ROUEN, France – Roselyne Hamel sits under the shade of a great oak in a park of the French town of Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray, the pale white of the scarf wrapped around her neck offset by a single black swan bathing in the small man-made lake.
It’s hard to believe that only one year ago, the tiny church only a few feet away became the setting for the brutal murder of a French priest by two ISIS sympathizers.
“My brother, Father Jacques Hamel, has become a ‘brother to all.’ We are conscious of that,” his sister Roselyne said in an exclusive interview with Crux, one day ahead of the first anniversary of his death.
On July 26 of last year, 86-year-old Hamel was held hostage, along with several others, by two Muslim men: Adel Kermiche and Abdel Malik Petitjean. After 40 minutes, the terrorists, who later pledged their allegiance to ISIS, slit Hamel’s throat.
On the anniversary of this tragic event, the very same church will host a mass to honor the deceased, which will be celebrated by the Archbishop of Rouen, Dominique Lebrun.
“We certainly come with many emotions,” said Hamel, who apart form the scarf is dressed head-to-toe in black.
“But it is necessary for the memory of my brother and to explain why he left this world in such a tragic way.
“We must not forget that this priest died and, that a few minutes before, he prayed for peace for the whole world, for peace among peoples,” she said.
News of Hamel’s death reached all corners of the world and awakened fear that Islamist extremism could extend its grip, not just to remote corners of the world, but also to the small and quaint towns of Europe.
Pope Francis himself was moved by the brutal murder, and, while celebrating Mass in his honor in 2016, insisted that Hamel “is a martyr, and martyrs are beatified.”
The pope took it a step further by waiving the usual five-year waiting period necessary to initiate the beatification process. Lebrun himself took charge of the procedure, and will be speaking to witnesses and family members.
“It is still a bit complicated for us to think of his beatification,” said Hamel, who describes the priest as “simple, peaceful and shy.”
“It is such a huge thing for my brother Jacques, who never looked for compliments, or to be rewarded, if not with a ‘thank you’ or a smile, and knowing that he had done good to one person or another was enough for him to feel good.”
His surviving sister recognizes that while she and her family members must live “with the vivid pain that never leaves us,” this notoriety has also given them a huge responsibility.
“After he passed away, the next day, we saw the strong message that went to all the faithful in the world and that this message will reverberate to believers and non-believers of all nationalities and cultures.
“We can say that Jacques, after this tragedy, became a brother to all,” she added.
Hamel has made it her life’s work to bring forth the message exemplified by her brother. She often meets with Muslim communities in France in search of “an encounter, and in order to share a better understanding.”
Though she admits that the celebrations that will take place Wednesday at the small church of Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray wishes to pay homage “in spirit” to her brother’s memory, “in the concrete we have to come together in order to reach open-mindedness.
“I hope that tomorrow, though the church is small, it will be full – just as my brother liked to see it full of people – and that the community of Saint Etienne will not go on holiday but be present,” Hamel said.
“Because when members of the community understand one another, they remain in harmony and balance,” she said.
Citizens of the small French town, curiously gathered Tuesday night to watch preparations for the anniversary, told Crux that Mass participation in the church is very low, and that the pews where Hamel gave his life are now often empty.
His sister nonetheless strikes a resolute pose, and insists on being optimistic about the future. It is not hard to see in her that same strength and resilience that must have animated her late brother.
She conceded that relations with “our Muslim brothers” in France are “a hard and difficult problem to solve,” but firmly believes that if politicians learn to work with one another “they will be able to give back a true meaning” to the French values of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity.
“I believe that all these members of government who have experience through their political life, their savoir-faire, they can put together all the ideas to find the solutions and put aside different oppositions, and political parties, for this tragic cause, in order to give nobility back to France,” she said.
Among participants at the anniversary Mass will be none other than the recently elected French President Emanuelle Macron, who defeated his right-wing populist opponent Marine Le Pen.
Despite the mantra she heard during the French presidential campaign that “the worst outcome would be if Macron is the best of the picking,” Hamel nurtures hope for his administration, forced to face the brunt of Jihadist attacks in a country riddled with religious and cultural conflicts.
“I have faith in his youth,” said a finally smiling Hamel. “Of course, each president has his percentage of difficulties. Pope Francis experiences that also. People are not perfect, but I have faith.”