Rising Price of Faith in France’s Shrinking Parishes: French Limestone

GESTÉ, France — The soaring steeple, airy flying buttresses and steep slate roof of the 19th-century parish church that dominates this town in western France is — like many other village churches in France — scheduled for demolition, a victim of its size, its condition and, ultimately, municipal budget concerns.


The New York Times

Villages like Gesté are struggling over churches’ upkeep.

Although the church, dedicated to St. Peter, is arguably the sole architectural jewel in this town of 2,400 people, the town has decided to tear it down and replace it with a new one that will be far cheaper to keep up.

Erected in stages to accommodate 900 people, the formidable stone building has stood sadly empty since 2006. Completing the picture of dereliction, it is surrounded by a wire fence to protect visitors from the very real threat of crumbling stonework.

“Because of its size and complexity it will always be costly to maintain,” said Jean-Pierre Léger, 61, a retired engineer who is Gesté’s part-time mayor. “It is a victim of its considerable size. It is too big.”

The mayor and the town council voted, 17 to 16, two years ago to demolish the church, saying it would cost $4.4 million to renovate, against $1.9 million to demolish it and erect a new one.

But many of Mr. Léger’s townsfolk fiercely disagree, arguing that the town has overstated the cost of the restoration work.

“We reject their cost estimates,” said Alain Durand, 50, a mason and metalworker who is treasurer of a movement to preserve the church. “It’s very political; if they tear down and rebuild, it’s only to fight unemployment.”

The struggle is not unique to Gesté. Across France, villages are being forced to ask hard questions about their churches, many of them deteriorating, as the number of parishioners and priests dwindles and the cost of upkeep mounts.

Béatrice de Andia, the founder and president of the Religious Heritage Observatory, in Paris, estimates that there are about 90,000 church buildings in France, of which about 17,000 are under government protection for their historic or architectural value, giving France the greatest density of religious buildings of any European country. About 10 percent of the protected churches are in perilous condition, she says, because of a lack of government financing for their preservation, as are a far larger percentage of the remaining churches.

“The Church may be eternal, but not the churches,” said Ms. de Andia, a retired government cultural official who founded the observatory in 2006 to raise awareness of the parlous state of the country’s religious heritage. “In the past, these buildings were sacred, but today there is no sense of the sacred.”

In St. Georges des Gardes, not far from here, the 19th-century church of St. Joseph was torn down in 2006; earlier, in nearby Le Fief-Sauvin, the church was razed and replaced.

Occasionally, townspeople opposing demolition have prevailed: in Arc sur Tille, near Dijon in the east of France, the 19th-century parish church remains standing after bitter protests.

The struggle over the future of village churches coincides with a national debate on the issue of French identity, which is taking place against the backdrop of large numbers of Muslim immigrants. And it is complicated by a 1907 measure — when anticlerical government leaders were trying to rein in the strong influence of the Roman Catholic Church in France — that made all the country’s churches and cathedrals the property of local governments.

In other countries, notably England and Italy, disused houses of worship have been converted into homes, stores or museums. In France, there is an emotional resistance to the practice, though in Dijon, an abandoned church now serves as a theater, and in Alsace, also in the east, former synagogues now serve as museums.

Gesté’s neo-Gothic church was completed in 1870 on the ruins of a 16th-century church that was destroyed in the French Revolution. Deeply Catholic Anjou, where Gesté lies, resisted the revolution, and its church buildings suffered when the resistance was suppressed.

As French identity becomes increasingly secular, some see the crumbling of village churches as a symbol of crumbling faith.

The Rev. Pierre Pouplard, 69, pastor of Gesté’s parish church, disagrees. “I see no connection,” he said. “People cling to their church here. Church attendance here is very strong.”

Yet Father Pouplard spoke in the rectory of a neighboring town, which is also part of his parish. For the last 12 years he has been responsible for four village churches, in addition to Gesté, because of a dwindling number of priests. France counts only 9,000 priests today, compared with 40,000 in 1940. He supports the destruction of the church in Gesté and its replacement.

“There is the emotional attachment; all the people of Gesté are attached to their church,” he said. “A majority would have preferred to keep it.” But he accepts the mayor’s budgetary arithmetic, and points to the example of Fief-Sauvin, where 15 years ago a modern church replaced a crumbling 19th-century building.

The debate over the future of the church has split the town into two camps. Had Father Pouplard supported the restoration of the church, Mr. Durand says, a majority would have followed him. “It’s a question of taste,” he said. But in the last local elections, in 2008, when the future of the church was the main issue, a slight majority supported Mr. Léger and his majority on the town council.

Mr. Durand shows a visitor the plans of a contemporary church built nearby with a circular ground plan that he says will resemble Gesté’s new church.

“It’s for entertainment, it’s a music hall,” he said dismissively. “You could put a sign on it saying, ‘Groceries.’ ”

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