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Heir to the home

A Loyola senior is the heir to the ancient home of her martyr-saint ancestor in France

On April 10, 2014

As a young girl, Music Business Senior Joy Cornay never gave her family name much thought when she flew with her parents to the small town of Loudun, France.
In Loudun, there is a park called the Jardin Jean-Charles Cornay. There is the theater, Cinéma Le Cornay. But the most well-known landmark of them all, is the Maison Cornay, an ancient Medieval home - a home that Joy Cornay's family had owned the rights to for over 60 years yet had no idea until nearly a decade ago.
"I didn't really understand it then," Joy Cornay, now 22 years old, said. "I was 10 years old. I didn't understand it when we visited the house the next year, either. And then a few years down the road, the history behind it just hit me."
The house, which dates back to the 1700s, was left unoccupied after its previous occupants were shot and killed during a World War II Nazi raid. This is only one part of the history of the Cornays, a family that calls the Catholic Saint Jean-Charles Cornay a direct relative.
Billy Cornay, Joy's father and an ear, nose and throat doctor in Birmingham, Alabama, said that he has always been fascinated by the history of his family.
"As a child, we all knew we were related to Saint Jean-Charles Cornay," Billy Cornay said. "We actually were invited to his canonization in 1988 by Pope John Paul II. But we didn't know much beyond the fact that we were related."
For Cornay, his discoveries were purely by chance.
Two decades ago, as Billy Cornay began extensively researching his family's genealogy in his spare time, his Internet searches and tracing of the family tree always brought him to a stop.
"I kept coming up with Loudun, which is the town where the house is," Billy Cornay said. "But there were no family members left in Loudun. I kept running into a brick wall somewhere in the 1940s."
The ultimate breakthrough for Billy Cornay came about 12 years ago on a hot August day.
He'd taken his two young children, Joy and Will, out for a breakfast croissant at one of the French bakeries they frequented in Birmingham before taking the kids to school.
"A friend of ours comes flying in the door, venting in French," Billy Cornay said. "She's saying 'Where is Dr. Billy Cornay? I need Dr. Billy Cornay right away.'"
The woman's husband had been involved in a car accident that injured his ear, and she asked Cornay to help. Later that day when Billy Cornay was stitching the husbands ear, they began chatting in French.
Billy Cornay shared with the patient that he'd been researching his own French genealogy, but that he'd hit dead ends in Loudun, France. The patient told Billy Cornay that he has family in that region and agreed to call his father up for some answers.
"He then calls me up later that afternoon and tells me that I own a house," Billy Cornay said. "He says, 'You're the only heir in all of France.' He tells me that there's a house in my family's name that has been empty for over 60 years. I'd have to go over and claim myself as heir, and then wait six months to prove that no one has better rights to the house."
The news was shocking to Billy Cornay, and he and his wife immediately began planning a trip to France. The house itself is an architect's dream with six bedrooms, six and a half bathrooms and two working kitchens. There's a courtyard, a cellar and high ceilings.
"It is not a chateau," Billy Cornay said. "It is what we call a Hôtel Particulier, a very large house in the city. It still looks like it would have in the late 1700s."
After waiting the six-month period, the Cornay family officially received the rights to the home, and the entire family planned several trips as restoration of the house began. Joy Cornay says that the historical artifacts they found littered around the house were some of her favorite discoveries.
"When we first started renovating the house, we discovered some creepy things, like two swastikas sketched onto a wall," Joy Cornay said. "There was also a destroyed wall where people had clearly been hiding during the war. There was a cellar that isn't connected to the house that we found after a while, with thousands of shattered pottery dishes, old parasols and several lanterns."
Saint Jean-Charles Cornay, named a saint for his martyrdom in Vietnam in the late 19th century, lived in the house for many years before it was passed on to later generations of Cornays.
Joy Cornay said that while she's proud of her family, she hasn't wanted those around her to make assumptions because of it.
"I don't want to be that girl that's related to a saint, so I don't talk about it," she said.
Joy Cornay does admit that her visits to Loudun are interesting, because in a small town like Loudun, her family name practically makes her famous.
"I feel like a movie star when I'm over there," Joy Cornay said, laughing. "It's like, 'You're a Cornay?' There's a historical plaque on the house, and when people do tours of the town, that's one of the stops. Everyone in the town knows where it is. It's a beautiful home."
Billy Cornay said he loved the village from the minute he set foot there.
"You know, this is where I come from," Billy Cornay said. "This is where my genes are."

Cherie LeJeune can be reached at 

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