By Stephane Mahe
The villages of rural France are faced with decreasing numbers of residents. In addition to the closure of bakeries and shops, they are seeing rising costs to maintain the religious and social heart of these communities, the local church. The village of Gesté and its church, Saint-Pierre-aux-Liens, has witnessed this first-hand.
Local media reported the final phase of the “deconstruction” of a neo-Gothic church in the village of Gesté, and its 2,600 residents. The municipal council was unable to allocate the funds, some 3 million euros ($4.05 million) in 2007, needed for repairs and upkeep. With some research I discovered that since 2000, more than twenty village churches had faced the demolition ball. Apparently 250 churches in France are threatened with the same fate as municipalities are faced with extremely high costs to repair and maintain them, costs that are higher than the cost of tearing them down.
I appeared on site to discover the Saint-Pierre-aux-Liens church, built between 1854 and 1864, with workmen and cranes tearing down the walls of the church, leaving the bell tower and the crypt intact. People stopped to gather behind barriers to watch as heavy machines partially brought down the church.
Speaking with the crowd I learned that they come often to watch, to photograph the destruction day-by-day of their village’s heritage, this massive church, a symbol at the center of their village. I look at their faces as they watch the gutting of their church. As stones crash to the ground, the crowd watches in silence.
I was taken to a warehouse by the current mayor who showed me where statues of the Virgin Mary and Christ were stored. Stacked one on top of another, they await a new church to be built on the site of the partially destroyed Saint-Pierre-aux-Liens. I learned about the division this has brought about in the village with those behind the project, and those who are bitter about the “deconstruction”.