A few years ago, I spent nearly every spring morning with my young daughter in the tiny playground behind Notre Dame Cathedral. It was a great place to take a break. There were comfy benches and shade trees and clean bathrooms with an attendant.
Often, we’d find ourselves back in the center of town in the afternoon, sipping juice at a long table outside the Shakespeare and Company bookstore, gazing up at Notre Dame across the street, which towered above a cloud of pink cherry blossoms.
And yet the Cathedral of Notre Dame was not my favorite church in Paris—not after I discovered the lesser-known Basilica of Saint Denis. Located just outside the city (but accessible by the Paris Métro), this magnificent Gothic structure serves as the necropolis for most of the kings and queens of France. An extraordinary place filled with breathtaking art and artifacts, it’s one of the most important French national monuments.
Nor, in my opinion, could Notre Dame compete with the Sainte Chapelle, with over a thousand individual stained-glass window scenes that cover more than 6,000 square feet. Their effect is indescribable. Built by King Louis IX, the only French king to be canonized, Sainte-Chapelle once held the sacred relics he acquired from the Holy Land during the Crusades—including the same Crown of Thorns that moved to Notre Dame Cathedral for safekeeping after the French Revolution, and which would be saved again by a courageous priest who helped to rescue it from the recent flames.
In fact, there are many extraordinary Catholic spaces in Paris, like the Église Saint-Germainl’Auxerrois, a jewel box of a church with fantastical gargoyles, including a boule-des-rats (ball of rats). Or the Église Saint-Eustache, a massive Gothic and Renaissance church that offers free Sunday concerts by some of the most renowned organists in the world (Liszt played here in his day). Or the second-largest church in Paris, the Église Saint-Sulpice, which features murals by Eugène Delacroix. I could go on.
Few expats, even Catholic ones, have probably ever noticed the statue of Saint Geneviève, the beloved patroness of Paris, who faces east on the Pont de la Tournelle. Geneviève’s prayers are said to have diverted an attack by Atilla the Hun. On her feast day in January, the faithful still carry her relics in a long procession from the Montagne Sainte-Geneviève, in the Latin Quarter, to the Cathedral of Notre Dame. As the relics pass by the sidewalk bars and cafés of the city, people—Catholic or not—often stand, and gentlemen remove their hats.
I spent a lot of time visiting churches in Paris that spring with my daughter because I was in crisis, trying to hang on to a faith that had been broken. It was a downward spiral that had begun a decade earlier, at my job with a Catholic magazine owned by the Legion of Christ, an organization founded by Marcial Maciel, a priest whom we would learn had abused children and young people. A few years after that, my husband revealed to me he’d been a victim of a violent sexual assault by a priest as a student in Ireland. Since then, I have accompanied him on a difficult road—one that has not yet come to an end.
In Paris, I thought I found peace. But the release of the Pennsylvania grand jury report knocked me down again. The idea of a church—or even a God—that allowed children to be raped and tortured, tormented and disbelieved, no longer makes sense to me, no matter how many ways I try to reconcile it. I think of Mother Theresa’s dark night of the soul. I try to remain open. I talk to my priest. He assures me I am a person of good will.
I joined the camp of Catholics who believe the Church should sell off most of its properties and artworks. During this especially dark time, the notion of maintaining any sort of ostentation— architectural or otherwise—seems completely out of place.
So I was surprised by my reaction to a financial appeal from my local church earlier this year. The soaring Victorian structure needs $400,000 worth of repairs. A good-humored parishioner outlined the five-year capital campaign at the end of Mass, speaking about the immigrant workers who came to central New York to dig the Chenango Canal, and who designed and built our church as an homage to the one they’d left behind. It is a beautiful structure, crafted with handsome materials, nearly impossible to replicate in today’s economy.
I sat in the car after the service, crying, asking my husband—still a committed Catholic—to direct a recent tax-refund check to the project. At first, I told myself it was because our priest, a young man of great integrity, has been so supportive of my husband’s efforts on behalf of victims of clergy abuse and sexual assault, a kind of solidarity that is much rarer than you might imagine.
But the truth is, I realized I care deeply about St. Mary’s Church at the end of Wylie Street, where illegally parked cars overflow on Sunday mornings and kids throw stones into the Saint Francis fountain, because this church is part of the place that is my home. Just as Notre Dame is the home of all Parisians, and of the visitors who rest there, even for a short while.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Written by: Elizabeth Douglas
Elizabeth Douglas is an emerging playwright and the author of The Habit: A History of the Clothing of Catholic Nuns (Doubleday/Image).