Destroying the heart of the village
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”.
I met Jacques Mourillon, an organist between 1976 and 1999, who was married in the church in 1989. He expressed his regret that a solution to keep the structure, the fruit of the work of men 150 years ago, could not be found. His father Marc, the former village pastry baker who lives next door to the church told me anecdotes about the rush of customers after Sunday mass as they bought sweets for traditional family lunches. Both told me how since 2007 the town has been divided into two camps about the decision to partially tear down the church, as restoration was too costly.
Piles of stone rubble were removed from the gutted church with only the standing bell tower to remind the village of a time when the church was a central part of the fabric of their lives. I visited the village several times for this assignment and as I finally drove away, I sensed the void that many of its residents spoke of as the church’s bell tower remained standing in the village, a shadow of its heritage.