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France weighs the cost of preserving its churches

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Sarah Gardner: Here’s something I’ll bet you didn’t know — France, arguably one of the more secular countries in the world, has some 90,000 churches. The most in Europe, in fact. And nearly all of them belong to the government. But with government cutbacks, many local authorities in France say they can’t afford the churches anymore and some are voting to tear them down.

John Laurenson travelled to the village of Saint-Gemmes-d’Andigné in Western France.

John Laurenson: Lucy Patier shows me Sainte Marguerite’s, the Roman Catholic church where she’s come to pray and attend mass since moving here from the U.S. a few years ago.

Lucy Patier: The cathedral in Austin, Texas — where I’m from — St. Mary’s cathedral, is literally from the same year, 1865. We just finished renovating the cathedral for I believe it was close to $3 million and it’s beautiful. And it’s amazing to me that I’m sitting here in this church looking around from 1865 going, and here they want to tear it down!

Deputy mayor Benedicte Flamand speaking in French

Across the street in the town hall, deputy mayor Benedicte Flamand explains that, after long reflection and a study of the costs invovled, she and her fellow town councillors voted to keep the bell tower but demolish the main church, and build a new church in its place. That’s a one and a quarter million dollars cheaper than heavy restoration work, she says. It’s part of a larger renovation project to bring back the soul to the village centre, as she puts it, and make it evolve.

As I leave the town hall, Madame Flamand shows me the architect’s model of the new church. It is round, metallic and doesn’t have any windows. Some have labeled it “a grain silo.” But the deputy mayor wonders, who is to say if it’s more or less beautiful than the old church?

In a nearby sports hall 250 people have gathered for a meeting called by a save-the-church association. Its president, Benoit Patier, the husband of Texan Lucy Patier, says their fight has significance right across the country.

Benoit Patier: In many places in France I heard that there are about 2,000 churches in this case. And we are maybe one of the first where people are fighting for the church. This is why we feel like we are an example.

A couple of dozen people attend these weekday masses at Sainte Marguerite’s, a couple of hundred turn up for the main weekly service. This is a thriving Christian community by French standards. Some of the parishioners here are horrified by the demolition plan, but not the parish priest. He declined to give a recorded interview, but told me he was not — in his words — ready to fight for stones. What counts, he says, is having a building where he can hold services. A point I put to Lucy Patier…

Patier: I don’t know, for me it’s rough because you think — what is sacred? Sure, it’s material! But I think it’s important to pray in a place that draws the soul and the heart and the mind into time, into the continuity of time, and so what do you want to do to take it away?

Lucy’s husband, Benoit, is optimistic that he can turn things around. He asked three architects to come up with estimates and all three said the town hall’s figures vastly underestimated the cost of its project and overestimated the cost of renovation. Saving the church, says Monsieur Patier, would actually be $700,000 cheaper than demolishing and rebuilding it. Others, he says, won’t be lucky enough to have the economic argument on their side. He predicts hundreds of French churches will be destroyed over the next few years.

In Saint-Gemmes-d’Andigné, I’m John Laurenson for Marketplace.

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