A Short History of Osse Protestantism


This history of the Protestantism of Osse, Bearn (now Osse-en-Aspe, France) was written by Madame Gilberte Gaubil on the occasion of the 200th anniversary in 2005 of the reconstruction of Temple Bethel at Osse. The original temple was built in 1620 and was destroyed by orders of Louis XIV in April of 1686. Madame Gaubil is the President of the Presbytery of the Reformed Parish of Osse-en-Aspe and member of the Administrative Council of the Center for the Study of Bearnais Protestantism, Pau, France. Madame Gaubil lives near Osse in the mountain village of Aydius. She is fluent in French and Spanish and speaks and reads the Bearnais and Catalan dialects. She taught the French baccalaureate curriculum in history and geography for 16 years in the Vosges, Poitou and Gironde regions of France and then 21 years at the Lycée Français in Barcelona, Spain, during which time she served as a judge in Madrid for baccalaureate examinations.

Translation by Frederique Marsault Ledbetter, Prescott, AZ, USA



Gassiot de Latourette

We know Gassiot was born in Osse, but we do not know where he studied theology. He may have been brought over to the ideas of the Reform when Gérard Roussel and Ponteto were promoting such ideas in Oloron (now Oloron Sainte Marie). As early as the first Béarn Synod of 1563, he is accepted as minister after favorable examination. He remains the minister of Osse-en-Aspe until his death in 1595. His nephew Jean Codures succeeds him, also until his death in 1613. Gassiot de Latourette's children and descendants have occupied distinguished positions in Osse such as notary and secular abbot. One of them, Jean de Latourette, immigrates to England after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, and from there to New York, where he creates, with the former minister of Osse, Pierre Peiret, the French Church of New York. His descendants in the United States are many today.

The Protestants of Osse-en-Aspe from the XVIth to the XXth century

During the XVIth century, Béarn is a small independent state, a commercial crossroad, open to the ideas of the time, especially since schooling is widespread. Osse benefits from these exchanges for many reasons: the transhumance of the herds to and from the mountain pastures, the proximity of the great commercial highway through the Somport Pass, the advent of educated elites. These are the reasons why the ideas of the reform (willing to put an end to the abuses of the Catholic Church) come to Béarn around the middle of the XVIth century, and find many followers, even in Osse. Queen Jeanne d'Albret, mother of Henri IV, future king of France, and many in her circle are the first ones to be won to the Reform. But, after the Trente Council (1545-1563) the Church of Rome refuses any significant modification. The divisions among Christians then unchain the violence of the Wars of Religion between Catholics (Papists) and Reformed (Huguenots and Protestants).

Béarn: An Independent and Protestant State

Jeanne d'Albret who has adopted Calvin's principles brings to Béarn some of his followers to organize the new religion. From the start, in 1563, Osse gives to the Aspe Valley its first Minister, Gassiot de Latourette.

During the first Simultaneum (mutual religious tolerance) between 1561 and 1569, Catholics and Protestants have to take turns using the churches. Obeying commandments of the Bible, Protestants remove the pictures from religious places, such as statues, paintings and decorations. This starts a lot of agitation and clashes, from which the Aspe Valley is no exception. At the same time, the War of Religion rages across all of France. The Queen of Béarn, Jeanne d'Albret, who stays in N�rac, in one of her domains, hearing of threats of her kidnapping, flees to La Rochelle, an important Huguenot stronghold. 1569 is a black year for the region, massacres and civil war intensifies.

Charles IX, King of France, sends the Baron de Terride, to re-establish Catholicism. In reality, he would like to take this opportunity to annex Béarn. The Aspe Valley suffers from many fights : Terride's army, joined by fanatics and thieves devastates everything on its way. Jeanne d'Albret calls on the Count of Montgomery to recover her territories for her. Helped by the Huguenots and those among the Catholics who want Béarn to remain independent, Montgomery drives Terride away in a few days. In reprisal, the Baron d'Arros's armies set the churches of the valley on fire. This marks the end of the Simultaneum: there can only be one religion.

