An Unforgettable Memory by Canon Jim Foley

An Unforgettable Memory by Canon Jim Foley

During a short stay at the General House of the Holy Ghost Fathers in the Rue Lomond in Paris I shared what can only be described as ‘An unforgettable memory’ with a member of that distinguished community of missionary priests.   I introduced myself to the community as a visiting priest from Scotland.   The priest beside me remarked that he knew only one town in Scotland and that town was Coatbridge and, in particular, the parish of St Augustine’s in that town.  When I told him that I was presently the parish priest there he appeared to be completely overcome with emotion and explained that he had been billeted at the beginning of World War II with the rest of his company of Alpine Chasseurs in St Augustine’s School, now our parish hall.   His name was Felix Girollet.

He had been conscripted when France entered hostilities while he was a student for the priesthood with the Holy Ghost Fathers and found himself under siege at Namsos in Norway which was in a particularly strategic position and was a source of minerals which Germany hoped to exploit in their hostilities against the Allies. This was one of the first and most bitter campaigns of World War II in 1940.  He was eventually evacuated from there and the survivors of his company came by sea to Clydeside and were consigned to billets in St Augustine’s.  Some of our older parishioners still remember their arrival well.

His company eventually regrouped and returned to their posts on the battlefront.   He was captured by the Germans but escaped from his prison camp and managed to find his way back to Vichy France which enjoyed a certain limited independence from the rest of occupied France.   He resumed his studies for the priesthood and was ordained and left by boat from Marseilles for the African Mission where he was to spend many years.   At the age of ninety he was retired when I met him and was assisting with the work of his Order’s General House in Paris.  

He wrote the following moving note to me after my visit.   It is published here as an ‘unforgettable memory’, not only for Felix Girollet but for myself and for the parishioners of St Augustine’s who gave him such a welcome all those years ago:

‘La Rencontre avec le Rev. J.Foley m’a permis de redire combine, en mai 1940, l’acceuil des soldats francais, revenant des combats de Namsos en Norvege, avait ete foirmidable.   En effet ‘vos anciens’, tres sympathetiques, ont acceuili ces militaries a bras ouverts, pleins de prevenance pour tous, faisant, ainsi, tres vite oublier les suffrances de 13 jours de combats dans le grand froid et sous les bambardements incessants de l’aviation allemande.

Ainsi, tous les militants francais gardent un souvenir inoubliable de leur sejeur dans votre beau pays d’Ecosse.   Ils tiennent a redire a toute la population leur tres grande reconnaissance et leur fidele amitie.

Un ancient de Namsos, et ancient de Coatbridge.

Pere Felix Girollet.

The following a free translation of Father Girollet’s Letter:

The encounter with Rev. J. Foley gives me the opportunity to recall how formidable was the welcome extended to the French soldiers returning from Namsos in May 1940.   In fact, your sympathetique citizens welcomed these soldiers with open arms, full of concern for every one of them, and in this way allowing us to put behind us the memory of the suffering of thirteen days of fighting in the bitter cold and under the incessant bombardment of the German air force.

Consequently, every single French soldier cherishes an unforgettable memory of his stay in your beautiful country, Scotland.   We can only renew, to the entire population, our deepest gratitude for your faithful friendship.

An old survivor of the Namsos campaign, and a onetime citizen of Coatbridge.

Father Felix Girollet.

*Attached to this note is a photograph of a young Alpine Chasseur entrusted to me by one of his Scottish hosts photographed on his left.   She believed his name was Felix Girollet.

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