A Story and Its History The Church Bells of Clessé

Trouble has come to a picturesque town in southern Burgundy -- in the form of a priest from Paris who has a problem with church bells.

By in Clessé, France


Clessé isn't hard to find: The winemaking village is located just where the world still seems civilized: between Lyon and Dijon in southern Burgundy. White wine grows on the lime-rich soil of the soft hills all around: Chardonnay from the Viré-Clessé region that the old men here drink for breakfast. It tastes "of roses" and "white blossoms," they say. And it makes their noses and cheeks glow in a lush red color by the time the church bells ring at midday.

Clessé is a village of 800 people living in 300 households. There are two inns, a bus stop, a mom-and-pop store and a Romanesque church built in the year 1090, whose church bells sound 160 times at 11:30 a.m. sharp to announce the intonation of the Angelus hymn, then 24 times at noon and twice again every hour -- throughout the day and night. The bells turn Clessé into a postcard with a musical soundtrack. But not everyone is able to contemplate them with pleasure.

Strife already came to Clessé many years ago, unnoticed at first and then impossible to miss. It came from Paris, as it so often does -- from the distant capital that often feels, here in the backwoods of France, like the Moscow of czarist Russia -- an anonymous power. It came in the shape of an old man with eyes as clear as water. He appeared with Mary by his side. She wasn't the mother of Jesus, though, but just a companion -- perhaps his concubine, who knows.

The elderly man, Alain Ponsar, stepped onto the stage of his twilight years around the turn of the millennium. A character who likes to plan ahead, he already purchased Clessé's pretty parsonage and its accompanying garden 20 years earlier. The parsonage is a weather-beaten stone construction located in the shadow of the church, which is to say: in the shadow of its heavily used church tower. It was here that Ponsar wanted to bring the life circle of a Christian man to completion -- far away from Paris, far away from the noise of its Latin Quarter and from Saint Séverin, where Ponsar served as a priest all his life.

Meeting him in Clessé today isn't easy. His house is surrounded by walls; there is no bell by the entrance; and his number isn't in the phone book either. As luck would have it, he was busy in his garden the other day, on a workday. First he ignored the words called out to him, but in the end he listened.

He came to the gate but didn't open it. He just peered through the trellises like someone placed under house arrest: a handsome, distrustful old man wearing a flat cap. He said: "I'm sorry about your having made the journey here, monsieur, but I will not speak to you." But would he answer just a few questions? "I have no time for a few questions," he replied. "I'm 90 years old." What about the bells? "Oh, the bells. Goodbye!" Mary, his companion, stood behind one of the parsonage's windows, visibly much younger than the old man. The press is not to be trusted, she called out. And then she closed the shutters.

No time for questions

A rumor is going around in the town that Mary is behind it all -- behind the war waged over the church bells of Clessé. Whether the elderly man of God lost his faith here in the backwoods, whether he lost his inner calm somewhere else or whether he was actually incited by Mary -- the fact is that in September of 2003, he wrote the first anti-church bell letter to the gentlemen in the town hall, like a Don Camillo acting the role of Peppone. In his letter, he asked the council to abolish both the ringing of the bells to announce the Angelus and the hourly double chime. At the very least, he insisted, the bells should not be rung between 10:00 p.m. and 07:00 a.m. The ringing of the bells was stressful and annoying both to him and to Mary, he wrote, adding that the possibility of his health being at risk could no longer be excluded.

The letter caused no small stir in a town that needs no traffic lights to regulate its traffic. The public-transit bus that stops by the church twice a day -- once in the morning and once in the evening -- scares up ravens and buzzards at the edge of town when it arrives and leaves. Ponsar's alarmed letter destroyed the idyll. It was, so to speak, the first hubbub in 1,000 years.

That's how long the church bells of Clessé have rung without anyone complaining -- since the Middle Ages. They're part of the town's soundtrack, just like the crackle of fires in the fall. And so the mayor, winemaker Gilbert Mornand, who has been in office since 1971, organized a unanimous majority against Ponsard's petition and thought he could close the book on the matter. But ever new letters arrived from the parsonage by registered mail, addressed to the council, to the canton administration, to the government of the départment, to the local prefect. The sender was always Alain Ponsar, and the subject always silencing the church bells of Clessé.

Soon the citizens began taking action against the troublemaker from Paris. Two hundred out of a total of 300 households signed a resolution "for preserving the chimes, for democracy and tolerance." Silent marches and demonstrations were held near the church, moving past the parsonage. Once, 200 people came. It was the largest rally in the history of Clessé. People carried banners reading: "Don't touch my bells!"

Meanwhile, behind closed doors, the courts began dealing with the issue. Ponsar filed a suit in Dijon in December of 2004, spicing his lawsuit up with a demand for compensation: €30,000 ($40,262) for himself and the same amount for Mary. The mayor laughed at him during a council meeting, pointing out that was half of the village's annual tax revenue. Meanwhile, the lawyers debated each other in Dijon.

When the verdict was announced in January, Ponsar lost his lawsuit on all points -- people would have liked to ring the bells loudly in celebration: 160 chimes, just like during the announcement of the Angelus. But the plan failed. The bells have been operated electronically since 1980, and it proved impossible to quickly find someone capable of reprograming their rhythm.

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