Jeanne d'Albret's 1571 ordinances make Béarn a Protestant state, according to the principle that the subjects must follow the religion of their sovereign (a common practice throughout Europe at the time). Since Catholicism is forbidden, Protestants use the Catholic churches for their parish. The Catholic Priests have to convert or leave the region. The change of religion goes rather smoothly, even if we do have some doubts about the sincerity of some conversions. In any case, the insubordinate and the clandestine Catholics are not prosecuted. The main diffireligiony is the shortage of ministers, or, when there is one, his lack of understanding of local traditions leads him to make mistakes.

The Reformed religion is well established early in Osse, thanks to the first Ministers, Gassiot de Latourette until 1595, then his nephew, Jean Codures until 1613, both born in the village, and to the secular Abbot, Minvielle, who, by adopting the legal religion, is allowed to retain his rights and influence. They are able to compromise between theological rigor and the religionure of mountain villagers. On the other hand, these ministers, alone for the whole valley are unable to win the other villages to their principles.

In 1598, Henri IV, signs the Edict of Nantes to put an end to the Wars of Religion which were devastating France. With this Edict, he gives Protestants the right (though with many restrictions) to worship their religion in a Catholic state. In 1599, with the Edict of Fontainebleau, he has to do the opposite, and authorize Catholicism in a Protestant state.

Béarn, French Catholic province. The Protestants under the Edict of Nantes Regime (1620-1685)

For a long time Béarn resists the annexation decided by the king. In 1620, Louis XIII has to organize a military expedition to impose his will. The small state of Béarn loses its independence and becomes attached to the French Crown (the king becomes King of France and Navarre). Catholic prominence is restored. The Protestants are under the sway of the conditions of the Edict of Nantes.

Immediately the Protestants in Osse start the construction of a small temple, named Bethel (God's house in Hebrew), where today's temple sits, because they can no longer use the Catholic Church. An engraved stone above the porch signals "Bethel, Temple of the Protestants". A plot of land around the temple is used as a cemetery.

Then starts a slow and relentless repression against the Huguenots: progressive loss of rights, dragoons invasions (the King's soldiers are lodged in villagers' homes, commit pillage, rape and all sorts of crimes in 1621, 1623 and 1638), women are accused of witchcraft and burned alive, Protestant schools and colleges are closed, rights to financial assistance are cancelled...

1633: The Minister is not allowed to preach outside his home.

1640: No congregation in villages with less than 10 Protestant families.

1668: The number of Protestant temples dwindles from 123 to 20. Osse's is saved. The Protestants are barred from administrative and judicial functions such as notaries, secular abbots...

1685: In January, there are only 5 places of worship left for all of Béarn's Protestants. For the district of Oloron, there is only one left: Osse (because it is diffireligion to access for worshippers and its minister, who is no longer allowed to carry on his functions, is now under arrest).

The King of France and his advisers decide to get rid of the Huguenots. From March 1, 1684 to the end of August 1685, Intendant Foucault is sent to Béarn to execute this mission: forced conversions, persecutions of all sorts, new dragoon invasions under the excuse of war with Spain. Identical actions take place in all the regions where Protestants are numerous, so that, on October 18, 1685, Louis XIV revokes the Edict of Nantes, since, theoretically, there is no Protestant left in the kingdom of France.

The revocation of the Edict of Nantes forbids the Protestant religion; therefore all the Temples are to be destroyed by the worshippers themselves. In Osse, the Protestants give up in 1686. Some Catholics, watching the demolition, mockingly play the trumpet to mark their triumph. From now on, the land where the church had been is called Jericho, after the Bible story.

The Catholics then seize the bell, a valuable treasure, from the Protestant Temple for their own Church.

Jericho abandoned, Protestants are no longer allowed to bury their dead there, but Catholics never attempt to appropriate it.

1686-1757: The Protestants Outlaws - Time of Persecutions

During this period, many Protestants born and living in Béarn refuse to convert to Catholicism. To hold fast to their forbidden faith, some prefer to emigrate: a few go to Switzerland, some to the Netherlands, most others to London. Among them, Jean Latourette, (second son of David Latourette, the notary) and Pasteur Pierre Peiret, who is prosecuted by the royal justice, flee to England. From there, they go to America where they build the French Church of New York.

