National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  April 18, 2003

Fr. Jean-Pierre Altermann

A priest who inspirited intellectuals and artists

The House of Ananias was founded in 1938 by Jean-Pierre Altermann, a Jewish convert to Catholicism who went on to become a priest. A well-regarded poet and writer, Altermann moved in literary and artistic circles and became a friend and spiritual adviser to some of France’s most celebrated writers, musicians and artists in the period between the two world wars. Now demolished, a well-known Benedictine monastery on the nearby Rue Monsieur served during that era as an oasis of prayer in the middle of Paris. There a select circle of French writers and artists congregated, attending a sung Mass at the monastery which Altermann often celebrated, and forming what the French Catholic writer Francois Mauriac called “a singular and fervent milieu.” The author of Désert de l’amour (Desert of Love), Thérèse Desqueyroux and Le noeud de vipères (The Knot of Vipers) and winner of the 1952 Nobel Prize for Literature, Mauriac was among those who sought counsel from Altermann, as did the French philosopher Gabriel Marcel, writers Charles Du Bos and Henry Gheon, and the painter Maria Blanchard. Philosopher Jacques Maritain and his wife, Raissa, were close friends of Altermann. Andre Gide and Anaïs Nin spoke of him in their journals.

As a convert to Catholicism, Altermann was an outsider to the faith who had come inside its doors and was well-equipped to speak to the doubts of writers, artists and intellectuals.

“He was one of their own,” said Kate White, an American who met Altermann in 1954 and lived and worked at the House of Ananias for almost 20 years. “They knew they weren’t going to get a standard answer to their questions. He had searched and found what they were looking for.”

White remembers Altermann as warm, intuitive, and possessed of a “wonderful sense of humor. He was a very full human being. There was no sense of repression about him. Rules were not the point; an encounter or an experience with God through the person of Christ was the essential. The rest followed. This was the heart of his spiritual direction.”

Established as a diocesan mission for non-Catholics at the request of Paris Cardinal Jean Verdier, the House of Ananias grew out of Altermann’s ministry at the Benedictine monastery for nuns. Born in 1892 into a cultured milieu -- his father was a violinist and his mother a pianist in the Paris Symphony -- Altermann grew up in the same building where Alfred Dreyfus once resided and in front of which angry anti-Semitic mobs gathered in the 1890s when the Dreyfus case rocked French society. Because of his Jewish ancestry, Altermann was forced to flee France during the Nazi occupation. His baptism as a Catholic took place when he was 27 after a spiritual experience in Spain that altered his life, but which Altermann declined to speak of.

A biography of Altermann by Helene Jung paints a portrait of a contemplative who was open to the contemporary world and active in it, a cultured intellectual, and a man whose deep spirituality impressed those who met him. “A banal conversation was not possible with him,” Jung wrote.

Charles Du Bos wrote that a talk with Altermann meant more to him than any other conversation, and not just on the subject of religion. “I would like to never lose the memory of any of his words, yet always, however, I realize that I didn’t manage to transcribe the words exactly as he spoke them. To what is this due? They were as de-individualized as possible and yet it was the individual stamp of his word which puts the memory in movement.”

In his writings, Altermann spoke of the need to receive souls in a way that would be both comprehensive and sensitive to their own particular psychology and the problems that were theirs in life. Doctrinal instruction must not be hasty and superficial, he said; a solid foundation was necessary to ground the individual in his new faith and great care must be taken to nurture the interior life of new Christians and to give them sufficient time for the rooting of faith and the acquisition of the evangelical virtues.

Altermann gathered around him a close-knit circle of priests and laity. A chapel in the building -- designed by architect Auguste Perret, one of the pioneers in the use of reinforced concrete -- enabled those attending the House of Ananias to learn the liturgy and join a community of worshipers.

“The place itself had a certain density of prayer,” recalled White. “When he celebrated Mass, he brought a great Jewish sense of the transcendence of God and adoration, and that reverberated back on the faithful. The Mass was in Latin in those days and it became longer and longer. He was just overpowered by it,” White said.

As a spiritual director, Jung wrote, Altermann was indefatigable, intuitive, inspiring, with a great sensitivity to the particular needs and disposition of those he counseled.

“He seemed to bring a great deal of peace to a situation just by his presence. You had the feeling he was present to you but also present to the invisible,” White recalled. “He had great respect for the individuality of the person before him.”

In an uncompleted work, Altermann wrote that he believed God spoke to each believer in a language unlike that he used with any other. “Each person must be conscious of the message reserved for him. My only care must be to fully understand my own,” he observed.

-- Margot Patterson

National Catholic Reporter, April 18, 2003

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