They’re both 12 years old, and they’re both a little shy. But Eugène Danembaye and Katia are the entire youth program of the Branch of Chartres, a town on the plain of Beauce, southwest of Paris.
Eugène and Katia live in a city known for its cathedral, a twin-towered Gothic masterpiece with some of the most beautiful stained glass windows in the world. The towers of Chartres can be seen for miles over the broad, flat fields where most of France’s wheat is grown. Everyone knows the cathedral; it’s a landmark of the town and of the nation.
But for Eugène and Katia, church takes place in another part of town, in a building that is far from famous.
“People are surprised when I tell them where our branch is,” Katia says. “It’s a nice, clean building. But they wonder why, when there’s such a beautiful cathedral, I don’t go to church there.”
If they talk to her very long, though, they’ll find out she likes going to the branch.
“We learn about the gospel here,” Katia says. “We learn the truth and we learn to love each other.”
Eugène also gets a reaction when he tells friends he goes to church.
“The guys at school don’t want to deal with religion,” he says. “Their church has a religion class, but they feel forced into it. So when I tell them I go to church every Sunday, they’re quite surprised.”
Eugène used to think all churches were pretty much the same. Then the missionaries came to his door and started teaching his family. Gradually he came to understand that the gospel has been restored, and that there’s a great role in it for young men. He was baptized and, when he came of age, ordained a deacon.
“Now, I’m the only Aaronic Priesthood holder in the entire city,” he says matter-of-factly. “There are Melchizedek Priesthood holders, and they help me. But when we have sacrament meeting, I pass the sacrament.”
Like the spires on the cathedral that rises over their town, Eugène and Katia are not identical. Katia is the oldest of five children. Eugène has one older brother, age 27. Katia grew up LDS. Eugène and his mother are converts, the only members in their family.
“I like to read, play the harp, ride my bike, play checkers, and ride horses when I visit my grandmother in the country,” says Katia. “His hobby,” she says, pointing at Eugène, “is eating!”
Eugène takes the teasing well, because he knows it’s true.
“I love pizza,” he says. “It’s just catching on in France. But cake’s my favorite.”
“What flavors are there?”
“Eating’s not all he does,” Katia continues, pleased with her own joke. “He likes to sleep, too.”
When the ribbing dies down, Eugène declares that he also enjoys sports, particularly track, volleyball, and tennis.
Other differences? Eugène says it’s no problem for him to get up on Sunday. “I just get out of bed,” he says.
But for Katia, “Sometimes I get lazy or upset or grouchy, and I grumble. But I know it’s a commandment, and I want to come.”
Even though they have some differences, like the famous twin towers of the cathedral the two young members from Chartres share a common base as well.
“We both love to sing,” Katia says. “I like it because it makes me happy.”
“I love it too,” Eugène says, “except when my voice cracks!”
Ask them to sing, and they’ll go through hymn after hymn. Half an hour later, they’re still at it, a cappella—and they know all the words. Listening, you get the feeling they enjoy being in their chapel, a sanctuary they aren’t eager to leave.
“Everyday life is busy,” Eugène says. “School is hard; not only the schedule (which includes English, art, history, geography, math, French, science, physics, and sports), but also the pressure.” French students face a strenuous academic gauntlet that ends with the baccalauréat, an examination covering everything they’ve learned from first grade through high school. And there are other concerns as well.
The girls at school keep asking me to smoke,” Katia joins in. “And I know as I get into the higher grades, there will be other temptations, and they will get stronger. So I have to work right now to strengthen myself against them.”
That’s where the Church comes in again.
“In our little branch, we know each other well,” Katia says. “It’s like a big family, close, personal, together.”
Eugène puts the youth program of Chartres in true perspective. “We may not be many,” he says. “Mais on est assez (‘But we are enough’).”
“There may be only two of us now,” Katia says. “But there are 15 children in the Primary. We’re looking to the future, setting an example. If we do well now, someday there will be a good youth program for them.”
Such an attitude truly does make Eugène and Katia stand tall. They could complain that there aren’t more young people in their branch. They could say there are never activities just for them. But instead, they’re more concerned about contributing than about being entertained. They’re more concerned about others than they are about themselves.
Sure, the Church in Chartres is small for now. But it’s growing. And 12-year-olds like Eugène and Katia, building for the future, are becoming towers of strength even though they’re young.