All Insights

An Interview with Father Jean-Claude Gons

byMohammed Chadli
onFebruary 3, 2023

“My ultimate goal was to build relationships and friendships on a personal level, not just between institutions. Thankfully, my efforts were fruitful, and I’m proud to say that now I am considered as part of the community of Essaouira. Integrating was not easy, especially since I’m not Muslim, but now I can say that I have my place here. Even though I’m not Muslim, I fit in as a resident of Essaouira. ‘You are among us.’ I hear this expression all the time from people, and it feels so refreshing each time I hear it. The respect is mutual between us. We are different, and this is a great thing. Each day, I feel like I am adopted and less of a stranger. I feel that I am a part of the city’s community even though I have a different religion. Now, I can confidently say that I have proved my point that when we live together for so long, we come to know each other on a deep level. This is why I made the choice to stay in Essaouira for almost my whole life. Forty-two years is a lifetime.”

Father Jean-Claude Gons, Priest of Notre Dame de l’Assomption in Essaouira, Morocco.

About Father Gons

Father Jean-Claude Gons is 86 years old, and is of French origin. While in the military, he served in Algeria from 1958 to 1960. During this time, he had the chance to teach children who had never before been to school. It was his first interaction with Arab or Muslim people. After this experience, he embarked on a journey to learn more about this new culture and the people he had just met.

Father Gons longed for the experience of living somewhere that is different from where he comes from. His desire and ambitions were to exchange stories and experiences with various people. As a priest, he was assigned to Morocco and arrived in the Kingdom initially in 1967. At first, Father Gons worked at the Cathedral of Rabat, but as though it was the capital and a big city, he felt that it was too similar to his home. His colleagues suggested that he visit the small towns and rural areas of Morocco, and so he roamed the country, visiting many places, such as Taza, Sefrou, Erfoud, and Essaouira. Father Gons’ travels made him even more intrigued about Moroccan culture, and he developed a desire to learn the language to interact with more people. In 1980, Father Gons was ordained priest of Notre Dame de l’Assomption church in Essaouira.

“As a Christian, I have a lot of respect for my host country. Usually, the average stay of a resident priest is around five or six years, but I chose to stay longer. My idea is that, in addition to my duties as a priest, I need to know more about others and give them the chance to know more about me. I understood that it was not going to be easy and would take a long time. To achieve my goal, I needed to know the specificities of the city and to interact and socialize with local people in the market, in the streets, and in the neighborhood,” said Father Gons.”

“When I first came to Essaouira in 1980, people were not used to seeing priests, especially since the church didn’t have a priest for the 10 years prior to my arrival. But I think that because of my stay here, people became familiar with me and started accepting me as a part of the community. There is a word that I really like. It’s ‘s’apprivoiser,’ which means to become accustomed to and familiar with something, but it goes both ways.”

Father Gons continues to explain: “People should ‘s’apprivoiser’ and learn about each other and how to accept each other. It’s not healthy for communities to close themselves off. This is not God’s project. God’s project is that humans should know each other. Communities should know more about each other and help others know more about them. And this takes time and work on a daily basis. To do that, I had to get out of the church, meet people, and interact with them as a person for more than 40 years. I explain to people who I am, and I hear their stories, too. There is a lot of work to do when people want to mutually learn about one another.”

The Only Church Bells that Ring in Morocco

The first church in Essaouira, called “L’église anglicane,” or the Anglican church, was built in the old medina. It was founded in response to the needs of English merchants who lived there at that time.

With increasing French presence and subsequent increase in the number of Christians who came to Morocco in the 19th century leading up to the establishment of the protectorate, another church was built outside the medina, which became known as Notre Dame de l’Assomption church. Today, this church is the only functioning Catholic church in Essaouira, and it is the only church in Morocco whose bells still ring on Sundays.

Notre Dame de l’Assomption Church, the only functioning Catholic church in Essaouira. Photo: Amal Mansouri/HAF

At first, the church received mainly French people, but, with time, people of different nationalities from all around the world started to visit. According to Father Gons, the diversity of the visitors is due both to globalization and to the few tour guides who do their best to mention that there is a church in the city that is still open for anyone who wants to visit. In addition, during the holidays, many Moroccan students whose research projects focus on Morocco’s multicultural heritage visit the church to learn more about its history. “Overall, it is always good and refreshing to interact with them. It has made me more aware of the openness of the youth to other cultures,” Father Gons Added.

Heartwarming Memories

When Father Gons was asked about special memories of his stay in Morocco, his eyes lit up as he recalled a touching story. “I was visiting Sefrou, and it was my first night staying in the house there. In the morning when I woke up, I found a bowl with figs and another one with harira at the front door. The food was from the neighbors whom I didn’t know at all. Apparently, they had heard that there was someone new in the house [where I was staying], and they had left the food for them to eat. It was very heartwarming.”

Father Gons recounted another memory with a Muslim family in Erfoud. “In the past, there were a lot of [nuns] in hospitals all over Morocco whose services were highly appreciated. A woman in Erfoud was hospitalized in Fes and was treated by one of the nuns. After her recovery, she kept in touch with the nun and continued to invite her to Erfoud. I was planning a trip to Erfoud, and, by coincidence, I went with this sister to visit the woman’s family. They really welcomed us like royalty. I still remember every detail of that trip and how kind the people were to us. I still have some dear friends from there and would like to visit that city again.”

Father Gons emphasized the importance of media as a means to educate the younger generation about the importance of the preservation of Morocco’s interreligious heritage, in addition to including it in educational programs. ”One more thing that, in my opinion, is very important is the role of the family in instilling in their children values of acceptance and mutual respect.”

Small Acts Matter

Seven years ago, Father Gons had a sign installed that indicated the direction of the church in front of a hotel on the main road in Essaouira. The hotel manager at the time was very helpful and generous enough to make sure the installation was successful. With time, it has become dusty and difficult to read. Due to its central location, the sign, if redone, could be more visible to visitors, who may be pleasantly surprised to find out that there is a church in Essaouira. Priest Gons is proud of this achievement and sees a need to update the signage. “I feel like these are the small things that lead eventually to big events. It’s the small aspects of living together that matter to me.”

“The second achievement that I’m really proud of is that we still ring the church bells on Sundays. I think that we are the only church in Morocco that still rings the bells. Ringing those bells is a sign that is deeply Christian, and now people are quite accustomed to it. If there is a Sunday when I don’t ring the bells, people–my neighbors and friends–wonder if something is wrong or if I’m sick. However, as I keep mentioning, this took a lot of time and effort.”

In conclusion, Father Gons offered a piece of wisdom that is applicable in perhaps all areas of life and work: “The reason I’m telling you about these small achievements or what I’d like to call small victories, is because they are very significant and impactful. Thus, when we talk about improving a certain situation, it’s not always about big projects and taking major actions. If we can, then it’s great, but if this is not possible, then small steps do count, too, and they are also important and meaningful.”

This article is part of a series of interviews that celebrates Interfaith Harmony Week (February 1-7, 2023) and have been facilitated by the USAID Dakira program, which is implemented by the High Atlas Foundation and its partners and aims to strengthen inter-religious and inter-ethnic solidarity through community efforts that preserve cultural heritage in Morocco.

The article was completed with the support of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), and the High Atlas Foundation is solely responsible for its content, which does not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or the Government of the United States.