Survivors of the Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray attack described their ordeal to French journalists
“Do you see cows?” asks the woman on the phone.
“Yes,” answers the reporter. “I see six cows, it looks like they are grazing.”
“They have been grazing for over 20 years,” comments Mrs. Coponet, “They are made out of plastic. Well, turn right after the cows, then take the second left. We are expecting you.”
Thus begins a meet-up between journalists from the French publication Famille Chrétienne and three witnesses to the Mass-time murder of Fr. Jacques Hamel who felt ready to talk about what they had experienced. Coming together not far from where the remains of Fr. Hamel lie, the reporters met with Guy and Janine Coponet, married 64 years, and Sr. Danielle Delafosse who, along with two members of Sr. Danielle’s religious community, were participating in the Mass at St. Etienne when the attackers entered.
Guy Coponet, who on that day was celebrating his 87th birthday, had been stabbed three times — in the arm, the back and the throat. He tells reporters that the emergency physician who treated him counted him very lucky or very blessed. “The emergency doctor who treated me told me, ‘There was a divine hand on you because none of the stabs have hit a vital organ. But it really was a close call…'” For Coponet it seems providential, but also costly. “It’s like a miracle! The Lord allowed me to survive as a sign of his mercy. It is distressing to me; I hate to draw attention to myself. I am a retired factory worker; I love the hidden life of Nazareth. Finding myself in the spotlight appalls me.”
Coponet reveals that the jihadis forced him to videotape their actions, which he found enormously difficult. “[They] grabbed me by the collar and put a camera in my hands and said, ‘Granddaddy, you take the movie.’ They even checked the quality of the picture and made sure that I was not shaking too much.”
What followed was an unimaginable nightmare for him: “I had to film the assassination of my friend Father Jacques! I can’t get over it…”
The attackers intended for their video to be fed to social media networks, Coponet said. After the slaying of Fr. Hamel, Coponet warned them that they were on the wrong side of heaven, and that their parents would die of grief from their actions. At that point, one of the men lashed out. “He stabbed me and dragged me to the bottom of the altar steps. The floor was all red, but I didn’t realize that it was my blood flowing. I didn’t feel any pain at the time. I tightened my hand around my throat because blood was spurting out.”
Janine Coponet remembers immediately entrusting her husband to the intercession of St. Therese of Lisieux and the Venerable Carmelite friar, Father Marie-Eugene. She related a sense of their whole married life together passing “before my mind’s eye in a few seconds.” With three stab wounds, she believed her husband would not survive.
In the midst of the slaughter, Sister Danielle managed to escape. Seeing Fr. Hamel fall, she told herself to move and get help. “I’m not a great athlete, but at that moment, I made tracks. A neighbor took me in. I called for help. They came on the double.”
Guy Coponet says, “I prayed as I have never prayed in my life. I called upon all the saints I could think of. First of all, little Brother Charles [de Foucauld], also killed by a Muslim, in the desert. In my heart of hearts, I recited my favorite prayer: ‘Father, I abandon myself into your hands; do with me what you will… Into your hands I commend my soul.’ I was in his hands. Especially after Mass!”
The journalists asked about reports that before his death Fr. Hamel called out twice, “Be gone Satan!” and whether the trio saw evil in action. “No doubt,” said Sr. Danielle, “This does not mean that [the assailant] Adel Kermiche was possessed, but that Satan was at work in a powerful way. Father Jacques wanted to exorcise this evil. Those were his last words. Satan does not like the Eucharist …”
After stabbing Guy Coponet and dragging him to the altar steps, Kermiche commenced a conversation with Sr. Helen, one of the members of Sr. Danielle’s community. As Sr. Danielle relates, Kermiche asked, “Are you afraid of dying?” When the nun said “no” he seemed surprised and asked her why not.
“Because I believe in God, and I know I will be happy.”
The killer said, in a low voice, “I believe in God too, and I am not afraid of death.” Then he declared: “Jesus is a man, not God!”
The jihadis asked the two women, Janine Caponet and Sr. Helen, if they were familiar with the Koran. “Yes, I have read the Koran,” replied Sr. Helen. “What struck me were the sura that speak of peace.”
Kermiche suggested that when the women were inevitably brought before the television cameras they should call for peace from the authorities, saying that as long as bombings continued in Syria, attacks would continue in France, daily. “I think it was just a pretext,” says Sr. Danielle. “The only thing they had in their heads was propaganda received by internet.”
Janine calls the conversation “surreal,” taking place as it did before two bloody bodies.
The killers betrayed some humanity toward the elderly women when they pleaded exhaustion. When Janine asked if she could sit, Adel Kermiche immediately answered, “Yes, sit down, Madame,” as though he had forgotten his manners. When Sr. Helen, also feeling exhausted, asked him for her cane, which she had left at her seat, he brought it to her.
Soon after, however, one of the killers put what Janine thought was a real pistol to her head (it later turned out to be a fake) and began to push her toward the exit door of the church. “I turned around anyway to have a last look at my Guy, and I saw one of his legs moving! I told myself: ‘He’s alive. Oh Lord, thank you!'”
While Guy Coponet continued to play dead, the killers went outside and gunfire was heard. After that, says Coponet, “There was a huge silence. I tried to shout, ‘Is anyone there?’ But no sound came out of my throat. I tried again: ‘Isn’t there anyone?’ Nothing. I felt abandoned.”
His wife related those final few moments of terror. “The bell struck 10:30 a.m. My Guy had been playing dead for 45 minutes. They pushed us outside. The sirens were howling. We crossed the threshold. Policemen grabbed us. The killers came out, shouting ‘Allahu akbar.’ The police fired. The two young people died instantly. A policewoman hid me behind a car. She was in tears.” At that point, she did not know whether Guy was still alive.
Within minutes members of a special police unit were calling for the doors to be opened, and quickly the team stormed in, with medics in tow. “A doctor looked at me as I recited the last sentence of my Ave, ‘… and at the hour of our death. Amen.'” Convinced he was going to die, Coponet says he felt an overwhelming sense of serenity. “I had no remorse, only love in me. In fact, it was a moment of great bliss.”
Asked if they could forgive the terrorist, Guy admits to struggling, and suggests he will only be able to do that with the grace of God, perhaps from heaven. His wife says, “For now, we pray especially for their families.” She thinks often of the mothers of these young men. “They will not get over it anytime soon.” The couple expressed a desire to someday meet the parents and try to understand what has happened. They are now looking forward to celebrating their 65th wedding anniversary, and continue to attend Mass. “We are at the heart of an immense mystery: the mystery of Christ who gave his life for each one of us. He gave his life for our killers. The Eucharist enlightens us about the tragedy that we have just experienced.” They added that now the Mass seems to fill them with a special joy.
Sr. Danielle, who knows the Kermiche family from her clinical work with many Muslim neighbors, says the killer’s family are “at a loss. The parents do not understand how one of their children could have committed such a barbarous act.” Adel Kermiche, she reveals, was undergoing psychiatric treatment. “This is one of those complex cases where psychological instability, religious and cultural ignorance, and an existential vacuum are all mixed together… It’s a Molotov cocktail ready to explode: a crazy imam preaching on the internet can be the match that lights the fuse…”
Pope Francis has announced that he wishes to hasten the cause of Fr. Hamel’s possible sainthood. In September he suggested that Hamel is a new martyr who “should be venerated.”
Sr. Danielle agrees. “Jacques had been a priest for 58 years. He had just celebrated Christ’s sacrifice when he was slain, just like the Lamb that he had served and celebrated all his life. He died instantly. He is the first priest killed by the hand of a jihadist on European soil, in the 21st century. He is a new martyr.”