Wrecker's ball menaces French village churches
The church of the western village of Sainte-Gemmes-d'Andigne in western France is pictured on August 8, 2013. Mayor Jean-Claude Taulnay has proposed that the nave be pulled down and instead replaced with a circular concrete building that would adjoin the old church tower.
The limestone church with its four-bay nave and high stained glass windows towers above the village, now home to just a fraction of the people it was built to serve in 1865 when an earlier one on the same site was deemed too small.
Nearly a century-and-a-half on and the fall in church attendances combined with migration to cities and the soaring cost of maintenance has put the future of such churches in jeopardy, leading some to think the once unthinkable.
After grappling with the thorny problem of the up to 1.5-million-euro- ($1.9 million-) cost of repairs, Mayor Jean-Claude Taulnay has proposed that the nave be pulled down and instead replaced with a circular concrete building that would adjoin the old church tower.
The idea has horrified many of Sainte-Gemmes-d'Andigne's 1,500 inhabitants who say it will tear the heart out of the village in France's Maine-et-Loire region and leave it permanently scarred.
"The whole of the nave could disappear!" Benoit Patier, president of the association formed to save the church, told AFP.
"Restoring the church would cost between 1.2 and 1.5 million euros (but) the mayor's project would cost 2.7 million euros. Keeping the church would be half as expensive," he said.
"We don't understand," added Christian Boullais, the association's vice president.
The plight of the villagers is far from an isolated one.
Across France, five such Catholic churches have already fallen victim to the wrecker's ball since the start of the year.
Historian Philippe Boutry says nearly all France's churches of special historic, architectural or artistic interest are already "classified" and that others that do not fall into the same category have no official protection.
"The style of these churches -- neo-Gothic, neo-Roman, neo-Byzantine or modern in the style of the 1930s or 1950s don't resonate with contemporary sensibilities," he said.
For now, to the relief of villagers at Sainte-Gemmes-d'Andigne, the state has intervened, initiating a process that could lead to the church being given a classification that protects it from demolition.
In the meantime any attempt to pull it down is effectively frozen for one year -- to the frustration of Mayor Taulnay, who declined to comment on the subject to AFP.
"The mayor is now threatening us with a lawsuit," said Isabelle Marechal, head of heritage at the Culture Ministry, adding however, that the state cannot classify every church.
France has around 45,000 parish churches, 35 percent of which were built in the 19th century and do not fall into any protected category.
"Mayors are drawing the wrong conclusion that they can demolish them," she said.
But with only 4.5 percent of French people attending church regularly, the problem of how local authorities will foot the bill for maintaining such churches is unlikely to go away.
For their part, French Catholic church leaders have largely shied away from confrontation.
Among those criticised for failing to take a stand on the issue is the Bishop of Angers, Emmanuel Delmas, in whose diocese two churches dating from the 1860s -- Saint-Aubin du Pavoil and Saint-Pierre-aux-Liens de Geste -- have just been demolished.
Elsewhere, three other churches have also been pulled down: Saint-Blaise in Auvergne; Saint-Pie X in Herault; and Saint-Jacques d'Abbeville in Picardy.
However, churches at Plounerin in Brittany and Lumbres in the Pas-de-Calais have been saved while at Arc-Sur-Tille in Burgundy, the local mayor was kicked out by voters over a planned demolition project.
According to opponents, demolitions endanger not just the individual buildings but also the traditional image of French villages.
"A village that has had its church demolished is disfigured," said Jean-Louis Hannebert, of the Society for the Protection of French Landscape and Aesthetics.
In Saint-Aubin du Pavoil, meanwhile, the church tower that was at once at the heart of the village is now conspicuous by its absence.
The church was the first of the five to be demolished in January, just as an earlier church was destroyed during the 1789 revolution when the village was punished for raising a royalist white flag.
"It has left a considerable gap," said resident Michael Vitton.