The persecutions continue for many years. When caught, men are sent to the galleys, women are condemned to life imprisonment. The Protestants lose their civil status (they can no longer record births, weddings or deaths officially) if they do not change their religion. Their properties are seized and their bodies are thrown to the landfill when they die. To avoid this infamy, in Osse the dead are buried in barns.

The seemingly converted Protestants have their children baptized by the Priest, the christening sacrament being rather well accepted, but they do not get married in the Catholic church, because they refuse the wedding as a sacrament. Therefore married people are considered as concubines, their children as bastards. Other measures are taken by the authorities, for instance, some children are kidnapped to force their parents to marry in a Catholic church.

At this time, we estimate that about half of the population of Osse persist in their firm religious belief. The condemnations are far fewer than in the Piedmont because the Catholics in the village show a lot of tolerance. Here are some facts explaining these two phenomena:

  1. religious worship is very personal in the high mountain communities and this is reflected in the organization of the Reform religion, the spirit of mutual aid of the community: an Osse villager would not betray another Osse villager to outside authorities, especially because the Aspe Valley people strongly resent the encroachment of the royal power on their autonomy.
  2. the blood relation (at different levels, but real) among all the Osse people, the role of the Lacl�de family which seems to intervene often to help the villagers. The pursued Protestants go discreetly to knock on the doors of the Lacl�de (a prominent Catholic family) castle, for help,
  3. maybe some money agreements with the Jurats or with the priest who is content with showing up only once in a while, except for one priest in 1725 who complains about the reticence of the "new converts", "Why disturb them if they do not cause any public disorder?" asked a Jurat. The question seems to be repeated often at the time. the federating role of the non -religious patrimony.

So, in 1723, the priest, Mr. Guirail refuses to take confession and to admit to sacrament any of Osse's villagers, with no exception, saying that he would "rather take confession from dogs than from the said inhabitants". No doubt too many "new converts" are too difficult to handle. But the most fervent Catholics shocked by this behavior take him to justice in front of the Parliament of Navarre. We do not know how this ends; however, things seem to resume peacefully because the priest stays in Osse a long time with no other trial.

Desert Period 1757 - 1788. The Protestants still outlawed

This period starts in France in 1726 with a secret Synod, and in Osse, in 1757. Pastor Deferre Montigni re-establishes the Protestant parish with a deacon, elders and preachers to organize the Sunday services, assistance to the needy, school... Ministers come from time to time, bringing their support clandestinely. They travel at night, the minister, riding a horse, is escorted by armed villagers on foot, using the most discreet trails. The assemblies (desert) take place in barns on top of the Bugala or of the Plateau d'Ip�re, from where the Sarrance to Bedous road can be seen, and the alarm can be given easily. The most frequently used barns are those owned by Prodegui, Lagunpocq, and Latounette.

One Sunday, when the Protestants are having an assembly at the top of the Bugala, Father Suhare, a fanatic Basque intent on harassing them, gathers the Catholics: "We must be rid of heresy!!!" While the attack is being prepared, as the column is ready to start, headed by the Priest and the first Jurat, a woman discreetly takes a shortcut and has enough time to give the alarm. The Protestants have only one old rifle, but they pull up fence posts and face the assailants. As soon as the Catholics arrive and see the Protestants ready to defend themselves, their eagerness cools down and the first Jurat declares: "My friends, what are we going to do here? These people seem ready to fight and among them are some strong and vigorous guys who measure up to the strongest among us. We might go back down with fewer of us than came up. If you want my advice, we shall leave these people alone and go home". One gun shot in the air puts an end to any hesitation and the group withdraws.

