The late-morning Sunday church service was ending at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Mount Lebanon, Pennsylvania. As the priest led the recession from the altar, organist Bryan Sable struck up a hymn that quickly morphed into “La Marseillaise.”
“It was a gut instinct,” Sable said Monday of his impromptu decision to play France’s national anthem. “It felt like a tiny tribute that I could pay to the people of France” after Friday night’s terrorist attacks in its capital.
Spontaneous demonstrations of solidarity and empathy have been surfacing around the United States since Islamic State terrorists laid siege to six Paris sites, killing at least 129 people and wounding hundreds more.
Across the United States, U.S. flags are flying at half-staff through Thursday in remembrance of the victims, on order of President Barack Obama. French flags are popping up – on flagpoles, on T-shirts and on social media. Facebook quickly invited users to shade their profile pictures with bars of red, white and blue.
Public radio’s popular “Prairie Home Companion” opened its Saturday-evening program with host Garrison Keillor calling for a moment of silence before asking audience members to rise “in respect for the courage and the resolve of the people of Paris.”
“A great city of free and civilized people is terribly vulnerable and we all have to look after each other. The American people stand with all of you in solidarity,” he said in English, and a female translator echoed the sentiments in French. Then came a rousing instrumental version of “La Marseillaise.”
At St. Paul’s, organist Sable plunged into his Sunday morning tribute after searching his smartphone for a PDF of the sheet music – at least the melody line. “I play by ear and I improvise, and I wasn’t entirely sure about the second half” of the song, he confessed in a phone interview. “I was playing from a 4-inch screen.”
The suburban Pittsburgh church has “a few French parishioners,” said Sable, who has some French heritage himself. The crowd of about 200 was thinning out, he said, but “I heard about 10 voices, in their best high-school French, trying to sing along.”
He said he knew of other U.S. church musicians who’d planned to salute France by performing works by Maurice Ravel and other French composers.
At Alliance Française of Chicago, the cultural organization’s second-largest U.S. chapter, well-wishers tucked floral bouquets into a metal gate and lit candles near its base. “It’s really lovely,” executive director Jack McCord said Monday.
It was his first day back at work after a trip to Paris, where he happened to be at the time of the attacks. “I was having dinner on the Left Bank,” he explained, noting he “went back to my hotel and watched everything” on TV.
He said sympathizers held vigils outside the French consulate in Chicago on Saturday and Sunday.
The Midwestern city’s links to the French date back to at least the 17th century, when French-Canadian explorer Jacques Marquette came through the region along its waterways.
French connections have broadened throughout the globe, a fan of the U.S.-based Disney entertainment conglomerate reminded readers. With the hashtags Paris and Vive le France, the fan tweeted: “There’s so much that we share that it’s time we’re aware it’s a small world after all.”