Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of June 27, 2005
Napoleon honoured in church
The graceful Sts. Pierre and Paul Church was completed in 1635
Sts. Peter and Paul -- Feast Day -- June 29
By TED FITZGERALD
Special to the WCR
To paraphrase the old Irish axiom, "no one goes to Mass on major feast days at Sts. Pierre and Paul Church in Rueil-Malmaison because the church is always full and you can't get in." Truly, crowds are not uncommon for this active, town-centre parish church a short distance west of Paris.
It's a graceful structure, a classified historic monument, and has interesting connections with the family of Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, particularly with Empress Josephine. Visitors attending less crowded daily Mass in this elegant house of God have ample opportunity to tour the church and learn of its colourful past.
The cornerstone was laid in 1584, but it wasn't until 1635 that Cardinal de Richelieu completed the structure. Then it was almost destroyed in 1792 by French revolutionary mobs. Today's Rueil church is the result of massive restorations undertaken by Napoleon in 1804 and in 1850 by Napoleon III.
Four statues that originally dominated the ornate fa‡ade of the building have been replaced after their earlier destruction. High in the wall are two angels and at a lower level, niches contain dramatic portrayals of the parish patrons. A life-like Peter, hands tightly clasped in an attitude of supplication, gazes heavenward, his symbolic rooster at his feet. First pastor of the Christian church, he embodies human nature in all its vicissitudes from arrogance to humility, sometimes faithful, sometimes weak.
An intense, almost defiant Paul carries a book of the Gospels in his left hand, and with a large sword in his right appears ready to take on the ancient world in the name of Christ. He is history's prime missionary, the stories of his extensive travels and conversions well known.
Inside the church, focal point of the long, narrow nave is the original altar and tabernacle back-lit by tall, Roman stained glass windows. The old altar displays a prized bas-relief that illustrates the embalming of Christ, an art work originally in the chapel of nearby Chateau Malmaison.
Without prior knowledge of the history of the Rueil church, first-time visitors may be startled to find, flanking the sanctuary, two large, carved Carrara marble sarcophagi. That on the right is the tomb of Josephine while the other, smaller repository is that of her daughter, Queen Hortense. Nearby information panels outline the story of the graves and the church's connections to the family of Napoleon.
The monument to Josephine, inscribed with the donors' names, Eugene and Hortense, is dated 1825 and is surmounted by a statue of the empress in prayer, her formally-attired image modelled after the famous painting by David of the Coronation of Napoleon.
Hortense' sarcophagus contains the donor's name beneath her own - "her son Napoleon III" - and is topped with a marble bas-relief showing the queen in prayer, shielded by a protective angel.
Visitors to Rueil often visit the town's main historic site, the Chateau Malmaison. Three years after her marriage to Napoleon in 1796, Josephine bought this 260-hectare estate and with her husband spent many happy weekends there. Guided tours of the elaborate home leave tourists with an intriguing picture of the lives of these famous French personalities.
Centrally situated Sts. Peter and Paul is the major church of four in this town of some 70,000. It's close to the Chateau and main highways leading east to Nanterre, La Defense and Paris. Rueil-Malmaison is easily reached by rail via RER line A-1, a 20-minute trip from central Paris.
There are four weekend Masses at this active parish as well as daily Eucharist. A major celebration marks the patrons' feast day each year on a Sunday close to June 29.
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