It was a routine, weekday morning mass last July 26, a day termed ‘ordinary time’ in the Catholic calendar. The only parishioners present at the humble service in St. Etienne Church in St. Etienne du Rouvray, a town in Normandy near Rouen in northern France, were three aged nuns of the Order of St. Vincent de Paul and an elderly couple.
But this modest religious service would turn out to be anything but ordinary.
With the mass, the core of their religion, still in progress, the elderly Catholic faithful were about to come face to face with evil in its vilest and most vicious form. Two demons disguised as humans had just invaded the sixteenth-century church through a back entrance. Not unsurprisingly, the murderous Islamic State later claimed them as its own.
After entering St. Etienne, the two invaders proceeded directly to the altar where they butchered the presiding priest, Father Jacques Hamel, 85, in an atrocity that shocked the world. The elderly Christians watched in horror as Father Jacques, who apparently “wanted to defend himself,” was forced to his knees before he was cold-bloodedly slain by knife blows to the throat. Not satisfied with having murdered one old man, the teenaged jihadists next severely wounded the elderly husband, identified in French newspapers as Mr. C.
Scarcely believing what they had just witness, the cutting of their beloved priest’s throat and the wounding of a respected parishioner before his wife’s eyes, the traumatised nuns, armed only with their faith, now confronted the two jihadist murderers alone. Not unnaturally, they soon expected their own martyrdom.
But after this latest “victory” for Allah in the ongoing jihad against the West, the two killers, surprisingly, spared the women and instead engaged two of the nuns in a conversation that has been, and can only be, described as “surreal” (One nun, Sister Danielle, managed to escape the church unnoticed during the slaying of Father Jacques and alerted authorities who soon began to surround the building).
In an interview with the French Catholic publication ‘La Vie’ (Life), the three nuns, Sisters Danielle, Helene and Huguette recounted the horror of that day and their strange conversation with the priest killers.
One of the Islamic executioners, a young man, they told La Vie, had actually appeared earlier during the mass at the church, asking for information.
“With his sky blue, polo shirt, I took him for a student,” said Sister Helene Decaux, 83, a former nurse. “He wanted to know when the church was open. I told him to return in ten minutes, after the mass.”
Unfortunately, and tragically, the young man followed Sister Helene’s instructions and did return, his first appearance probably having been a reconnaissance of the intended target. Only this time he was not alone. And he was “dressed all in black.
“They had the look of terrorists that one sees on television,” continued Sister Helene. “The one was wearing a black forage cap on his head and a full beard. I understood immediately.”
Sister Huguette Peron then took over the narrative.
“They were very nervous,” she said. “They uttered a kind of slogan in Arabic and then reproached us in French for the fact that ‘we Christians, we do not support the Arabs.”
Sister Danielle, described as in her seventies, stated earlier in another interview that the killers also said: “You Christians, you kill us.”
Then the moment of ultimate horror occurred. The nuns told La Vie the jihadists first threw everything off the altar in order to put their bag on it and ordered Father Jacques to get on his knees. After this act of sacrilege, they forced a camera into the hands of the Mr. C. who was to film the atrocity they were about to commit.
“(Father) Jacques cried out to them: ‘Stop, what are you doing’?” recalled Sister Danielle, as they forced him to his knees. “It was then that one of them delivered the first blow to his neck.”
It was at this point Sister Danielle managed to leave the church. But inside the Catholic house of worship, the evil continued to be acted out.
La Vie, summarizing the nuns’ account, stated the two Islamic murderers appeared “to meticulously follow their plan.” Father Jacques was struck a second time in the throat with a knife, after which “he died very quickly.” The murderers then verified with Mr. C. that he had not moved the camera, that “the macabre scene had been filmed well.”
“I saw Father Jacque’s white robe and the red stain on the (camera) screen,” said Sister Hugette, who had been standing behind the pressed-into-service cameraman.
After checking the filming, the jihadists then struck Mr. C., badly wounding him.
With the two men’s bodies now lying on the floor, the one the nuns regarded as “the ringleader” told the three remaining women they were his hostages.
