Monday, March 22, 2010

Looking for Louise in Lyon

My aunt, Quellie, the custodian of the family history on my mother's side, asked me a long time ago to go to Lyon with her to research her grandmother, my great-grandmother, Louise Antoinette Debussiere. Quellie has done a lot of research already but there were missing pieces as Louise rarely spoke about her life growing up in Lyon. All we knew was that she had become a nun with an Italian Franciscan order when she was 26 and that she had had quite a few siblings, many of whom seem to have died as babies. We knew she was born in Lyon and we had the marriage certificate of her parents, Francoise Vallin who was from Vienne, a town about 30km from Lyon and Antoine Duchier dit Debussiere ( it varied on census reports whether he and his offspring were called Duchier, Duchet or Debussiere). All we know for sure about him was that he was the 'natural' son of a woman called Marie Duchier and someone we take to be the Debussiere father, as she added his name to her son's last name.

View of Lyon from Basilique de la Fourviere

Debussiere is a noble name but, because we don't have the father's first name, it has been hard to trace. We did find a list of Seigneurs Debussiere from the 17th and 18th Century in that area and can only assume that the family story is true about Antoine's father being a baby during the French Revolution ( the dates would work as Antoine was born in 1814) and he and his mother being sneaked out of the chateau in a laundry basket while his father was either killed by the mob or guillotined. It might be possible to prove this story but it will take another, longer trip to Lyon to search the archives.

The courtyard of 92,rue de la Guillotiere, Lyon

Louise joined the convent and went to Egypt as a missionary. She spent a lot of time in Syria and the surrounding areas and it was on one of these expeditions that she fell off her horse and broke her leg. Being far away from any town, all they could do was set it with sticks until they could get her to a hospital. By the time she got to the hospital, the leg had set straight so she walked with a limp for the rest of her life. At some point she left the convent and was excommunicated. She ran away, basically. What we know is that she was horrified at the 'goings on' in the convent and there was even a story about a baby being thrown down a well. The baby being the result of a liaison between a nun and either a priest or a layman. In any case, Louise completely rejected her Catholicism and this may be an explanation for why she never returned to Lyon and had little or no contact with her family afterwards. Being excommunicated in those days would have brought great shame to the family, especially in a place like Lyon where they had a cult of the Virgin Mary and their religion was a major priority.

Interior of La Fourviere

It was this excommunication which eventually led to Louise leaving Alexandria in Egypt for Nairobi. Someone ratted on her. She had a school in Alexandria, teaching young ladies and when it was learned that she was an excommunicated Catholic, her clients disappeared and she was forced to make this enormous change right before the outbreak of the First World War.

However, I am jumping ahead here. When she left the nunnery, she became the governess to an Italian/Greek family in Alexandria. We know that she was well educated and played the piano so this led us to the knowledge that her family, while not high born, were at a reasonable level of society. Antoine was a stonemason, which was a skill much sought after until the advent of electrical machinery. We thought he might have worked on the extraordinary Basilique de Fourviere, which sits atop the hill over Lyon ( the site of the original Roman city Lugdunum). It was built between 1870 and 1876 so we thought he might have been too old by then. But thinking again, he would have been about 56 which means it is very likely he did work on it. Check out the photos of Fourviere, it's covered in carvings and must have taken hundreds of stonemasons to create in such a short space of time.

Louise worked for the Cortessi family in Alexandria. The wife was Greek and her brother was Pelopeda Coroneos. Pelopeda and Louise married and she converted to the Greek Orthodox church. They had two daughters, Georgina (always known as Zina), my grandmother, and Cecile. Pelopedas died suddenly when the girls were still small and this was when Louise set up her first school. She was later honored by the French government for services to education in Egypt.

