Gesté’s church reflected in a shop window
The soaring steeple, airy flying buttresses and steep slate roof of the 19th-century parish church that dominates this town in western France is — like many other village churches in France — scheduled for demolition, a victim of its size, its condition and, ultimately, municipal budget concerns.
Although the church, dedicated to St. Peter, is arguably the sole architectural jewel in this town of 2,400 people, the town has decided to tear it down and replace it with a new one that will be far cheaper to keep up.
Erected in stages to accommodate 900 people, the formidable stone building has stood sadly empty since 2006. Completing the picture of dereliction, it is surrounded by a wire fence to protect visitors from the very real threat of crumbling stonework.
“Because of its size and complexity it will always be costly to maintain,” said Jean-Pierre Léger, 61, a retired engineer who is Gesté’s part-time mayor. “It is a victim of its considerable size. It is too big.”
The mayor and the town council voted, 17 to 16, two years ago to demolish the church, saying it would cost $4.4 million to renovate, against $1.9 million to demolish it and erect a new one…
The struggle is not unique to Gesté. Across France, villages are being forced to ask hard questions about their churches, many of them deteriorating, as the number of parishioners and priests dwindles and the cost of upkeep mounts.
Béatrice de Andia, the founder and president of the Religious Heritage Observatory, in Paris, estimates that there are about 90,000 church buildings in France, of which about 17,000 are under government protection for their historic or architectural value, giving France the greatest density of religious buildings of any European country. About 10 percent of the protected churches are in perilous condition, she says, because of a lack of government financing for their preservation, as are a far larger percentage of the remaining churches.
“The Church may be eternal, but not the churches,” said Ms. de Andia, a retired government cultural official who founded the observatory in 2006 to raise awareness of the parlous state of the country’s religious heritage. “In the past, these buildings were sacred, but today there is no sense of the sacred.”
And even less need.