Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

A Priest Who Inspired Intellectuals and Artists. (Feature)

Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

A Priest Who Inspired Intellectuals and Artists. (Feature)

Article excerpt

The House of Ananias was founded in 1938 by Jean-Pierre Altermann, a Jewish convert to Catholicism who went on to become a priest. A well-regarded poet and writer, Altermann moved in literary and artistic circles and became a friend and spiritual adviser to some of France's most celebrated writers, musicians and artists in the period between the two world wars. Now demolished, a well-known Benedictine monastery on the nearby Rue Monsieur served during that era as an oasis of prayer in the middle of Paris. There a select circle of French writers and artists congregated, attending a sung Mass at the monastery which Altermann often celebrated, and forming what the French Catholic writer Francois Mauriac called "a singular and fervent milieu." The author of Desert de l'amour (Desert of Love), Therese Desqueyroux and Le noeud de viperes (The Knot of Vipers) and winner of the 1952 Nobel Prize for Literature, Mauriac was among those who sought counsel from Altermann, as did the French philosopher Gabriel Marcel, writers Charles Du Bos and Henry Gheon, and the painter Maria Blanchard. Philosopher Jacques Maritain and his wife, Raissa, were close friends of Altermann. Andre Gide and Anais Nin spoke of him in their journals.

As a convert to Catholicism, Altermann was an outsider to the faith who had come inside its doors and was well-equipped to speak to the doubts of writers, artists and intellectuals.

"He was one of their own," said Kate White, an American who met Altermann in 1954 and lived and worked at the House of Ananias for almost 20 years. "They knew they weren't going to get a standard answer to their questions. He had searched and found what they were looking for."

White remembers Altermann as warm, intuitive, and possessed of a "wonderful sense of humor. He was a very full human being. There was no sense of repression about him. Rules Were not the point; an encounter or an experience with God through the person of Christ was the essential. The rest followed. This was the heart of his spiritual direction."

Established as a diocesan mission for non-Catholics at the request of Paris Cardinal Jean Verdier, the House of Ananias grew out of Altermann's ministry at the Benedictine monastery for nuns. Born in 1892 into a cultured milieu--his father was a violinist and his mother a pianist in the Paris Symphony--Altermann grew up in the same building where Alfred Dreyfus once resided and in front of which angry anti-Semitic mobs gathered in the 1890s when the Dreyfus case rocked French society. Because of his Jewish ancestry, Altermann was forced to flee France during the Nazi occupation. His baptism as a Catholic took place when he was 27 after a spiritual experience in Spain that altered his life, but which Altermann declined to speak of. …

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