Madeleine Chéry: a century’s worth of memories

Photography : Photokiff - Text : Lucas Delattre

« Rue de Meaux » is a small street in Senlis’ city centre. Madeleine Chéry was born there 92 years ago, she went to school there, she worked there all her life, and she still lives there in front of Saint-Vincent’s Abbey, which was both the school where she was educated and her only, lifelong employer. It is also in the upper part of this same street that her grandfather was shot dead during the First World War by German “uhlans” (“those wearing helmets with pointed tips, you can still see the bullets’ marks on the walls of the Prisunic supermarket “)

Madeleine Chéry’s life cannot be dissociated from Saint Vincent’s Abbey, which was founded in 1065 by Queen Anne of Kiev, and has since become a private Catholic school, managed first by Marist fathers, then replaced by secular teachers. Formerly offering classes from primary to secondary school, Saint Vincent has now changed focus and become a senior high school. « It is much less busy and lively than it used to be », says Madeleine.

Along with her elder brother Lucien, Madeleine worked there daily, even on Sundays, from 1945 to 1985, from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m. “Indeed, it was not the thirty-five hours work week at the time!” she says, happily remembering the weekly drives to Paris’ central food market, including the early 3 a.m. departures. She also recalls with emotion Father Maury, the school’s principal, who maintained around him a good-natured, family atmosphere.

What was Madeleine’s task at Saint Vincent? Cooking, cleaning, looking after the house, while Lucien, now deceased, who trained as a mason, looked after everything else: plumbing, painting, repairing the ceilings as well as filling up the fuel tank. Back in 1945, Lucien and his team were those who restored the place, which was in a sorry state of decay. Between 1940 and 1944, the German army had requisitioned Saint Vincent’s premises. Once or twice during this period, Madeleine broke into the buildings at night, with a few accomplices, while the occupiers were away, to steal food supplies and equipment, notably a refrigerator which, as she remembers, was very heavy to carry away!

Far away from the daily routine, Madeleine enjoys a unique privilege: she is entitled to enter Senlis’ Cathedral on horseback, a royal privilege which is hers in accordance with her title of “Constable of the Archers’ Company by the Bastion at the Porte de Meaux “ (one of the Medieval gates giving access to the city through the ramparts). She holds this title from her brother, himself the captain of the archers’ company from 1955 to 1995. Since the middle Ages, the city of Senlis has always had to maintain a body of archers at the king’s disposal. Two companies of archers still exist today, the one by the Bastion at the Porte de Meaux (since 1404) and the one by the Montauban gate, on the western side of the ramparts (since 1813). Having evolved into sports associations, these corporations have stuck to certain traditions, which make them much more than mere archery clubs. Members do comply with strict rules of behaviour. Madeleine explains: “It is not allowed to say swear words, nor to talk politics, it is a school of good manners.

Madeleine doesn’t actually make use of her riding privilege (she has no horse anyway), but she often lead her company through the city’s streets during traditional archers’ parades. “In January 2004, the archers of the Company by the Bastion at the Porte de Meaux celebrated the six-hundredth anniversary of their existence upon the day of Saint-Sebastian, their patron. After the mass, archers in their coat of arms, horn blowers, flag carriers, walkers-on in medieval costumes marched the streets starting from the cathedral, for the great pleasure of onlookers. Madeleine Chéry, a smiling constable, opened the march.” (Excerpt from Le Turlupin, the newspaper of the local association of Senlis East, Saint Vincent neighbourhood, issue n° 11).

Today the Company by the Bastion at the Porte de Meaux is dormant while the Company by the Montauban gate is thriving. Never mind: the Ring of Valois (which the Company by the Bastion at the Porte de Meaux belongs to) will never merge with the Ring of Beauvaisis, to which the Company by the Montauban gate is affiliated. This is tradition for you!

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