Mosaic on the interior of La Fourviere

When Louise arrived in Nairobi with her two young daughters, having been told it was a great place to set up a school, she discovered that the money she had sent ahead with her friend no longer existed (it had been spent or stolen) which put her in a dreadful situation. As it happened, a young British soldier had taken a shine to Zina and Louise encouraged the relationship. At 13, my grandmother was married off to Robert Fittall and she had her first child at 14. During this time, 1914-1919, Louise and Cecile lived with Robert and Zina and he supported all of them. As soon as it was safe to travel again, Louise left Nairobi with Cecile and went back to Alexandria to set up a new school, this time for Protestant English girls, as she has learned English in Nairobi. In that environment no one would have thought to worry about her being an excommunicated Catholic. Zina never really forgave her mother for marrying her off and then leaving.

Interior staircase of 92, rue de la Guillotiere

Knowing all of this made it fascinating to be in Lyon, walking the streets of our ancestors. We went searching on the second day we were there. We knew that Louise and her family had lived on La Grande rue de la Guillotiere ( nothing to do with Guillotines!). It turns out that La Guillotiere was originally a separate town, started in the middle ages and was incorporated into Lyon in the 18th century. We started at the top of the street and noticed that a lot of modern apartment buildings had replaced the old houses. We did not hold out much hope for finding anything but were then thrilled to discover that 92, rue de la Guillotiere was still intact. 

This was the first home that Antoine and Francoise, my great, great grandparents,who lived in it from the time of their marriage in 1845 until they moved to number 18 ( this was no longer in existence). We got in the front door but were not able to get any further. We knew that our ancestors had lived in the courtyard of this building and were disappointed not to be able to get any further. Outside again, we noticed a bakery and Quellie suggested we go in and ask if we could get into the building. I am so glad she did as I tend to be a bit shy about those kinds of things. The lady in the bakery was intrigued that we had come all this way to research our family and was delighted to let us in.

The front door to 92, rue de la Guillotiere

Once we got into the courtyard, we saw that there were still two buildings on either side of it that were original. We don't know which building exactly that they lived in but it didn't matter. Just being there and seeing how close to it's original state it was, was marvelous. The entire building complex was taken up with apartments, clearly occupied with young families as there were lots of baby buggies under the stairs. Someone was renovating an apartment and I wish now we had gone up to take a look. The lady in the bakery offered to send Quellie a photo of the courtyard when the roses are in bloom. I hope she does. She wanted us to come again and have coffee with her.

The whole facade of 92, rue de la Guillotiere

After we left the house, we made our way to the local church (Notre Dame de St. Louis) which was where Antoine and Francoise were married. This church would have been the hub of the community in those days and we know that Louise would have spent a lot of time there. Nowadays, it seems somewhat forlorn and empty, although a couple of people came in when we were there. The whole area is now predominantly Moroccan and African with some French people still living there as well. Not much call for a Catholic church in a mostly Muslim area.

Exterior of Notre Dame de St. Louis where my great-great grandparents were married in 1845

We were both struck with how friendly, polite and helpful the people in Lyon were. We had a few small problems while there and each time someone helped us in the nicest possible way. Here's what happened:

  • My name was written as Maya on my airline ticket. My legal name is still Maire so this caused a problem at the airport. I was expecting a lot of problems. They could not have been nicer. The lady smiled at me and said, don't worry, we'll change it for you, no problem. This, despite the fact that Easyjet normally charge £116 to change a name!
  • Our Metro tickets didn't work. They lady in the station checked them and immediately gave us new ones, no problem
  • We missed our tour bus on the freezing cold hill of Fourviere where we had got off to look around and so we missed the rest of the tour. The next day the bus driver let us on again, no problem.

We loved Lyon. We want to go back. The food was beyond divine and we enjoyed everything we had. We stayed in an average hotel that had the advantage of having a small kitchen in the room so we bought supplies the evening we arrived and had lovely breakfasts every morning. It's a fascinating city, the culinary capital of France. Next time, we want to tackle the archives and see what else we can dig up about our family and perhaps even find a distant cousin still in the area.

My lovely aunt, Quellie, braving the biting wind on the hill beside Fourviere

Sharing the experience with my beloved Aunt Quellie was a real joy as we both find everything endlessly fascinating and we both love delicious food! 

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