Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

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Papa Panov should be Father Martin

Le Père Martin, a Christmas story about an old shoemaker who wanted to see Jesus, appeared over 130 years ago. It was the work of Ruben Saillens, writer, musician and Baptist pastor of Marseilles. Unbeknownst to him, the tale was soon translated into English and circulated without the name of the author.

The Russian writer Leo Tolstoy read the English translation of the tale, and, thinking it was an old English folk tale, made an adaptation in Russian. Tolstoy’s version quickly spread around the world, no doubt aided by the renown of his name.

When Ruben Saillens learned that his tale was circulating under the name of another, he wrote to Tolstloy, who apologized to him in 1888. Ten years later, seeing that the tale attributed to Tolstoy was still in circulation, Ruben Saillens again sent him a courteous complaint. Tolstoy replied with the following letter (written in French):

As I have written to you, in all the Russian editions of my writings, it is said that the story Where love is, there is God, has been borrowed from a translation made from French. (1) With regard to the translations that are made of this story in America or elsewhere, it is completely impossible for me to control them, especially since more than 15 years ago I surrendered all of the copyrights for all my works published after 1881 in Russia as well as abroad.
Receive, Sir, the assurance of my distinguished feelings.
Leo Tolstoy
March 20, 1899
(1) and which is none other than your story: Father Martin

Tolstoy’s story, apart from being located in Russia, seems to give less importance to the Bible. In the tale by Ruben Saillens, the old shoemaker, Father Martin has had misfortunes in his life and it seems that he has recently obtained a large Bible that he is often seen reading. In Tolstoy’s story, Papa Panov searches for the old family Bible, which he has not read for a long time. From this point, the stories are almost identical.

If anyone wants to have the story written by Ruben Saillens, the copyright is now expired and I can send it by email (text only, without illustrations). Also, because I have been unable to find this tale in English I have translated it. Send me an email at the address found under Contact Me at the top to request this story in French or English, or both.

Papa Martin and the young woman

[Part 3 of Ruben Saillens’ le Père Martin, translated from French.]

A few homeward bound revellers passed by, but the old shoemaker barely glanced at them. The marketplace vendors came with their small carts. He knew them too well to pay much attention to them.

After an hour or two, his attention was drawn to a young, poorly dressed woman, carrying a child in her arms. She was so pale, so thin, that the old man’s heart was touched. Perhaps she made him think of his daughter. He opened the door and called her.

“Hey, you there!”

The poor woman heard him call and turned in surprise. She saw Papa Martin beckoning her to come.

“You don’t appear to be doing well, ma belle.” (“Ma belle” is the most commonly used expression in old Marseilles. It is used indiscriminately for the fishwives of the Vivaux market, for laundry women, and all women, young or old, rich or poor, who have anything to do in these quarters.)

“I’m going to the hospital,” replied the young woman. “I hope they will admit me with my child. My husband is out at sea and I have been waiting for him for three months.”

“Like I wait for my son,” thought the shoemaker.

“He doesn’t come and now I don’t have a sou left and I’m sick. I really need to go to the hospital.”

“Poor woman,” said the old man tenderly. “You’ll have a bit of bread while you warm up, won’t you?”

“At least a cup of milk for the little one. Take this, I haven’t touched it yet. Warm yourself and let me take the little bundle. I have cared for babies in my day, I know how to handle them. He is good looking, your boy. What! Didn’t you put any shoes on him?”

“I don’t have any,” sighed the poor woman.

“Wait then. I have a pair that will just suit him.”

And the old worker, amidst the protestations and thanks of the mother, went to find the shoes that he had looked at the night before and placed them on the feet of the child. They were just the right size.

Martin stifled a sigh however, in letting go of his best workmanship, the best he had done in his life.

“Bah!” he said, “I have no more need of them for anyone now.” and he returned to the window. He searched the street in such an anxious manner that the young woman was surprised.

“What are you looking for?” she asked.

“I am waiting for my Master,” replied Martin.

The young woman did not understand, or did not care to understand.

“Do you know the Lord Jesus?” he asked.

“Certainly,” she replied while crossing herself. “It’s not such a long time ago that I learned my catechism.”

“It is Him that I am awaiting,” said the old man.

“And you believe He is going to pass by here?”

“He told me so.”

“Impossible! Oh, how I would like to stay with you to see Him myself, if it’s true. . . But you must be mistaken. And then, I need to go to be admitted to the hospital.”

“Can you read?” asked the shoemaker.


“Well then, take this little book,” he said, placing a portion of the gospel in her hands. “Read it carefully, and it will not be exactly the same as if you would see Him, but it will be nearly the same thing, and perhaps you will see Him later.”

The young woman looked doubtful, but took the book and left, saying thank you, and the old man returned to his place before the window.

— to be continued

Papa Martin and the street sweeper

[Installment two of a Christmas tale by Ruben Saillens. Original title: le Père Martin. Translated from French.]

Long before daylight the little lamp of the shoemaker was lit. He put more coal into his stove, where the fire had not yet gone out and busied himself preparing his coffee. Then he hurried to make his bed, then placed himself in front of the window to catch the first glimmers of daylight and the first passers-by.

Little by little the light appeared, and Martin soon saw a street sweeper, the earliest of all workers. He hardly noticed him, really, he had more important things to do than watch a street sweeper!

