Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - January 12, 2018
Feeding bodies and souls
Frequently when we visit friend Jo in southwest Wisconsin, she has a new restaurant for us to try. On our most recent trip, she suggested one that features genuine French cooking. She and her family had enjoyed special dinners there recently. Some of the dishes they savored were chicken in puff pastry, goose, smoked salmon on a bed of lettuce, a bacon-wrapped filet, and deep-fried potatoes cut in the shape of roses. Several types of dessert pastries rounded out their meals.
Located a few miles north of Gays Mills, there was nothing nearby but farm land and orchards. Yet despite the bleakness of early January, the light covering of snow made the setting attractive. Still, I wasn't quite sure what to expect. After all, how often does one dine at a hermitage?
The land and buildings are dedicated to St. Francis of Assisi. We entered the cozy café and gift shop located on the east side of the complex. There were four square wooden tables with two chairs each. Two couples - one at the far end and one near the door - were just finishing their lunches. Jo mentioned that the large dining room where she and her family had eaten was just behind the café. Don, the man at the near table, was Jo's co-worker at the local library and they chatted briefly.
We were greeted by a young woman in a black nun’s habit covered by a full-length white apron. Noting her accent, Art asked where she was from. She said she was from the south of France, near Bordeaux. Before long, her compatriot, Father Mary Matthias, came out to help move the two center tables together for us. He, too, was from the south of France, having grown up on a farm between Toulouse and Bordeaux.
We were intrigued, but also hungry, so we checked out the menus and ordered. Jo and I settled on typical French fare - she, the ham-and-cheese quiche and I, the mushroom-and-cheese crepe. Art chose bratwurst with French fries.
While we waited, Jo and I looked at several shelves of gift shop items - an eclectic mix of religious materials, such as rosaries, and more secular fare, including mugs, tea and coffee packages, pillows, calendars, French pastries and an item that seemed totally out of place - a do-rag with colors of the U.S. flag.
The walls had paintings, a framed image of the Virgin Mary, and a mirror advertising Glenfiddich Scotch Whisky. There were several racks of wines, some from France that Art proclaimed to be good quality. A nearby shelf contained a variety of beers, some from local breweries and others from foreign countries.
Art overheard Don mention to his lunch companion his upcoming trip to Berlin, Germany. Having visited several times ourselves and it being Don's first time, Art scribbled a list of Berlin attraction suggestions on a napkin.
While they were talking, our food came. Jo and I completed our meals before Art even started. Father Mary Matthias joked that we could pick Art up later if we wanted to do something else. Instead, we ordered and devoured lemon tarts. I also selected six boxes of macarons - French meringue-based confections - to take home. The family loves the delicate sweets.
The recently-completed complex includes the adjacent Shrine of the Divine Mercy chapel, living quarters for the brothers and sisters in the order, and grounds for farming. They raise vegetables, a wide variety of apples, pigs, sheep, cows, chickens, ducks, geese and quail.
Jo said she and others in the community had been curious as to what the complex would be like when completed. She passed the area many times in the fall while it was being built and saw men in long black robes and white hard hats working on the buildings.
Father Mary Matthias told us that he and the others had done almost all the work themselves, including making the tables we had eaten on, laying the marble floors in the café and chapel, and constructing the maple pews, mosaics, wrought-iron loft railings and stained glass windows in the chapel. However, some of his colleagues had declined to join him in standing on 2 x 4s high above the ground while they were installing the metal roofing.
One of the chapel windows has St. Francis of Assisi with a wolf standing by his side. The saint and wolf, a symbol of the hermitage, are even present in the upper corners of the aprons they wear.
The religious order - Fraternité Notre-Dame - is not a member of the mainstream Catholic Church, although the Chicago archdiocese has praised its work. Founded in 1977, it is the product of a vision by Bishop Jean Marie Kozik, a Frenchman of Polish origin. The general religious practices of the followers of Fraternité Notre-Dame are in line with other “Traditionalist Catholics” - those who prefer the pre-Vatican II Church, including having masses in Latin instead of in vernacular languages.
Father Mary Matthias, who has been in the U.S. for 11 years, explained that the order’s mission is to serve the poor. He said it has soup kitchens, food pantries, elder-care programs and after-school activities in New York, Chicago and San Francisco as well as in more rural areas. Its headquarters is in Marengo, Illinois. In addition, he said, those in the order operate missions in Haiti and Niger and other places they are needed.
“We open our hearts to all,” he added.
He said he hopes, too, that their presence will help bring local communities together in a friendly environment where families and friends can enjoy time together.
“We feed people’s bodies and souls,” he said.
Art, always a bit of a skeptic, did some Internet research later. They appear to be just who they say they are. So our short time at the little country café had indeed fed our bodies and souls.
Top-left: Art dutifully holds the card advertising macarons as requested by me, while he concentrates on his bratwurst and fries. At the rear, Father Mary Matthias accepts payment from Jo's library colleague; bottom-left: gift shop and restaurant; right: hermitage chapel. (Lower-left image from the website stfrancishermitage.org)