From now on, the Protestants avoid having their children baptized by the Priest; they prefer to take them in secret to ministers hiding in private homes. When they are denounced, they are declared under arrest and sent to prison. Here is what happened to someone named Latounette who had done the same thing. He was able to hide and escape from the marshalls. For seven years he remained in hiding, in a different house or cave each night. One day, tired of being on the run, armed with his scythe and two pistols, he reappeared and came to the Sailhet (near the Gave of Aspe), to mow his meadow. Father Suhare, immediately informed, approached the meadow, and from the top of the Espoune butte observed Latounette. The latter, seeing the Priest, shouted: "Come and arrest me if you dare!". That evening, as the friend who had accompanied him, urged him to hide, he answered; "No, I shall walk through the village! Beware who will put a hand on me!" No one dared to arrest him and he was able to resume his life at home in peace.

The story of Notary Pierre Datournau (1725-1800?) The good for the bad

Pierre Datournau, an Osse Protestant, buys the royal notary office in 1752. To retain his office, he must make allegiance to the Catholic faith, but he continues to practice his religion. He gets married and has his daughter baptized in the "desert". He even leads clandestine Protestant services.

But, because of a denunciation on January 28, 1767, two Jurats and their armed escort come to arrest him, with such laxity however, that he has time to escape to the mountains. Surrounded, he must leave Béarn, flees to Paris, where his brother, himself settled in London, sends him financial help. In 1771, his brother obtains for him the support of a noble family, thanks to whom the warrant for his arrest is lifted. Pierre Datournau returns to Osse and resumes his functions. During the Terror, in 1794, while he is Osse's mayor, he helps a Catholic priest hunted by the Sans-Culottes, taking him to the hiding places he knows so well in the mountains. Much later, in 1822, the Priest tells the story to Pastor Mourgues de Sauveterre, then married to Datournau's granddaughter. In appreciation, he gives the Pastor, afflicted with a very poor eyesight, the latest model of oil lamp, to allow him to work at night.

Little by little, thanks to the evolution of ideas through the XVIIIth century, the authorities in power must finally give in and renounce persecuting the Huguenots.

From the state of Tolerance: 1787, to the Reconstruction of the Temple: 1805

The Edict of Tolerance signed in 1787, and taking effect in late 1788, gives their civil identity back to the Protestants as well as their right to own property. The first Jurat, Antoine de Latourrette, is appointed town clerk in Osse. Entire families rush to have their situation legitimized: parents their marriage, children their birth. In all, 59 marriages and 151 children are recognized. The cemetery is also returned to the Protestants; however, they are still not allowed to worship openly.

In the beginning of the 1789 Revolution, the situation changes, religious freedom is established. The Osse Protestants do not have to hide any longer, though they have no Temple and no Minister. Jericho is in ruins. The construction of a new Temple is interrupted when "La Terreur" bans all religions except the "religion of Reason". In 1795, the "Convention Thermidorienne" ends "La Terreur" and decides that churches may be used alternatively by the different religions. This Simultaneum period is in effect from 1797 to 1804, when the Concordat settles the religious question.

The bell case: In 1793, French authorities facing the 1st Coalition, requisition bells to make cannons, leaving only one bell in each village. The Osse Catholics decide to hand out the Bethels' bell, but the Protestants mobilize. Mayor Pierre Datournau intervenes and saves the bell. However, since the new Temple does not have a bell tower, it remains in the Catholic Church. Years later, when a bell tower is added to the roof of the Temple, the bell is melted down and cast into a new bell.

The story of Marie-Blanque has an important impact on the villagers at that time, for political reasons. Marie-Blanque is known for being one of the most talented "aurost�res" in the valley. The very old tradition of the "aurost", a song composed by a woman about the deceased at the funeral, is condemned by the Catholic Church, but Marie-Blanque persists.

Marie Asserquet is a Protestant, born in 1765, whose birth is recorded in 1788, after the Edict of Tolerance. Married to a baker of Orthez, she runs away from him and returns to Osse where she lives as a recluse, and becomes known for her gift as an "aurost�re". It is not known how she comes to be called Marie-Blanque: perhaps for her beauty and her pale complexion, perhaps for the traditional mourning color of the white cape she wears at funerals.

