PARIS — Paris’s Left Bank has long been an enclave for Americans either living in, or just visiting, the City of Lights.
Not only did it serve as the site where Benjamin Franklin, John Jay, and John Adams signed the Treaty of Paris, giving the United States independence from Great Britain, but it’s been a long-time hub of expatriates, particularly those of the Lost Generation who moved to the city after World War I, made it their home, and in the process produced some of the most enduring works of art of the 20th century.
Today, one of the most popular tourist destinations is a café, Les Deux Magots, where Americans flock to enjoy an espresso or a glass of rosé at the same sacred location where the likes of Ernest Hemingway or F. Scott Fitzgerald would meet — and perhaps that’s why a group of Americans is also seeking to raise funds to help restore the Church of Saint Germain des Prés, which sits just opposite the storied café and also happens to be the oldest church in Paris.
Built in the 6th century, the church has been destroyed, rebuilt, plundered, and restored on numerous occasions over the past 15 centuries, but today it stands proudly over one of the busiest thoroughfares in the city.
Yet despite such prominence, the parish church has been in need of desperate repair since the time of the French Revolution.
Once-radiant murals painted by Hippolyte Flandrin that chronicle scenes from the Gospels and convey the theological and cardinal virtues had become covered in soot. Side chapels and once-vibrant stained glass windows were in disrepair after years of neglect, and thousands of painted stars that cover the ceiling of the one-time abbey had become a visible reminder of the church’s fading glory.
Enter the American Friends for the Preservation of Saint Germain des Prés, a group that was established in 2012 to serve as the U.S. counterpart to a French foundation working to raise the nearly six million euros required to complete the long-overdue restorations.
Since all churches built in France before 1905 belong to the local municipality (cathedrals belong to the state), general upkeep and maintenance is taken care of, yet there are few funds available to complete major works of restoration.
After a group of motivated patrons and parishioners raised the first 1.5 million euros to complete the first phase of the restoration from 2011-2012, the city of Paris gave the full restoration project its blessing — with a caveat: they would shell out 15 percent of the total costs, and the remaining 85 percent had to be found elsewhere.
In order to accommodate the 600,000 visitors to the church each year, many of whom are Americans, a five-phase plan was created that would allow the church to remain open during the restoration work, with the goal of having it completed by 2021.
At present, restoration of the sanctuary and the transept have been completed, while the central section of the nave is now under the delicate workmanship of 46 people who make a daily pilgrimage up scaffolding to reach the height’s of the church’s ceiling and apses.
As the work progresses, both the French foundation and its American counterpart are diligently working to pay for it.
According to Philippe Langlois, president of the trustees for the American Friends, the idea of partnering with Americans on the project made sense for two reasons: their love of the neighborhood, and their generosity.
Langlois, who is French-born and Harvard-educated, told Crux that the partnership has proved so successful that other major churches in Paris have adopted a similar model, including the Cathedral of Notre Dame.
“We’re in amicable competition,” he joked.
Of the six million euros needed to complete the project, about half of the funds have been raised.
David Sheppe, director of the American Friends for the Preservation of Saint Germain des Prés, told Crux that he first visited the church more than 30 years ago. His love for its history and architecture, and the link that it serves in daily Parisian life, led to him trying to recruit other fellow Americans to join in the efforts.
“For a thousand years, the church has inspired Parisians and visitors from all walks of life and from all over the world,” he said. “I want to ensure that this iconic world heritage site is preserved and renewed, to be passed in trust into the next thousand years of history.”
Yet if the Church of Saint Germain des Prés has become known to much of the world for the iconic part it’s played in literature in centuries past, today it also continues to play a central role in the spiritual lives of French Catholics.
By day, the church is full of visitors wandering through with guidebooks in hand trying to conjure up images of its former glory — a glory that its renovators are hoping will soon be on full display once again.
Yet on the weekends, those tourists are replaced with local parishioners — the majority of whom are students attending the nearby Sorbonne, with nearly 1,000 young people making the Sunday evening mass a regular standing room only event.
While France, the eldest daughter of the Church, has long been perceived to be in a state of serious decline, in recent years there have been modest, indeed steady, signals that some sort of renewal may be underway.
Across Paris, Mass attendance appears to be on the upswing, and in some parts of the country, vocations to the priesthood and religious life are starting to rise.
For Langlois, Sheppe, and their supporters, the restoration project at Saint Germain des Prés has become the physical manifestation of a deeper spiritual revival they believe to be underway: a storied past, an uncertain future, but also promising signs that the future may, in fact, be a bit more luminous.