Within earshot of the noisy péripherique motorway and on the very limit of the city stands the tallest steeple in Paris. Why was the Sainte Odile church built here though, and what is its significance today?
The 1920s and 30s were a boom-time for church building in Paris and the surrounding region, with over 50 places of worship built on the territory during this period. Ostensibly the goal of this initiative, labelled ‘les chantiers du cardinal’ (Verdier), was to provide work for tradesmen in difficult times, but there was also certainly an almost missionary desire to bring religion to the rapidly developing suburbs and to its ‘godless’ people.
This was certainly true of the area in which Sainte Odile was built. In the 1920s, one priest, the Père Loutil, campaigned for the construction of a new church in the Champerret district, a place typical of the outskirts of the city. As he said later, "dans ces années, le quartier était composé d'ateliers de carrossiers, de tôliers, et de ce qu'on appelait la zone, surtout" (in those years, the district was made up of carriage makers, metal workers and above all what we called the zone).
We come back once again to the reconstruction of Paris’s city limits and the replacement of Thier’s fortifications. These areas, known as the zone, were ungoverned and slightly lawless, but were slowly being replaced by social housing, parks and sports facilities. In this part of Paris, the Père Loutil wanted to ensure that it would be a church replacing the ‘zone’.
Enough money was found in the parish to begin construction and a young architect, Jacques Barge, who was only 31 when he took on the job, was appointed. The project was to recreate a spirit of ancient christianity, based around a kind of roman/byzantine basilica. Modern materials, principally concrete, made this possible in what was a very tricky plot. Neighbours were positioned in very close proximity to the proposed strucutre, and one of them, the Ziegler family, only agreed to give up part of their land if no windows were built into the southern side of the church.
The structure is principally three coupoles and a 72 metre high clock tower. The decorative touches though are what set this church apart from many other built at the time and it features many remarkable examples of art deco inspired creations. The most remarkable of all are the stained glass windows (on the north side of the church!), but the carved entrance is also quite spectacular.
The Père Loutil was also a man who encouraged ‘spiritual’ art, and it was he who organised a group of like-minded artists to work together on the church. It seems that several of the families involved lived together on site whilst working, and it is even said that two children were born in the church!
The church was finally completed in 1953. Over the half-century since then the neighbourhood has seen many changes, and is today a comparitively wealthy one. Does it still serve the same purpose now that the area has gone upmarket? The church and its spire still dominate the surroundings, but on a typical week-day lunchtime it is far from being a hive of activity inside. I wander around the building in silence, completely alone, but it's a welcome change from the the roar of the motorway and bus interchange alongside. Perhaps this then is the role it plays today. A building which was constructed to bring a community together is now a site where people can escape from its constant buzz!
L'eglise Sainte Odile
2 Avenue Stéphane Mallarmé, 75017, M° Porte de Champerret