Home of the Extraordinary Form in Paris: Church of Saint-Eugène-Sainte-Cécile

Photos: OC-Travel 
My favorite church to visit in Paris for Sunday High Mass is the Église Saint-Eugène-Sainte-Cécile. Catholics who visit Paris should know about this wonderful church and visit -- it is the home of the EF in the Archdiocese of Paris.  Liturgy is done very well here with great care and reverence in a stunningly beautiful Neo-Gothic church.  Also the choir is one of the best in France.    Every year I visit in conjunction with the annual Chartres Pilgrimage and I encourage others to do the same.  Sunday Mass and Vespers is a must.  Be sure to make time for the Sunday morning 11:00 a.m. Solemn High Mass in the EF - it is nothing short of extraordinary.   

The church is also commonly known as Saint-Eugène for short.  This wonderful community is located in the 9th arrondissement of Paris in the historic neighborhood that was once the traditional Jewish Quarter.   The church is centrally located with about a dozen hotels within walking distance.  The parish draws parishioners from across Paris and beyond.  It has also produced a handful of notable vocations to the priesthood and religious life.  The church is packed on Sundays with young families with many children who are drawn by the respect and devotion shown by the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite.  

Saint-Eugène was built during a time when the Church in France was undergoing a renewal after the anti-religious revolutionary periods.  Those years of persecution gave birth to a renewal of the local Church in the mid-1800's that saw a boom in Catholic life and church construction.  The years of trial and persecution contributed to growth that saw the creation of new religious orders, new vocations to the seminary and convent, the development of Marian devotion (connected to the Lourdes apparitions in 1858), and the successful creation of Catholic social movements.  The Church then began to build, everywhere.  The Gothic art born in France during the Middle-Ages was rediscovered and Neo-Gothic churches were planned and constructed across the land.  As architects and artists looked to the past for their inspiration, France entered into a gilded period of architectural pastiche, imitating previous styles including the Gothic.  

That period in the history of France is known as the Second Empire (1852-1870).  And like all regimes after the restoration, the government and people favored religious subjects in the art that it sponsored.  Expansion of French industry brought with it economic prosperity and an influx of people to the big city.  Paris grew from one-million inhabitants around 1850 to two-million by the end of the century with the number of parishes growing from forty-six to sixty-nine.  New church construction flourished as Paris turned into a vast building site.  In fact, it can be said of that period of French history, "No period presents us with so many pieces of religious art executed simultaneously by such a large number of distinguished artists" (Gazette des Beaux-Arts, 861).    

The church of Saint-Eugène was constructed between 1854-1855 by the architects Louis-Auguste Boileau and Louis-Adrien Lusson.  It was the first church in France to use an entirely iron-framed structure for construction.  This was inspired by the metal framework construction seen just before with Baltards's construction in metal of the old central Halles in Paris in 1854.  This innovative new construction method was deemed perfect for a church to keep the cost down because it allowed a decrease in the thickness of the masonry walls while also allowing for quick construction, in this case barely 20 months.  

The frame was made of metal cast iron columns that are attached to the masonry of the walls, supporting the wrought iron trusses, thus avoiding any appearance of heaviness.  On each column stands decorated capitals moulded in cast-iron and painted in a beautiful array of color.  This new style, employing cast iron and metal framework became popular and was used in other neighboring church construction, such as with St. Augustine, also in downtown Paris (built between 1860-1869, it was the first monumental religious building in Paris with a metal framework).   Visitors to Saint-Eugène enter and notice the markedly vertical framework that gives this church its specific character as the eyes of the faithful are drawn up to heaven.  In place of the massive pillars of yesteryear, the 36 columns are as thin as lances, separating the nave from the aisles, with little wooden chairs for the faithful to sit on. 

The interior of the church is absolutely stunning with a colorful, airy space.  Facing north, the light of the beautiful afternoon sun enters the Gothic inspired sanctuary, recalling a holy place.  The display of vivid stained glass windows harmonizes with iron piers and moldings that are painted in a variety of colors that match the glow of the stained glass windows.  Blues, reds and greens provide for a dark interior, with mythical ceiling vaults.  From the entrance the eye embraces the entire volume of the church, with the ceiling decorated with exquisite stencil work strewn with stars in the Neo-Gothic style, bright yellow in the nave and midnight blue in the apses.  The interior is clearly inspired by Sainte-Chapelle, the royal chapel in Paris of the kings of France.  In addition, influences were taken from the Priory of Saint-Martin-des-Champs, an iconic monastery in Paris that was suppressed during the French Revolution.  

The windows are mostly the work of master glassmakers Lusson, Gsell and Oudinot.  Louis-Adrien Lusson and Gaspard Gsell created the main stained glass windows.  The centerpiece in the sanctuary is the window depicting the Transfiguration of Our Lord.  The unique Stations of the Cross on the main level are famous because they are depicted in stained glass, a rare work of Eugène-Stanislas Oudinot.  These windows are resolutely notable because they are the only known example of the Via Crucis realized entirely in stained glass.  The pulpit alone is an incredible work of art, made of carven wood with a beautiful canopy.    

One of the biggest assets of the parish is the excellent choir, the Schola Sainte Cécile.  This is one of the finest church choirs in the Catholic world.  It is directed by the distinguished maestro Henri Adam de Villers, a graduate of the Sorbonne and an extremely competent director of music.  Henri keeps busy, conducting two church choirs.  He is French and speaks perfect English, a native of the French Island of Réunion in the Indian Ocean.   The choir has an excellent YouTube channel that I highly recommend for readers to get a taste of the high quality music that is made available to all in Paris.  My favorite hymn sung by the choir is Domine Salva Fac Galliam, which they sing on patriotic occasions such as the feast of St. Denis, Patron saint of Paris and France.  The beautiful pipe organ of the church complements the choir, built by the German organ builder Joseph Merklin who lived in Paris.  This same organ was exhibited at the 1855 Universal Exhibition in Paris before it was installed in the church.  It has 33 stops, 3 keyboards of 56 notes each, a pedal board of 27 notes, and 1,941 pipes.    

Saint-Eugène is the same historic church where Jules Verne was married in 1857, a French novelist and major literary author.  It was built by decree of the Emperor Napoleon III and dedicated to Saint-Eugène de Deuil-la-Barre in honor of the Emperor's wife, the Empress Eugénie(1826-1920) who was present for the dedication of the church.  Although the church was consecrated to Saint-Eugène, in 1952 the name of Sainte-Cécile was later added as a nod to the patron saint of musicians due to the close proximity of the church to the Paris Conservatory, a college of music founded in 1795.  For this reason the church was initially deprived of bells at the time of its construction, so as to not interfere with the lessons.  Many of the students of organ would visit the church to practice on the parish organ.  Although the church was blessed and dedicated in 1855, it was not until the Holy Year 2000 that the fully completed interior of the church was dedicated by Cardinal Lustiger, Archbishop of Paris.  At that time he also blessed the new carillon, a set of bells finally installed despite the absence of a bell tower.  For more historical information on the church, see here.

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