Nevertheless it appeared to be cold outside, fog kept appearing on the window and the sweeper, after a few vigorous sweeps of his broom, felt a need for more vigorous exercise to warm himself by slapping his arms with all his strength and stamping the ground, first with one foot, then the other.

“The good man,” Martin said to himself, “he’s cold out there. It’s a holiday today, but not for him. Why don’t I offer him a coffee?” And he tapped the window.

The sweeper turned his head, saw Papa Martin in the window and came closer.

The shoemaker opened his door, “Come in,” he said, “come and warm yourself.”

“I won’t refuse, thank you. What miserable weather, you would think we were in Russia.”

“Will you accept a cup of coffee?”

“Oh, such a good man you are. With pleasure. Better to celebrate Christmas Eve late than not at all.”

The shoemaker quickly served his guest, then returned to the window to look up and down the street to see if anyone was passing.

“What are you looking for outside?” asked the sweeper.

“I’m waiting for my Master.”

“Your Master? You are working for a chain then? It’s too early to be out checking on his workers. Besides, it’s a holiday for you today.”

“I was speaking of another Master,” replied the shoemaker.


“A Master who might come at any time and who promised to come today. You must know his name; it’s Jesus.”

“I have heard tell of him, but I don’t know him. Where does he live?”

Papa Martin then began to tell the sweeper the account he had read the past evening, adding a few details, turning toward the window as he spoke.

“And that is who you are waiting for?” said the sweeper when he understood. “I don’t think you will see him in the way you expect. But no matter, you have helped me to see Him. Could you lend me your book, Mister . . .”

“Martin,” said the shoemaker.

“Mister Martin, I guarantee that you have not wasted your time this morning, even if it is hardly day. Thank you and good-bye.”

The street sweeper went on his way and Papa Martin again placed himself in front of the window.

Papa Martin

[First instalment of a Christmas story by Ruben Saillens, original title Le Père Martin, translated from French.]

You don’t know Papa Martin? He is only a shoemaker whose workshop, living room, bedroom and kitchen are all together in a little wooden building at the corner of Place de Lenche and rue des Martégales in the centre of the old quarter of Marseilles. There he lives, not too rich, not too poor, resoling shoes for everyone in the neighbourhood, for since his eyes have grown old he doesn’t make new shoes anymore.

The fishermen know him well, and the sellers in the marketplace, as well as the schoolchildren who pass by his door in swarms.

He has repaired shoes for them all, he knows where a shoe pinches. The mothers don’t trust anyone else to put solid heels on the shoes of their children who wear out the best store bought shoes in two weeks.

Papa Martin has recently gained a reputation for being devout. Since he began going to those meetings where they sing and pray and speak of God he has changed. He has a large book which you can often see him reading if you look in the window of his shop. He appears to be happier than he was before, this book seems to be the cause.

Papa Martin has had his sorrows. His wife died more than twenty years ago. His son went to sea and hasn’t returned in six years. As for his daughter, if one asks what has become of her a shadow passes over his face and he only shakes his head.

It is Christmas Eve. Outside it is cold and damp, but the shop of Papa Martin is warm and well lit.

He has finished his work and eaten his supper. His stove rumbles and seated in his wicker arm chair, glasses on his nose, he leans over the table and reads, “There was no place for them in the inn.” (Luke 2:7).

He stops here to reflect. “No place,” he murmurs, “no place for Him!”

He looks around the clean and neat little room, “There would have been room for Him here, if He had come. What happiness it would give to receive Him! I would have given them the whole place. . . No place for Him. Oh, why doesn’t He come and ask me for a place?”

I am alone, I have no one to care about. Everyone has their family and their friends; who is there in the whole world to care about me? I would love it if He would come to keep me company.”

“What if today was the first Christmas? If this was the night for the Saviour to come into the world? What if He would choose my shop for His coming? How I would serve Him and worship Him. Why doesn’t He show Himself today like He used to?”

“What would I give Him? The Bible says the Magi brought gold, incense and myrrh. I have nothing like that, they were rich, those Magi. But what did the shepherds bring? It doesn’t say, perhaps they didn’t have time. Ah, I know what I would give Him!”

With that, Papa Martin got up and reached up to a shelf where two baby shoes were carefully wrapped.

“This is what I would give Him, my best workmanship. The mother would be happy! But what am I thinking?” He sighed, “How can I imagine such things? As if my Saviour needs my shop and my shoes!”

The old man sank into his chair. It was getting late and it appears that he fell asleep.

“Martin!” said a gentle voice close beside him.

“Who’s there?” cried the cobbler. But as he looked towards the door, he saw no one.

“Martin, you wanted to see me. Watch the street tomorrow, from dawn until evening, you will see me passing by. Try to recognize me, for I will not make myself known to you.”

The voice ceased; Martin rubbed his eyes. The oil in his lamp had run out and it was dark. Midnight sounded from all the clocks: Christmas had come.

“It was Him,” said the old man. “He promised to pass by my shop. Was it only a dream? No matter! I will wait for Him. I have never seen Him, but haven’t I admired His portrait in all the churches? I will surely recognize Him.”

With those thoughts Martin crawled into bed and for a long time his mind was occupied with the strange words that he had heard.

— To be continued —

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