According to the legend, she has a passionate love affair with one of the Lacl�de, from Bedous. He is Captain of the Compagnie Fran�aise of Accous, when he takes part in the battle of Lescun in 1794. He is killed at Saragosse in 1808, during Napol�on's Spanish campaign. The aurost of his funeral is especially moving because it symbolizes the impossible love between a Protestant woman and a Catholic man. (Pouesies bearneses recoueilhudes dens la ball�e d'Aspe, Pau, Vignancour 1843).

The Concordat Regime (1802-1905)

Under the "Consulat", Bonaparte settles the religion problem by signing the Concordat with the Pope for the Catholics, then adding some generic items for the other religions. The government recognizes the freedom of religion and becomes responsible for the salaries of Priests and Pastors.

But not all Reformed parishes are recognized. Such is the case of Osse. While waiting for a Pastor, the Protestants undertake to build a new Temple on the site of the old one. Above the door, they place the stone of Bethel, which, happily, has been spared and preserved. The Temple is inaugurated on August 4, 1805 by Pastor Gabriac, who has been assigned for the Béarn and the Basque Country.

Finally, in 1826, a Minister is sent to Osse. The first years are somewhat diffireligion. The Pastor, who is not from the Valley, does not understand certain local traditions. On the other hand, the Protestants are accustomed to managing their own affairs and do not easily accept an "outsider's" authority. For several years, the Pastor must dedicate a good part of the resources of the parish to the maintenance of the Temple: repair of the roof that had collapsed under the weight of snow, construction of the bell tower, and development of the school. In 1836, the (Protestant) community counts 380 people out of 905 inhabitants, a fairly consistent ratio since the middle of the XVIIth century, in spite of the persecutions. Through hardship, this community has formed a very tight bond.

During Alfred Cadier's ministry (1871-1906), the property around the Temple increases. The closest houses are replaced by a garden, while a presbytery is built, adjoining to the side of the Temple, for the Pastor and his large family. The Chaneu house is acquired to be turned into a school. This one is in use for only four years, because of the schooling laws of 1880-1889. Alfred Cadier's ministry seems to be the brightest time for the Protestant community of Osse, for the loyalty of its members, for the good reputation of its school, for the moral and intellectual authority of its Pastor.

The Parish after the Law of Separation of Church and State in 1905

In the beginning of the XXth century, tension reappears between the Catholic Church and the Republic, threatening the Concordat. From this derives, in 1905, the law of separation of Church and State. Parishes now depend on donations from their members for subsistence. In Osse, the diffireligionies are compounded by the fact that, in addition to the contributions to the Minister's salary, several buildings must be maintained while the number of villagers declines. The rural exodus affects the Protestant families more than the others because their children are more educated. Moreover the distinction between the two communities tends to fade away: religious practice is less consistent, "mixed" marriages, a veritable heresy at the beginning of the century, become more common.

In 1936, the Osse parish is attached to Oloron's and the Minister shares his time between the two places. He lives in Oloron where a beautiful presbytery is built in 1985. In Osse, Chaneu becomes a mountain inn; the presbytery is now a vacation place for Pastors and people seeking a retreat. All these buildings and the Temple are maintained thanks to the dedication of donors and volunteers who contribute their time and labor.

Ministers Alfred Cadier and his sons Albert and Charles, Ren� Marchand, Andr� Rouverand, Pierre M�dard have marked their time by the attention given to the poor without distinction of faith. The Reformed Church has adapted to social evolution, the current Pastor is a woman, Monique Orieux. She brings as much faith and presence to her ministry as did her predecessors.

Osse's history is exemplary in more than one way, as is true of many other places in France. We, who are accustomed to the freedom of thought since the Revolution, may find fanaticism, intolerance, the cruelty of events prior to 1789, impossible to understand. We must, however, appreciate the immeasurable happiness of living in a tolerant society. But it must be said, also, that the Aspe people, in general, behaved less ferociously than forces from outside the valley, thus demonstrating that the values shared by a community can protect its members.

Gilberte Gaubil

Most of the anecdotes told above, are from Alfred Cadier's "Osse, Histoire de l'Eglise Reform�e de la Vall�e d'Aspe" ( "Osse, History of the Reformed Church of the Aspe Valley").

Copyright 2010 John LaTourette