No Irish journalist or writer can resist a few days in the city where Oscar Wilde found exile, where James Joyce found a publisher for Ulysses, and where Beckett died. And those who love church architecture and church history are familiar with Notre Dame and Sacre Coeur.
But a recent visit to Paris was also an opportunity to visit some churches just a little off the main tourist trail, including St Eustache, where Vincent de Paul was once parish priest, where Colbert is buried, where Mozart attended his mother’s funeral, where Talleyrand spoke at the funeral of Mirabeau, where Berlioz conducted the first performance of his Te Deum, and where Cesar Franck and Liszt played the organ.
But my two favourite, off-the-beaten-track churches in Paris are St-Gervais-St-Protais in the Marais, and the American Cathedral on the Avenue George V, between Trocadero and the Arc de Triomphe.
Battered by Big Bertha
St-Gervaise stands on the rue des Barres, a winding, stepped and cobbled street that hums with the scent of flowers and incense.
Outside, this late Gothic building looks a bit battered – it suffered a direct hit from Big Bertha in 1918 – but inside it has some of the finest stained glass in Paris. The 17th-century organ is the oldest in the city, the simplicity of the chancel is a foretaste of the beauty of the liturgy, and in the side chapels, solitary monks or nuns sit or kneel silently before icons in meditation.
The church is home to the Monastic Communities of Jerusalem, founded in 1975 by Father Pierre-Marie Delfieux. The nuns and monks at St Gervais quote St Augustine: “If you want to know what we believe, come and hear what we sing.” Their liturgy, sung entirely in four voices, is based on the Roman rite, but draws on both Eastern and Western Christian traditions and is open to the spirit of church renewal and the call of ecumenism.
The men and women of this community have an unusual lifestyle for monks and nuns. Their cloister is the city, and as city dwellers they are concerned about the rapid, global expansion of cities, for “unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchers stay awake in vain” (Psalm 126: 1). They rent their housing to avoid the risks of becoming too settled or accumulating property. They are wage-earners, expressing solidarity with the workplace, but work only part-time, avoiding ambitions to succeed economically or socially.
The name Jerusalem is an apt choice, for not only do they speak of Jerusalem as the “mother of all cities”, but this is the old Jewish quarter of Paris. Two streets away, in rue Geoffroy l’Asnier, is the sombre Memorial to the Unknown Jewish Martyrs.
As old as Liberty
In a more fashionable area stands the Cathedral Church of the Holy Trinity, commonly called the American Cathedral in Paris, which was consecrated on Thanksgiving Day, 1886, a few days after the unveiling of the Statue of Liberty, France’s gift to New York.
The cathedral, one of the finest Continental examples of English Gothic Revival architecture, was designed by George Edmund Street (1824-1881), who at the same time was masterminding the restoration of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. The stained glass windows illustrate the canticles, the Te Deum and the Venite, and the artwork includes an altarpiece that was the last work of the pre-Raphaelite Edwin Abbey (1851-1911).
In many ways, the cathedral reflects the history of modern Paris. Mendelssohn's music was banned as “Jewish music” by the Nazis during the Occupation, and the cathedral was commandeered as a garrison church for the German troops. In a gesture of defiance at the service marking the liberation of Paris in 1944, the cathedral organist, Lawrence Whipp, who had been held in a German prison camp, played Mendelssohn’s Sonata as the postlude.
The cathedral replaces an earlier building on the rue Bayard, consecrated in 1864, but the congregation dates back to at least the mid-1830s, when Col Herman Thorn engaged an English clergyman for the first services in the garden of the Hotel Matignon. Today, Col Thorn’s home on the rue de Varenne is the official residence of the French Prime Minister.
But the Episcopalian or Anglican presence in Paris predates Col Thorn, thanks to dissident clerical and lay members of the Church of Ireland. Thomas Russell – the “Man from God knows where”, who was executed after the 1803 rising – spent the previous Christmas in Paris, and attended Mass in the Jansenist Church. Before him, the Rev William Jackson spent his days of exile in revolutionary Paris in the 1790s canvassing support for the United Irishmen.
In the early 18th century, the Irish Nonjuror, Canon Charles Leslie (1650-1722), Chancellor of Connor, fled to Paris after he was deprived of his Church offices for refusing to take the new oath of loyalty to William of Orange after the Battle of the Boyne.
For many years, Leslie was the Anglican chaplain at the Jacobite court in St Germainen-Laye, but he returned to Ireland in his last days, and died at Castle Leslie, Co Monaghan. Over 13 pages of the British Museum library catalogue are devoted to his books and pamphlets, making him an early Irish literary and Anglican link with Paris.
This ‘Irishman’s Diary’ was published in ‘The Irish Times’ on Monday 30 April 2001