How a Group of Americans Is Working to Save the Oldest Church in Paris

The church of Saint-Germain-des-Prés has anchored this Left Bank neighborhood for 1,000 years. The leaders of a $5.7 million restoration effort want to keep it that way.

How a Group of Americans Is Working to Save the Oldest Church in Paris

Photo by Agence Pierre-Antoine Gatier / P. Voisin

Originally established during the rule of King Childebert I in the year 543 C.E., the church that dominates the sixth arrondissement neighborhood of Saint-Germain-des-Prés is claimed to be the oldest in Paris. It casts a long shadow on some of the city’s most beloved cafés, jazz clubs, and art museums (including the splendid Musée National Eugène Delacroix), and it’s a quick stroll from the former Hôtel d’Alsace, where exiled Oscar Wilde spent his last days in 1900.

The church has endured some hardships in its 15 centuries, including fires and a devastating saltpeter explosion that leveled its Benedictine abbey and cloisters—and the original structure was outright destroyed by the Normans when they ransacked Paris in the year 885. But Pope Alexander III rebuilt Saint-Germain-des-Prés at the top of the 11th century, and that edifice—despite the usual well-intentioned expansions and renovations, as well as a weird stint as a prison during the French Revolution—has stood tall in this neighborhood for 1,000 years. A passel of Frankish royals are entombed here, as is philopospher and mathematician René Descartes, and the church’s stained glass, murals, and stone carvings are some of the most glorious in Europe.

One of the goals of the restoration project is to brighten the church’s murals, dimmed over 1,000 years.

One of the goals of the restoration project is to brighten the church’s murals, dimmed over 1,000 years.

Photo by Agence Pierre-Antoine Gatier / P. Voisin

Now, a U.S.-based nonprofit organization called the American Friends for the Preservation of Saint Germain des Prés is working to ensure that this singularly important Parisian church will stand for another thousand years by raising funds for an exhaustive restoration project.

“A small group of interested people formed the American Friends to help save the church,” says board member David Sheppe, a former investment banker. “We recognized early on that the church had a significant impact on Americans who traveled to Paris (including servicemen in World War II), and on world culture more generally, and that this was in danger of being lost if some action was not taken.”

Under the guidance of noted Parisian architect Pierre-Antoine Gatier, the restoration team aims, first and foremost, to clean and revive the religious artwork lining the walls, filling the window arches, and covering the ceilings of the church, brightening colors dimmed by a millennium of candle smoke and the contemplative sighs of the faithful. The work won’t be finished until sometime in 2022.

The French government is offsetting some of the effort’s $5.7 million cost, and the U.S.-based group has aligned with a French counterpart, the Preservation of Saint Germain des Prés Foundation. But the fund-raisers have their work cut out for them: Fully 85 percent of the restoration’s funding will come from private donors. To that end, Sheppe leads the project’s Adopt A Saint Germain Star campaign, through which patrons can hitch their proverbial wagon to one of the 800 or so gold-leaf stars on the ceiling of the church’s Monk’s Choir. A clever interactive map of the ceiling allows donors to pick their star with a minimum donation of $100.

Watch the restoration team’s inspiring video below, and prepare to reach for your wallet.

>>Next: How to Save the World’s Landmarks Before They Disappear

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