Last Sunday, the village of Plouagat, in the Côtes d’Armor, held a vote asking residents whether or not they wanted their church (ill. 1) destroyed or restored. The result is very clear since 80% of those who participated chose the restoration, despite a predicted cost of somewhere between 1 and 1.5 million euros. In 2010, another church in Brittany, that of Plounérin, was also approved at over 60% for restoration, when in fact the Communist mayor made no effort to conceal his opposition.
True, these referendums are seemingly democratic. Of course, given the results in favor of safeguarding these monuments, we cannot help but rejoice, especially since this proves that citizens are sensitive to the protection and conservation of religious buildings, landmarks of their towns, thus serving as a warning to any mayor planning to do away with their church and we would have liked to see the residents of Gesté save theirs.
However, in the end, this type of election raises more questions than it answers.
First of all, because the conservation of a historical monument (whether it is listed or not) does not only concern the residents of the town where it is located, far from it. Heritage belongs to all of us. The demoliton of the church in Gesté affects us deeply even if we do not live in the village and never set foot in it again, given that it is now totally without any interest. Secondly, because the role of a mayor is to manage his city and hand it over, in the best possible conditions, to his successors and its inhabitants. He is supposed to do whatever it takes to safeguard the heritage of his community. Asking the citizens’ opinion on such a subject is behaving like Pontius Pilate, though it is of course better than the role of executioner. Finally, if the voters had decided to destroy the building, would this mean that he had to accept their wishes ?
This sort of question cannot be resolved case by case. There must be a general reflection on the future of our churches and we need to face the problem head on. Who else should be responsible for doing so other than the Minister of Culture ? And yet who is the most conspicuously absent person in the current debate ? We are still waiting for Aurélie Filippetti to react to the recent destructions of the churches in Saint Aubin du Pavoil, in Abbeville and Gesté, which all took place over the past few months. No doubt, some will remind us of the case of the church in Saint Gemmes d’Andigné, also in Anjou, for which the DRAC, has filed a request for listing valid until 1st March 2014. But since the case of the Halle in Fontainebleau, we wonder if the government is truly sincere in its determination to carry out this sort of protection.
Only the government can impose certain regulations, the first being that of maintaining the upkeep of the buildings. It is totally inconceivable that private individuals be forced to clean the façades of their buildings and maintain them but that this same policy of common sense remain optional for city hall. In most cases, the question of preserving a building would not even come up if it was maintained on a regular basis.
2. Chapel of the Saint Vincent de Paul hospital in Paris
A 17th century building threatened with demolition
Photo : Didier Rykner
We should also face the problem head on at a national level by giving careful thought to the subject, but not based on the question : "can we save everything ?", rather "how can we save everything ?". When we insist on the fact that we should save everything, this does not concern, of course, those churches which do not present any architectural or historical interest. These are rare but do exist. Thus, though we might regret its passing (it will probably be replaced by another, equally uninteresting building), we will not fight to save the church of Saint Rita in Paris which the Commission du Vieux Paris has in fact judged to have no architectural and heritage value, correctly so in our opinion.
However, we would find it absolutely scandalous if the chapel of the Saint Vincent de Paul hospital (ill. 2), also threatened and mentioned in this article in Le Figaro, were to disappear under the blows of a wrecking ball (we hope to discuss it shortly).
Solutions are available but they require hard work. This is a direct appeal to Aurélie Filippetti. In the meantime, we ask that she help the residents of Plouagat to safeguard their church.