Think of Paris in the 1960s and the first images that spring to mind are those of left-bank barricades and crowds of chanting students. Wander a little further along the riverside though to the Boulevard de l’Hôpital and you will discover the setting of a much quieter revolution from this period.
It’s a warm Friday evening in September as I walk along the boulevard. There’s a crowd of students here too, but these are from the School of Medicine opposite and are quietly enjoying the happy hour prices at the Ménagerie bar. I haven’t come here to sit with them on this broad terrace though, but to visit the neighbouring Saint Marcel church.
It’s not easy to be without religion in France. Although it is a completely secular state, most French people still have some early indoctrinations of faith running through their veins. They are intensely proud of their secular, republican state, but in contrast, this also shows how powerful they believe religion to be. As a child, I went to a Church of England school in a country where the monarch is also the head of this church, and yet I felt none of this influence on a daily basis.
The decrees and culture of religion are largely an irrelevance to me, but curiously I have always found churches to be fascinating places. It is impossible to have an interest in history or architecture without having a certain knowledge of religion, and the three combine wonderfully in the Saint Marcel structure.
At the beginning of the 1960s, this site was home to Saint-Marcel-de-la-Salpêtrière, a neo-gothique structure dating from 1856. The state of the building reflected the condition of the church at the time. Dusty, old-fashioned and threatening to collapse. In the streets, messages such as “If God existed it would be necessary to abolish him” were written across walls. What relevance could there be for this institution in a world become modern?
The answer for the Catholics was the Vatican II, and the solid reflection of this council in Paris was the construction of the Saint Marcel church. The structure by the architect Daniel Michelin was completed in 1966, a year after the second Vatican council ended. In the place of gothic flamboyance, Michelin built purity and austerity. The structure is a simple one, a rectangle of layered concrete with a triangular glass-fronted spire encasing a staircase attached to the front. Climb up this staircase to reach the nave, situated on the first floor. Inside, there is a deliberate limiting of colours and textures; soft woods and glass in blues, greys and autumn coppers and golds.
There are other modern churches across Paris, but this one has a particular significance. Saint Marcel is one of the three saints who are said to protect the city, along with Saint Denis and Saint Geneviève. Certain relics belonging to Marcel, a 5th century bishop, can still be found in the church today.
Visiting a church for me is always a little like visiting a hospital. I feel like an intruder, but the walls still feel heavy with significance. Generally there is a freedom of movement in these places as it is assumed that there is a purpose to your visit and that you will respect the rules of the institution after stepping through the door. Finally, there is always a protective blanket of calm and silence.
On this Friday evening a service is taking place. I wait discreetly on the threshold and wonder at the five or six souls who are clustered together under the nose of the Priest. In a city of hundreds of churches, why do people choose to worship here? Have the changes proposed by the church 40 years ago and the neat angles of this structure affected the way they live their faith? These individuals are clearly a hardcore, not people who put on their best clothes to meet the neighbours on a Sunday, so why have they chosen concrete and pine over ancient stones and dark-aged oak? I understand them. I’m not looking for religion, but if I was I think I’d find it more in a place like this.