"The church had opened its arms to me when I needed them," said Abdelkader Zennaf, who holds the keys to St. Ennemond Church.
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In the town of Saint-Chamond, Abdelkader Zennaf, a Muslim, is a local celebrity. He has been honored several times by the press because of his strong involvement in the life of the city and his impressive collection of aluminum kitchen utensils: 4,500 pieces, the second largest collection in France! “I didn’t build it up out of idleness or a passing fancy,” he explains, “but out of an obsession with passing on tradition. For me, memory is sacred: preserving heritage seems fundamental.”
Catholic activities open to Muslims
Abdelkader Zennaf is one of the oldest inhabitants of his neighborhood. Just imagine: he has lived there for 73 years, in the house where his parents took up residence one year after their arrival from Algeria in 1948. It happens to be right in front of the neighborhood church.
He’s always been familiar with the parish, not only because he can see the church’s massive silhouette from his windows, but also because he attended activities there as a child. “My parents enrolled me in youth activities on Thursday afternoons,” he recalls. “After the activities led by the priest (films, games, hikes…), we all attended catechism classes, including the Muslims. I remember being very impressed by the miracles of Jesus. I even participated in processions dedicated to the Virgin Mary.”
Born a Muslim, Abdelkader has never intended to change his religion. But when one of his relatives fell seriously ill, he went to church, at the age of 12, to implore God to heal her. God heard his prayer. He will never forget it.
A closed church
The years went by, he got married and started a family (they have 7 children), and he didn’t frequent the familiar church anymore. However, sometimes he ran into his neighbor Pierrot, who opened and closed it every day. When Pierrot died in May 2004, St. Ennemond started leaving its doors closed during the day without Abdelkader noticing. Shortly afterwards, though, he saw an old woman climbing the steps of the house of God and pushing the heavy door in vain: “The scene gripped my heart,” says the septuagenarian.
“The Church had opened its arms to me when I needed them, and now this woman found the door closed! I asked a Catholic friend in the neighborhood to suggest to the parish priest that he entrust me with the keys so that I could volunteer to take over the role formerly held by Pierrot. He agreed.”
Beneficial inter-religious dialogue
Since then, he has been opening and closing the church every day of the year, and even gives tours to curious visitors. “When I see a lit candle,” he says, “it makes me happy: someone thought of God for a moment. It doesn’t matter which God: I’m not practicing, but faith has a big place in my life.”
When some of his co-religionists are surprised, he replies that he owes a debt to this church and that this is his way of paying it back — to the great satisfaction of the successive parish priests!
“I’m delighted with these links forged between believers of different faiths,” says Fr. Gilbert Thollet, who was appointed here two years ago. “Abdelkader even wanted to take charge of the restoration of a statue damaged by bad weather! I argued that it was the role of the town hall, but was very touched. In the Holy Land, aren’t Muslims the ones who open and close the Basilica of the Resurrection?”