“We must resolve to shave the small churches without heritage interest”. The idea suggested by Roselyne Bachelot in his latest book has provoked the ire of many believers. No question of attacking the religion with this proposal, but rather to relieve the State of expensive constructions in maintenance and restoration.
If the finding of a drop in attendance at religious buildings is undeniable (fall in the number of faithful, consolidation of municipalities, etc.), many French people, even non-believers, have risen up against this idea, arguing that churches are part of the heritage of our towns and villages.
2,500 to 5,000 churches risk abandonment or destruction by 2030
France has nearly 45,000 churches on its territory, according to the government site life-public.frincluding 40,000 that belong to the municipalities, since all those that were built before the 1905 law of separation of Church and State returned to the latter.
According to a parliamentary report on the state of religious heritage in France, published in July 2022, between 2,500 and 5,000 churches are closed and risk abandonment, destruction or sale by 2030. But many municipalities and defenders of the religious heritage did not wait for the words of Roselyne Bachelot to try to bring these buildings back to life.
Activities related to spirituality
For some, the key lies in opening up churches to other activities often related to religion in order to respect the origin of the place. Many of them already offer concerts of liturgical songs or plays around the Bible. But others are more innovative, such as the Saint-Hilaire church in Mortagne-sur-Sèvre in Vendée, which has become Vendée Vitrail every year since 2018 from April to November: a cultural project around the discovery of stained glass, from design to message conveyed by the works.
This is the type of initiative encouraged by the Heritage Foundation, which announced in November 2022 the launch of its Sesame Prize, the objective of which is to promote the respectful upgrading of places of worship. “These places have the function of a common home. Also, we encourage everything that allows people to recharge their batteries, “explains Bertrand de Feydeau, vice-president of the Foundation and president of the jury, who cites as examples reading, music, the enhancement of heritage and culture. ‘History, “we can add everything that relates to collective life”.
In total, five initiatives will benefit from funding of 20,000 euros each provided that certain criteria are met, including compatibility with the religious use of the building and respect for the architecture. “Despite the decline in attendance at places of worship, the need for spirituality and meaning has never been greater,” adds Bertrand de Feydeau.
Collective rooms or cultural places, spaces integrated into the municipality
If they do not respect these criteria, other initiatives participate in the development of collective life. In Pontivy (56), for example, the community of municipalities has set up its headquarters in an old chapel by rehabilitating the place with meeting rooms, exhibitions and receptions. In the Eure, in Harcourt, the municipality which had transformed its church into a lodging available for rent, plans, with the help of a local association, to make it a cultural place to offer theater there.
In Haute-Saône, in Luxeuil-les-Bains, the Notre-Dame-des-Ailes chapel was restored in 2019 to become an art gallery and an auction room. In the North, the Saint-Pierre church has been transformed into a third place with, in particular, a grocery store within it. There are many possibilities, especially since, as Bertrand de Feydeau points out, “these are often large spaces very well placed”.
Sport, catering or rental… The private sector also has ideas
But other churches offer themselves a second life through a radical change of destination and discover a new utility. Some projects have made noise like this chapel in the 8th arrondissement of Paris which became last November, a climbing hall or the Chapel of Charity in Caen, transformed in 2020 into a sports hall. But municipalities sometimes simply decide to sell the buildings in order to get rid of the complicated management that accompanies them. Many of them fall into the hands of individuals who often decide to transform them into personal accommodation or intended for seasonal and tourist rental.
But municipalities sometimes simply decide to sell the buildings in order to get rid of the complicated management that accompanies them. Many of them fall into the hands of individuals who often decide to transform them into personal accommodation or intended for seasonal and tourist rental.
The hour of Armageddon for the “small churches” has therefore not yet struck. oi of January 2, 1907. The municipalities do not have the right to dispose of the churches they own as they see fit. Thus, to decommission a church, one of the following conditions must be met: The beneficiary association must be dissolved, worship must no longer be celebrated there for more than six consecutive months, the conservation of the building is compromised by the insufficiency maintenance, if the building is diverted from its intended purpose or if the association does not respect its legal obligations.
May those who fear that they will no longer find a place to practice their worship be reassured. It is not so simple to transform a church. Indeed, the decommissioning of a place of worship is conditioned by law and “they remain very rare”, according to Bertrand de Feydeau.
Assigned to the Catholic Church, free of charge, exclusive and perpetual by the law of January 2, 1907. The municipalities do not have the right to dispose of the churches they own as they see fit. Thus, to decommission a church, one of the following conditions must be met: The beneficiary association must be dissolved, worship must no longer be celebrated there for more than six consecutive months, the conservation of the building is compromised by the insufficiency maintenance, if the building is diverted from its intended purpose or if the association does not respect its legal obligations. The hour of Armageddon for the “little churches” has therefore not yet come.