France's 20th-century churches face restoration and financing difficulties

In the suburb of Épinay-sur-Seine, a church is closed due to cracks and leaks, as this town in the Paris region – which like the rest of France has religious buildings dating back to the 20th century – deteriorates and is gaining ground Difficulties are faced in obtaining the necessary funds to renew the building.

“Notre Dame des Missions” (meaning “Our Lady of the Missions”), with its spire-like bell tower and facade similar to a Chinese Buddhist temple, is one of the most distinctive churches in the Paris area.

However, the building, which was originally built to honor the missionaries on the occasion of the 1931 World's Fair, was forced to close overnight in early October last year after cracks developed that raised concerns that some parts were damaged. It will crash.

“Experts think this could happen within 10 years or within a week,” Jean-Baptiste Dupuy, treasurer of the parish of Seine-Saint-Denis, told AFP.

Piling later allowed the church to be reopened, a temporary solution pending restoration, although at first glance the main building did not appear to be threatened. “We now know that the costs will be in the hundreds of thousands of euros,” said Jean-Pierre Gaspard, general manager of the Chantiers du Cardinal association, which helps the Paris region build and maintain religious buildings. (Ile-de-France).

PARIS, FRANCE - APRIL 15: (Editor's note: Retransmitted with alternative crop) Flames and smoke billowing from the roof of Notre Dame Cathedral on April 15, 2019 in Paris, France. The fire broke out on Monday afternoon and quickly spread throughout the building, causing the spire to collapse. The cause is unclear, but officials said it may be related to ongoing renovations.  (Photo by Veronique de Vigli/Getty Images)
The scene as the tower of the historic Notre Dame Cathedral catches fire in 2019 (Getty)

bad situation

In another part of the town, opposite the tower in the popular residential area of ​​Orgomon, lies the Church of St. Patrice, also in a bad condition, its doors kept open to get rid of the damp.

Parish Priest Desiree Zanté recounted that “a water leak occurred two weeks ago, which caused an electric meter to explode, causing a limited fire.”

He added, “Experts said we were lucky, but we haven't been able to turn on the heating since.”

The square church is built from concrete used in the 1960s and covered with tarps. In this case, the repair costs are also expected to be prohibitive, approaching €400,000.

It is understood that the two churches were built after the promulgation of the Law on the Separation of Church and State in 1905, and therefore belong to the Diocese of Seine-Saint-Denis, which has jurisdiction over a total of 72 churches, which poses a challenge to the management of the churches. The department is considered one of the poorest administrative regions in France.

Churches in the Seine-Saint-Denis department will also be unable to be registered on the Register of Religious Heritage, as the process was launched by President Emmanuel Macron and is aimed at towns with a population of less than 10,000 people.

Jean-Pierre Gaspard stressed that “all France supports small rural churches, which is a very good thing, but we must not forget these churches” which were built to keep up with urban expansion in the twentieth century built at pace because they are “sufficient and necessary.”

Since its founding in 1931, the Cardinal Association has built 330 churches with donations, and three more are under construction near Paris.

“The construction cost is at least 10 million euros,” explained Jean-Pierre Gaspard, noting that her association's annual budget does not exceed 4 to 5 million euros and that “the demand is far greater than its capacity”.

He noted that the aging of donors, and the public's failure to always understand the subtleties of funding churches after 1905, had resulted in a “constant decline in the value of donations collected by the parish” while its needs had increased dramatically.

The sexual violence crisis in the church may also have had a negative impact on donor generosity.

A history ruined by neglect

But restoration work is still necessary because the condition of the churches is deteriorating due to three factors: land subsidence, roof damage (which affects about 50 churches in Île-de-France) and the disintegration of old materials.

Such is the case with the Church of Notre-Dame de Rency, a concrete masterpiece built by the brothers Auguste and Gustave Perret, which saw peeling peels from the bell tower before it was renovated last March .

Public subsidies provided the bulk of the funding, and the building is classified as a “historic monument,” a designation that applies only to two churches in the department of Seine-Saint-Denis after 1905, as well as Notre Dame.

Gaspard praised Macron's expressed desire to promote the classification of 19th and 20th century architecture.

He believes that “there is a realization at national level that the religious legacy of the twentieth century can only be helped through public generosity”.

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