Thousands of Religious Buildings Closing in France
EARLY this year French television viewers and newspaper readers could hardly believe their eyes and ears when they learned that thousands of churches and chapels in France, mostly Catholic, have shut their doors and that the buildings are either standing empty and falling into ruins or being used for a variety of surprising purposes.
Yet they had to bow to the facts, for this startling news came from a most authoritative source, none other than the French Minister of Cultural Affairs, Monsieur Edmond Michelet. Reporting on his disclosure, Paris Sunday newspaper Le Journal du Dimanche wrote the following, under the headline “18,000 Derelict Churches”:
“Eighteen thousand churches, chapels and oratories in France have been or are about to be abandoned. This frightening figure was disclosed by Monsieur Michelet during the TV program ‘Facing the Press.’
“This means that sooner or later over half of the places of worship in France are doomed to dilapidation and plundering. Not since the Wars of Religion [1562-1598], if then, have the churches suffered so much. Never a week goes by without one hearing of a church being closed and either converted for some profane use . . . or falling into disrepair and even being plundered. This is happening more and more frequently.
“In some depopulated villages, abandoned churches have been looted by passersby or specialized gangs. In the little Basses-Alpes village of Clignon-Haut, children were found to be dressing up in magnificent eighteenth-century embroidered copes [ecclesiastical vestments] left in the vestry.”—January 18, 1970.
Deploring the acts of vandalism committed against religious buildings in France, a French provincial news magazine stated, under the title “18,000 Churches for Sale”:
“How many small rural chapels have been devastated! People started by taking away sacred objects, statuettes and taper stands. Then they began dismounting stained glass windows and fresco paintings. Finally they dismantled the sculptured stonework, the doors and the pews. Who worries? Who protests? Strangely enough, the ones who seem the most alarmed are laymen [not the clergy!].”—Hebdo-St-Etienne, May 10, 1969.
Although the vast majority of churches closed in France are Roman Catholic, reports show that quite a number of French Protestant Reformed churches and even some Jewish synagogues have ceased functioning and are being used for some secular purpose. The Church of Scotland has had to close its church in Menton, on the French Riviera, and the Church of England has abandoned its churches in Hyères, near the Mediterranean coast, and in Évian, on the shores of Lake Geneva.
SEMINARIES, MONASTERIES AND CONVENTS
In addition to the thousands of churches and chapels abandoned throughout France, scores of other religious buildings are closing their doors or being sold and used for other purposes.
Even in such Catholic strongholds as Brittany, the seminary or training college for future priests in Quimper has had to close down. In Normandy, three big seminaries are being shut in Bayeux, Coutances and Sées. They will be replaced in October 1970 by a single training college in Caen. The huge Bayeux seminary has been training future priests since 1675, and the one in Sées was founded in 1653.
In the north of France, the seminaries in Cambrai and Arras are being closed down and, from October 1970 onward, candidates for the priesthood in these two dioceses will have to go to Lille. These examples, taken from the west and north of France, are typical of what is happening throughout the country. As one regional newspaper stated: “The North and West were the only regions which had not yet regrouped [their seminaries].”—La Voix du Nord, March 14, 1970.
Furthermore, a great number of monasteries, convents and abbeys are closing their doors. Some of these religious institutions, such as Senanque Abbey in southern France, had been in existence for eight hundred years or more.
STRANGE NEW USES FOR RELIGIOUS BUILDINGS
Surprising indeed are the uses that some of these religious buildings are being put to after their deconsecration. In the Normandy city of Lisieux, a famous place of pilgrimage, the fifteenth-century church of “Saint Jacques” is now used for flower shows and concerts. The tourist who happens to stop by for a meal at the “Restaurant Henry” in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, a few miles inland from the Riviera, will learn with surprise that he is wining and dining in what used to be “Our Lady of Lourdes” chapel! Not far away, at La-Colle-sur-Loup, the restaurant “Chez Joseph” is housed in an eleventh-century monastery.
In Gazinet, near Bordeaux, a Catholic chapel has been turned into a jujitsu school organized by the local priest! Quite a few French churches have been converted into cinemas and museums, and others into such unexpected things as garages, cow sheds, a butter market, public shower baths, wine cellars and wine-tasting rooms, a theater rehearsal hall, and so forth. Seminaries and church schools are being used as State schools and even post offices. Protestant churches have been turned into garages, a locksmith’s shop and, of all things, a tobacco-drying loft! A synagogue in eastern France is now used as an auction room, and another as a warehouse for agricultural equipment.
Commenting on this state of affairs, an editorialist of a French left-wing news magazine wrote: “Of the five churches in Senlis [a town a few miles north of Paris], one is now used as a market, another is a garage, the third one is a cinema and the fourth, a dance hall. I realize religion must get modernized . . . but I cannot think that weekly dancing and selling vegetables are the best imaginable uses deconsecrated churches can be put to.”—Le Nouvel Observateur, March 1, 1970.
Interestingly, just a few miles from Senlis, an ex-Catholic chapel is now being put to good use. It has been cleaned up and modernized by voluntary Christian workers and is now the Kingdom Hall of the Creil congregation of Jehovah’s witnesses!