Churches at Risk, Some French Considerations

by Lucie Fusade


A few weeks ago I attended the Conference organised by the Churches Conferences Trust (CCT), the England national charity saving historic churches at risk. Having All Souls, Bolton, as a framework, a newly regenerated church[1], the focus was on ‘Revealing the Past Securing the Future’[2], discussing the importance of community involvement in keeping churches alive. Most of the discussions were about innovative and extended use of churches, arguing that, as quoted by one of the speaker, “the use of a church is transitory but the building is not”. The main lesson to bring home from this conference was that churches could be a focal point for regenerating local communities. First people, then historic environment, potential use over architectural history. Since a few years, there is a drastic shift in what is considered in the decision whether or not to keep a church. This is proved to be successful at All Souls, but having an Architectural History background it makes me wondered about what is left of the value of the historic fabric, and of the recognition of the architect’s genius. This is subject to on-going discussion and we could write more than one article about this debate. Beside, one could argue that the reuse of a holy place is not without provoking debates, but at least thoughts are innovative and actions are taken to save historic churches and it tends to be successful.


These discussions made me reflect on the situation of Parish church in France. There is not a week without a Parish church being added to the churches at risk list and April 7th has marked the sad count of more than 300 churches at risk in France, including 28 in Paris[3]. Since 2000, 24 churches have been tore down, mainly for safety reason. Some unfortunate famous cases are Saint-Blaise’s church, where the vault collapsed in 1998 and had not been repaired ever since or Saint-Jacques’ church in the north of France, where it has been years since walls are covered by cracks, weakening the entire structure and opening it to rain penetration, and where the only remaining user of the church was a tree[4]. These are of course extreme examples, but they should be a warning for all those churches at risk.


Destruction of Saint-Blaise’s church, Le Breuil, France, in January 2013, a early 20th century church. ©Observatoire du patrimoine religieux

Destruction of Saint-Blaise’s church, Le Breuil, France, in January 2013, a early 20th century church.
©Observatoire du patrimoine religieux [5]

Destruction of Saint-Jacques’ church, Abbeville, France in April 2013, a mid 19th century gothic revival church. ©Le Courrier Picard

Destruction of Saint-Jacques’ church, Abbeville, France in April 2013,
a mid 19th century gothic revival church.
©Le Courrier Picard [6]


Although Paris City Council has promised millions to restore its churches[7] the French Capital is not a role model. Many valuable churches are in a critical condition and it is no surprise to see many safety nets on them, among these, Saint-Augustin church, built by famous architect of the former Halles, Victor Baltard, at the end of the 19th century. Earlier this year I visited Saint Merry, which is on the World Monuments Fund Watch List 2014[8], and was shocked to see that the reality is worst than the pictures: all painted ceilings and walls of the chapels are falling apart[9]. Although these millions are a significant effort, if they come, all heritage organisations argue that they will not be enough for the main three Parisian churches facing critical condition. It is perhaps time to look for funding from the private sector or to consider innovative funding such as the National Lottery in England.


Current state of some of the wall painting in one of the chapel, Saint-Merry’s church, Paris. ©La Tribune de l’Art, Didier Rykner

Current state of some of the wall painting in one of the chapel, Saint-Merry’s church, Paris.
©La Tribune de l’Art, Didier Rykner  [10]

Reasons for this situation are several. On one hand, as reported by the Future for Religious Heritage, all across Europe, church attendance drops, and France is no exception. This leads to more and more vacant churches that eventually become neglected and at risk due to the lack of use and care. Where England, specifically through the CCT, has found new innovative way of using these churches, focusing on community-based regeneration, France has not, yet.

On the other hand, the fact that churches are religious buildings by essence has lead to a lack of interest and regular maintenance. Since the 1905 French law on the separation of The Church and The State religious buildings are national goods and property of the state and local government, at the exception of Alsace (which became French in 1918). Therefore, the State owns and is responsible for Cathedrals and municipalities for Parish churches. The Catholic Church as the user but cannot take decision regarding the maintenance of the building. The situation is different for protestant churches and synagogues as they belonged to worship associations [11]. Since a century, caring for Catholic churches has not been the priority in such a secular country. Already in 1913 concerns were raised by Maurice Barrès on the future of Catholic churches in “La grande pitié des églises de France” (The Great Pity of French Churches). Nowadays and especially in this difficult economic context, the fact that these churches are of historic and architectural significance is not enough anymore to preserve them. These buildings are first seen as religious buildings. They have to be of interest first of all for local government and local community. After hundreds of years standing, these historic buildings have to face the twenty first century, its economic break down and the decreasing number of church attendance. Faith is changing and so need the fate of churches.


So what is done and what could be done?

Many organisations, such as l’Observatoire du patrimoine religieux[12] (The Observatory of religious heritage) are surveying churches in France and pointing out those at risk. Patrimoine en Blog[13] is keeping tracks, through published articles, of all churches that are neglected, destroyed or saved. With about 46,000 Catholic churches in France, surveying and having a clear idea of their current situation and condition is very important. Many other advocates, such as The famous Art Tribute[14], are reporting on this situation, but practical solutions are now necessary. Having millions spent for conservation from now and then is one thing but churches long for more sustainable changes.

Should destruction of non-protected neglected churches be the easiest solution? The answer is obviously no. The ownership of these churches is not going to change nor the possibility and willingness of many rather small local governments to invest millions to undertake conservation work. The solution therefore, seems to be towards local communities and private sector. Interests for these buildings, especially when they are the only iconic asset of a village, have to raise again. Better understanding of the history of the building is often source of local interest. Local interest will likely generate willingness to preserve and invest in these churches. In this regard, La Fondation du Patrimoine, the national charity caring after un-protected historic buildings at risk, has developed many conservation project based on crowdfunding[15], raising local support at the same time. On a National level, British churches are lucky to have the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF). Although this is a rather controversial topic for these French national properties, I believe that more private funding and more private body involved in funding should be considered. To repeat one of the CCT Conference conclusions, it is time that France turns these churches at risk into buildings of opportunities.




















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