Wife's recovery inspires chapel


August 16, 1993|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,Staff Writer

When his wife was diagnosed as having breast cancer, Fernand Tersiguel made a pact with God: Lord, if you cure my wife, I'll build a chapel where we can pray every day.

That was May last year. Two months later, after his wife, Odette, had undergone a mastectomy, her doctor said that she needed no follow-up treatment and that her prognosis was excellent.

Today, if you follow the stone path into the woods behind the Tersiguels' house in western Baltimore County, a stunning sight greets you: a gorgeous chapel, reaching three stories toward God.

Mr. and Mrs. Tersiguel, who own the posh Tersiguel's restaurant in Ellicott City, beam as they lead you inside.

"A lot of times you forget who God is," Mr. Tersiguel says in a French accent. "But when you're really hit hard, it brings you back to reality."

He wants to say more but struggles, then finally says, "I don't have the words to really explain it."

The Rev. John B. Harrison of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Roman Catholic Church in Ellicott City does. Father Harrison is a friend of the Tersiguels.

"That's part of human nature," Father Harrison says. "Whenever people are in dire straits, they'll make a promise: If such-and-such happens, I'll go on a pilgrimage, or I'll say so many prayers a day for a year.

"Here's a case where he says he'll build a chapel, and he did."

Mr. Tersiguel assembled friends who are artisans, and his wife worked with them to design the structure. She says the small chapels that are prevalent in her native Brittany, a region in northwestern France, were her model.

The chapel, which was built in five months, is 30 feet high and has a cross on top. It has five stained-glass windows, a 200-year-old church bell, a flagstone floor, three Amish benches for pews, an altar, statues of the Virgin Mary and St. Joseph, flowers, plants and a candelabrum.

It is simple and elegant.

"I have used the term 'a little jewel up there in the woods,' " says Doris Thompson, a longtime friend. "Who builds a chapel today, you know?"

Mrs. Thompson, former owner and editor of the Howard County Times, attended the chapel's dedication May 11, when the Tersiguels threw a big party and, because it was their 30th wedding anniversary, renewed their vows in their chapel.

It was one of the few times they have opened it to the public. They have allowed three weddings at the chapel, but otherwise it is their private shrine for prayer and meditation. They insisted that "western Baltimore County" be the only description of where they live.

"It's something between themselves and the Lord," says the Rev. Tom Donaghy of St. Paul's Roman Catholic Church in Ellicott City, who, along with Father Harrison, presided at the dedication.

"Fernand and Odette are a plain, ordinary couple from Brittany," Father Donaghy says. "They're very warm, very simple in their approach.

"Knowing them as I do, it makes perfect sense what they've done. They've created a place that is quiet and peaceful."

The Tersiguels came to the United States 30 years ago, when he was 21 and she was 20. They planned to make money in New York City and return to France to open a restaurant.

But they opened restaurants in this country, instead, first in New York City, then in Ellicott City. In 1975 they opened Chez Fernand in Ellicott City. It was destroyed by fire in 1984.

They reopened Chez Fernand in Baltimore near the Shot Tower but after five years returned to Ellicott City's historic district, which Mrs. Tersiguel says reminds her of France. In 1990 they opened Tersiguel's in an old house on Main Street.

Mrs. Tersiguel did some of the cooking, and Mr. Tersiguel greeted diners at the door. Life couldn't have been better. Then Mrs. Tersiguel became ill.

"When you're told your spouse has cancer, it's very difficult," Mr. Tersiguel says. "Don't forget, we've been together 30 years. I could not see my life without her."

Now Mrs. Tersiguel returns to the doctor for checkups every six months, but she says she feels good, and she is again cooking at the restaurant several days a week.

"You have to fight the cancer," she says. "You have to be open about it, and talk to people and ask questions. Or else it will be worse."

Mr. Tersiguel remains a fixture at the door.

"I'm a lucky man," he says. "I talk to people every day who are unhappy with what they're doing. But I love the restaurant. I love what I'm doing. And I love my wife."

Mrs. Tersiguel sits silently at his side. She lets him do the talking, but she matches his smile.

Life is good again. And when the Tersiguels aren't in their restaurant, they just might be in their own chapel, praying and giving thanks.

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