Hotel? Office? Mushroom farm? Unused French churches get new roles.

Transformation Europe

Hotel? Office? Mushroom farm? Unused French churches get new roles.

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France has too many empty church buildings. No one wants to tear them down, but how do towns find new purposes for them while navigating sensitivities about those new roles?

While a church is perhaps an unlikely setting for a mushroom harvest, the conditions are perfect: warm and humid, with no major temperature variations. Since 2020, Le Champignon Urbain has been operating here, after winning a competition organized by Nantes City Hall in its search for a way to save the long abandoned 19th-century chapel.

Le Champignon Urbain is one of a growing number of projects breathing new life into churches across France that would otherwise fall into ruin. From Nantes to Angers, Rouen to Caen, some of France’s most historic religious establishments are being transformed into concert venues, hotels, and nightclubs.

For many, the transformations are seen as a blessing – a way to save France’s rich religious heritage. For others, they are sacrilegious. But fewer French are attending church and even fewer are opening their pocketbooks to save them. With thousands of churches across France at risk of ruin due to a lack of maintenance, both city and religious officials are left with few choices: transform their dying churches or say goodbye to a piece of history.

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“The French are very attached to their local bell tower, but how far are they willing to go to save it?” says Mathieu Lours, a historian of religious architecture and heritage. “Some people might not like the idea of transformation, but if no-one invests in church maintenance, it will be torn down. We need to find uses for churches that respect the dignity and memory of the place, and create bonds in the community.”

Maintaining churches – and their spirit

France has a unique relationship with its churches that dates back to the French Revolution. The “Reign of Terror,” which began in 1793, led to the abolition of the Roman Catholic monarchy and a nationalization of church property. A century later in 1905, the separation of church and state was enshrined into law. Churches built before that date were put into the hands of city halls; those built later were to be run by the church authorities.

Now, French municipalities own more than 42,000 churches and Catholic dioceses around 2,500. 

Around 15,000 of those are classed as historical monuments and qualify for government aid. But for the rest, it’s up to local city halls and dioceses to find the funding to maintain electricity, plumbing, and the iconic bell towers. The cost of renovations can reach into the millions, putting pressure on even the most forgiving budgets. Heritage experts told the French Senate this month that between 2,500 and 5,000 churches were at risk of being torn down by 2030.

That’s precisely what local mayor Patrice Boudignat was trying to avoid when his town chapel in Melz-sur-Seine, outside Paris, fell into disrepair in 2012. The roof was in terrible shape and the Diocese of Meaux, which owned the Blunay Chapel, didn’t have the means to fix it.

“My grandfather helped transform the chapel from a former barn [in 1952] and it was important for me to save it,” says Mr. Boudignat, who has since left office and works as a mustard producer. “We needed to find a way to maintain it without destroying its spirit.”

The diocese agreed to deconsecrate the chapel by official decree, remove all religious insignia, and sell it back to the town for a symbolic one euro. The town hall fixed the roof and transformed the chapel into a cultural center, which now hosts a handful of events each year.

Mr. Boudignat says some residents were shocked to lose the chapel’s original function, but historically, such transformations are nothing new. The French Revolution saw churches converted into storage warehouses and even stables, and in 1958 France’s culture minister, André Malraux, famously bought the Saint-Frambourg Chapel in Senlis, north of Paris, for a symbolic one franc. He offered it to renowned Hungarian pianist György Cziffra, who later turned it into a concert hall and arts foundation.

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Four years later, Mr. Malraux passed a law to further protect France’s architectural heritage. Now, the current government appears committed to continuing that tradition.

“We need to work together to preserve and transmit our heritage from generation to generation,” said Rima Abdul Malak, France’s minister of culture, during the National Heritage Fund’s Prix Sésame awards ceremony last month, which recognized 11 church reuse and repurposing projects. “Reuse projects don’t just restore bricks. They restore life, history, our collective stories.”

Scandalous or special?

Still, church repurposing projects are a lengthy process. Once a church has been deconsecrated, applications to use the building are solicited, and both city hall and the local Catholic diocese must give their approval to the winning project before architects can launch into costly and sometimes complicated renovations. According to France’s Observatory for Religious Heritage, 300 churches have been or are in the process of being repurposed, with half centered around housing projects and the rest dedicated to community-service initiatives.

The majority go forward in larger cities without a hitch, where their new usage is less conspicuous. But some transformations are a hard sell, especially for religious members of the community.

Edouard de Lamaze, president of the Observatory for Religious Heritage, recalls a woman calling the transformation of a church in Angers into a nightclub “scandalous,” and a church-turned-hotel in Nantes has created some unease. The 19th-century Petite-Sagesse Chapel, now the four-star Sozo Hotel, features original stained-glass windows and archways in several of its 24 rooms.

“I’m religious so I don’t think I could sleep in a hotel with God looking over my head,” says Nantes resident Mino Ranaivo, while out with co-workers in a nearby restaurant. “I don’t think a church should serve any other purpose than being a church. Transforming it is no better than destroying it, because that transformation destroys it in a way, in the end.”

But Cassandre Blanquart, the hotel’s director, says her customers know what they’re getting when they book a room there, and do so in part for the novelty. Others say the French should reconsider what is and isn’t acceptable inside a church.

“People need to separate religion from heritage, to be open to new possibilities,” says Mr. de Lamaze. “It shouldn’t be about this or that project. It’s about saving our architectural history.”

Part of that, say observers, is getting communities to invest in their local heritage. While the French were extremely generous after the Notre Dame cathedral caught fire in 2019 – donating nearly $1 billion to reconstruction efforts – they’ve been less so with their local churches.

In the meantime, church transformations can be part of the solution. Already, such projects are picking up steam – the Observatory for Religious Heritage lists a half-dozen per month, with 87 in 2022. The goal, for both heritage experts and the community alike, is to create something unique that also retains a church’s original essence.

“As soon as I entered this space, I said to myself, ‘This is it.’ It had such a good energy,” says Valérie Frèrejouand, a professional coach who rents a desk at W’in Coworking in the now deconsecrated Marie-Réparatrice Chapel in central Nantes. “Because this is a former church, there is a special light that comes through the windows here and a sense of calm. That energy never goes away.”


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