Fall 2009 Issue

In the footsteps of St. Dominic

Gaston Arellano sits at dock’s edge in the seaside Mediterranean town of Collioure, France, June 5. ‘No sky in France is more blue than the one in Collioure,’ wrote the painter Henri Matisse.

Barry senior Gaston Arellano chronicles his journey to the town of Fanjeaux in southern France. The little town was once home to the founder of the Dominican Order.

Every summer for the past 14 years, Sister Jean Murray, OP, president emerita and French professor at Dominican University in Illinois, travels across the Atlantic to introduce students from U.S. Dominican colleges and universities to the landmarks and history of southern France. This region in and around the little town of Fanjeaux is also where the Order of Preachers, known as Dominicans, was established.

Joining her this summer was Barry senior Gaston Arellano, a computer information science major with a passion for photography. He was one of 13 students from across the country who explored the medieval village of Fanjeaux and its surrounding towns such as Carcassonne, Mirepoix, and Collioure, all outside the city of Toulouse where the first Dominican convent and church was founded.

Dominic de Guzman, a Spanish priest who was canonized in 1234 as St. Dominic, lived in this region from 1206-1216. The founding saint of the order spent the last years of his life preaching the word of God throughout the region; converting Albigensians (heretics) as well as founding the first convent of women.

“There is simply no more effective way to absorb the distinctive vision and spirit that is our Dominican heritage than to walk in the footsteps of our founder Dominic as we learn how he faced the challenges of his day,” Murray said.

On Arellano’s first trip to Europe, the 21-year-old from Coral Gables, Florida, toured an ancient castle, two medieval fortresses, a prehistoric cave and a number of ornate churches – some that date to the 4th century. He also learned about the four pillars of Dominican life – preaching, prayer, community and study – from sisters who came from cities across the United States, including Caldwell, New Jersey, Columbus, Ohio, and Adrian, Michigan. Arellano is one of six Barry students, faculty and staff to have taken part in the seminar since 2007.

Whether climbing steep mountains or walking on the banks of the Mediterranean Sea, Arellano chronicled his two-week trip with his D200 Nikon camera. In this photo essay, he chronicles the impressive landscapes, imposing structures and inspiring relics he found along the way.

The parish church

During the day, Our Lady of Assumption Church in Fanjeaux blends into the gray stone buildings in the center of this medieval village about an hour’s drive from the city of Toulouse. But at night, as Gaston’s photo shows, the lights illuminate the massive stone walls and steeple that are visible for miles away in this rural slice of southern France.

“The dimensions of the church demonstrate the deep faith of the townspeople and the extent of their loyalty,” Arellano explains.

Eight centuries ago, Dominic de Guzman (1170-1221) arrived here from Spain on a diplomatic mission to fortify the faith of the region’s disillusioned Catholics. The town remains faithful to his vision – the room in the tiny stone house where he once lived is a pilgrimage site where many groups, including the seminar participants, come to celebrate mass. And the town’s focal point remains the parish church, built between 1278 and 1281 on the ruins of an earlier one. The church has undergone periodic renovations since the 18th century.

Inside, the church is filled with relics from centuries past: a large maroon-colored marble bowl that contains holy water, a matching altar, high arches lined with faded frescoes and elaborate gold-leaf paintings. Like most churches in the region, it suffered damages during the French Revolution. But one remaining artifact is an early 18th century organ, painted brown to disguise its original royal blue color from marauding anti-monarch revolutionaries. The building still inspires loyalty. An elderly woman whose family has lived across the street from the church for the past three centuries, still dutifully rings the church’s bells, by hand.

The ‘lonely’ cross

About three miles downhill from Fanjeaux sits the impressive stone-walled Monastère Sainte-Marie de Prouilhe, where St. Dominic gathered his first women converts. Today the monastery houses an international community of about 30 Dominican sisters. Halfway down an adjacent path, across an ocean of knee-high green and brown grass, stands an equally important, if understated, symbol of the Dominican story: a 7-foot tall stone cross, its orange paint cracked and faded. This, the Dominicans say, is the spot where their patron saint, was confronted, by a group of men aligned with the Albigensian movement lying in wait to assassinate him. But instead of fighting off his attackers, St. Dominic began to preach to them – thus converting the group of would-be killers.

“Walking the same paths St. Dominic is believed to have walked is a completely different experience than simply reading about it,” Arellano said. “The overwhelming sense of isolation and serenity that I felt when standing in that spot is etched in my memory, and I hope some of that is conveyed in this photo.”

Afternoon shadows

Inside the rustic church, a large wooden crucifix leans in front of a dusty window, bathing the cold, stone room in eerie afternoon shadows. The church is sparse. The relics are few. But the Èglise Rupestre de Vals, located in a small rural town just a short drive from Fanjeaux, is impressive for another reason: the sheer age of the place. People have lived in the caves here for centuries before the birth of Christ. Early Christians carved the three-story structure out of rocks in the side of the mountain.

An altar on the second floor dates back to the church’s 19th century renovation, but the rickety wooden benches and faded frescoes date back to the 11th century. Outside the dim room is a balcony that overlooks the valley spread out before it. A cemetery lined with the graves of generations of the tiny town’s residents serves as the church’s backyard.

“I chose to take this photo in black and white to highlight how the light was breaking through the darkness of this room,” said Arellano. “As I first walked into the upper section of the church I saw the large crucifix and how the light coming through this small window was able to illuminate it. It reminded me that there is always a way out of even the darkest places.”