“They took each of us by the shoulder,” said Sister Helene. “The one had a pistol. I thought quickly enough that it was fake. That was confirmed afterwards. The one who held me also had blood on his hands and a knife that he was sharpening from time to time with I don’t know what.”
But it was then that the nuns noticed a complete change in the terrorists’ behaviour. The “irritation and aggressiveness” that had marked their manner until now “dissipated.” They even granted the nuns’ request to be allowed to sit down and one even gave, when requested, Sister Helene her cane.
“I was afforded a smile from the second one,” said Sister Huguette. “Not a smile of triumph but a gentle smile, that of someone happy.”
This noticeable change of mood perhaps occurred because the killers knew all along they intended to become ‘shahids’ (martyrs) that day. And that it would probably happen very soon. It appears they had come to St. Etienne to die, after which they would receive in ‘paradise’ all the rewards Islam promises jihadists who die at the infidels’ hands while ‘fighting’ for the faith, even if ‘fighting’ simply means murdering old men.
“Visibly, they were waiting for the police,” stated Sister Helene.
But before that, there occurred the “surreal” conversation between the two remaining nuns and their captors. In their responses, one notices how courageous, diplomatically skillful and astute their replies were, despite the shock and the trauma they had just experienced. And that these replies were never made, as they later stated, with the thought in mind of betraying their own beliefs.
As recorded by La Vie, the terrorists began the exchange by asking their captives whether they knew the Coran.
Sister Helene answered: “Yes, I respect it like I respect the Bible. I’ve already read many suras and that which struck me in particular are the passages on peace.”
The murderer’s reply: “Peace, that is what one wants. When you later go on television, you will say to your rulers that as long as there are bombs dropped on Syria, we will continue the attacks. And they will happen every day. When you stop, we will stop.”
La Vie reports Sister Helene “simply nodded in agreement at this threat” and personally repeated it to French President Francois Hollande three days later.
Sister Helene was then asked whether she was afraid to die. When she responded “no,” she was asked why.
“I believe in God and I know that I will be happy,” she said, adding that, internally, she was praying to the Virgin Mary and had also thought of Christian de Cherge, the prior of the Tibhirine Monastery in Algeria, whom Islamic killers beheaded in May, 1996, along with four other Christian monks.
Sister Helene continued: “I always answered calmly, not more than was necessary. Never against my thinking. But not too far from it all the same.”
Sister Huguette, described as “physically frail,” was then engaged in a discussion with the terrorists about the nature of Christ, their point being that he could not be God and man at the same time, a favourite charge adherents of Islam make.
“It is you who are wrong,” stated one of them.
This drew a succinct, but neutral, reply from Sister Huguette: “Perhaps, but so much the worse.”
Sister Huguette told La Vie the reason for her terse answer: “I did not want to pour oil on the fire and did not want to deny what I believed. Thinking that I was going to die, I offered my life to God.”
At the discussion’s conclusion, the terrorists began to “pound on the pews,” causing the candles around the tabernacle to fall, while yelling ‘Allah Akbar’. They then made a half-hearted attempt to exit the church, using the hostages as shields.
“But they did not put themselves completely behind us,” said Sister Helene. “One would think they were going out to meet death.”
And that is exactly what they met. Before they could even leave the church, security forces burst in and shot the jihadists dead.
Later assessing the atrocity, Sister Danielle stated she finds the violence occurring in France “unacceptable.”
“It is us, but it is also everyone else who has been targeted,” she said. “One cannot accept this violence…These are not true Muslims.”
La Vie reports the three nuns live together in a community with another sister and that their paths had often crossed in their long years of service to both the urban poor and the church. In the interview, they spoke of Father Jacques, who was often their dinner guest, with the utmost respect.
“He was a friendly man, who had character and loved music and beautiful masses,” they said. “Order had to reign on the altar table. The covering had to be perfectly placed.”
“It will be difficult when one returns to the church…,” added Sister Danielle.
The interview concluded with Sister Huguette, described as speaking “always with a soft voice,” recalling that “2016 is the year of Divine Mercy.”