Family friends and fellow Jesuits of Conor Harper SJ, packed the French Embassy in Dublin,Friday 30 November where the French Ambassador to Ireland Emmanuelle Achon presented him with the medal of Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres.
The Ordre des Arts et des Lettres is one of the most prestigious honours that the French government can bestow. It was established by President Charles de Gaulle and the Minister for Culture, and Conor’s award came on foot of his proposal for it by the ambassador herself.
The award honours individuals who have distinguished themselves through their artistic or literary contributions or the contribution they have made to the spread of French culture in France and worldwide.
In presenting the award the ambassador spoke of Conor’s commitment to the French community in Ireland for over 35 years. She said he had served them in an outstanding manner both spiritually and pastorally. “You fulfill your role with devotion and enthusiasm. You say Mass in perfect French and are highly praised by our fellow Catholics in Dublin for your way of leading them and enabling them to practice their faith in their own language”
She also praised him for the way in which he has carried out his role for many years as vice-president of Alliance Francaise. The Alliance will celebrate its 130th anniversary in 2013 and in its aim is to promote French culture and serve as a place for intercultural exchanges between Irish culture and the cultures of the French-speaking world, it was well assisted by Conor.
In his acceptance speech Conor spoke of his early days studying French in UCD. Not so fluent in the language and feeling quite intimidated when appointed as chaplain to the French community in 1976, (an appointment made by the French Embassy and the Archbishop of Paris), he nonetheless loved the language and was determined to do it and the appointment justice.
It was in UCD that he met Jean Bertrand de Villeneuve-Bargemor, and he became a close friend. Jean Bertrand also spoke at the ceremony, regaling people with stories of the various trips he and Conor made to the French embassy in Dublin in the course of their work together.
Conor, who is now a curate in Donnybrook Parish in Dublin, says that the award is really a credit to the Irish Jesuit Province and the Jesuits who encouraged him in his teaching and study. “I did my philosophy studies through French, and every year (with the exception of one) I have travelled to Annecy near the Alps, to do parish work during the summer.”
He also paid tribute to the many students in Jesuit schools whom he had taught French, and estimated that he had shared his love of the language with over 3,000 pupils in twenty-eight years of teaching.
He said that in that regard he felt like Mr Chips, the school teacher in the book Goodbye Mister Chips who married late and had no offspring. On his death-bed he heard those gathered round say it was a pity he had no children, and Chips rose up in the bed and said ‘But I did, I did, and they were all boys’.
It was a long while before people left the embassy, having enjoyed a night of good conversation, French wine and food – a fitting way to celebrate Conor’s award.
Conor later spoke to Pat Coyle of the Jesuit Comunication Centre about the award and his work as chaplain to the French community in Dublin. Listen here.