. There are lots of things to do here: bicycling on the Voie Verte, riding horses and birdwatching in the Camargue, and visiting nearby beaches on the brilliant blue waters of the Mediterranean Sea.
Visitors often attend meeting for worship. It is held in English and French every First Day at 11:00 am, sauf (except) the second weekend of the month when it is held on Saturday, followed by lunch and then meeting for business in French. If you would like to be one of these visitors and book a French holiday that includes a Quaker experience, contact English-speaking Françoise Tomlin, Libby Perkins, or the current Friend in Residence (this could be you!) at [email protected], or call from the U.S.: 011-33-4 66 71 25 93, or 011-33-4 66 80 26 42. Come and smell the lavender as you walk to the table in the garden; eat a breakfast of homemade plum jam on bread still warm from the bakery only a few steps away. While lingering over coffee, you can look into the old graveyard, the only Quaker graveyard in France, its simple stones worn with time and shaded with cypress trees.
In its rebirth, Maison Quaker has become more than a house of worship; it is now a center where Quakers and non-Quakers meet for worship, friendship, study, relaxation, joyful meals, and quiet meditation. Renovations have brought modern conveniences, but the strong stone walls look the same as they did nearly 200 years ago. Ancient, heavy wooden doors open to let light into a building that welcomes people from all over the world. But the legacy is French, and the history here is not of a faith brought evangelically from another land, but of the joining of two groups with the same ideals, whose love of peace transcended violence, piracy, and their nations’ differences.