Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of May 23, 2005
Canada's first bishop noted
Paris' Abbey Church of St-Germain des-Prés houses the city's oldest bell tower
St. Germain — May 28
By TED FITZGERALD
Special to the WCR
Visitors approaching the historic Paris church might have to contend with crowds, parades or demonstrations along super-active Boulevard St-Germain and may be tempted to pause to enjoy a street-corner jazz combo in front of their objective.
Here, in one of the city's busiest districts, the Abbey Church of St-Germain-des-Prés stands out conspicuously. It, and its prominent bell tower, are the oldest such structures in the City of Light, the weather-beaten edifice having been altered many times during its lifetime.
Ah, the Left Bank
The church is situated on the corner of Rue Bonaparte and the celebrated Boulevard in the 6th arrondissement in Paris' left bank historic district of St-Germain-des-Prés, an area frequented by writers and musicians and noted for its bars, cafes and shopping.
Namesake of the church and district is Paris Bishop Germanus or Germain, initially the abbot of a French monastery before being named as leader of the city's faithful in 555.
As royal chaplain, he sought to control and subdue his spiritually reckless masters. In return, King Childebert II built an abbey, later named for Germain, outside the city walls on the Seine's left bank.
The long and turbulent history of the church included its use as a royal necropolis, land holdings that at one time supported a population of 20,000 in northern France, and repeated plundering by Norman invaders. In 1792, it witnessed the killing of 21 of the Martyrs of September clergy during the French Revolution.
The interior of the church belies its sombre fa‡ade with a tall, narrow vaulted nave, conveying a sense of space and aireyness. Apsidal chapels honour a variety of saints and there are a number of unusual tombs with gisants (funerary effigies) of the deceased reclining in various poses.
Visitors will encounter a Canadian connection in St-Germain's. On the outer south choir wall, a polychrome bas-relief depicts and records the surreptitious consecration in 1658, of Canada's first bishop, Francois de Montmoreney Laval in this old church.
The event was necessary to counter factions in Montreal and Rouen that had a different candidate in mind for the first New World (Canadian) diocese.
In the end, it required a direct order from France's Queen Regent to install Laval as bishop of Quebec. His see became, and still is, the primatial diocese of Canada, currently led by Primate Cardinal Marc Ouellet.
Despite its great attraction as an historical and artistic site, St-Germain-des-Prés is still a parish church with regular liturgical celebrations. Because of its location, it has also become the home parish for several cultural and artistic associations.
Each year, on a date close to May 28, the Fête-de-St-Germain is highlighted with a solemn High Mass concelebrated by all priests who have been associated with the parish.
Following the 7 p.m. liturgy, festivities continue with refreshments in the old Abbey Gardens.
St-Germain also serves as a venue for many orchestral and choral productions, works for example by J.S. Bach, Handel and Verdi all offered in a few summer weeks.
As one leaves the church, but before tackling the crowds on the Boulevard, benches in a little park to the left of the main entrance might prove irresistible to visitors.
This neatly landscaped area, the site of the 13th-century Lady Chapel, displays remnants of early decorative stonework from the original and allows a relaxed view of the stream of pedestrian traffic along the boulevard.
And, if breasting the crowds again seems too intimidating, escape is close at hand in the form of the St-Germain-des-Prés Metro Station.
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