by David Sheppe
Preserving human creations from past centuries offers the promise of continued discovery by the generations to come. It is nothing short of incredible to bear witness to 1,500-year-old art and architecture, such as that which exists at Paris’ oldest church: the Church of Saint Germain des Prés. How meaningful, then, that any of us can have a hand in gifting that experience to others. Beyond personal meaning, however, there are a number of unique factors to consider when restoring art and architecture with such historical significance.
Named for one of the original bishops of Paris in 543, Saint Germain des Prés has seen the city through from the Middle Ages to the modern day. When Paris was first established, it existed only on the two natural islands in the middle of the Seine River. The church was just outside the city at that time, but as the city built up and out over the centuries, it did so all around the steadfast “église de Saint Germain des Prés.” The church became a central element of the community and indeed gave its name to the surrounding neighborhood, now known simply as Saint Germain des Prés. As far as we know, this is the only neighborhood in Paris to have taken its name from the local church rather than vice-versa.
The Church of Saint Germain des Prés — the building and its artwork — reflects many eras of French history, art, and culture. As the oldest church in Paris, it has influenced and shaped people, places, and ideas throughout history, including the famous philosopher Descartes, the novelist Victor Hugo, and generations of Sorbonne students and teachers. Its architecture is a fascinating compilation of styles, from Romanesque arches and capitals to Gothic elements in the nave and choir.
Walking through this house of worship is like taking a journey to the past. Visitors bear witness to centuries-old art depicting historical and religious figures, intricately decorated capitals portraying aspects of the Old and New Testaments, plants and animals, and even monastic life. Most notable are the vast mural works painted by Hippolyte Flandrin in the 19th century.
Every aspect of the church itself is a testament to French culture and history. Unfortunately, the overall condition of the church has deteriorated steadily throughout the centuries. Determined to halt this deterioration, the American Friends for the Preservation of Saint Germain des Prés are working with the City of Paris (which owns the building), the Regional Directorate for Cultural Affairs, and the Endowment Fund for the Protection of Saint Germain des Prés to generate funds to restore and preserve this unique historical monument.
Navigating Funding Issues
There are a number of practical factors that come into play to allow restoration work to move forward successfully. First, unanimous decision making must occur between the City of Paris, which owns the building, and all those involved in restoration efforts. The aforementioned parties invested in this process — plus the parishioners, the Catholic Church, and the community members — agreed that restoration was vital and that the time was now.
Funding was naturally the next priority, and is ongoing. The City of Paris has many historical treasures in its care and can only fund approximately 15% of the total cost of restoration for Saint Germain des Prés, leaving the remaining 85% to come from private donors, such as those who contribute to the Adopt a Saint Germain Star campaign. Restoration is planned in phases as funding allows, and consummate professionals are researched, agreed upon by all invested parties and brought on board as needed to complete the required work.
Focusing On Progress
This kind of large-scale restoration of a cultural icon is only successful when people care about it, and the restoration of the Church of Saint Germain des Prés has seen some incredible progress thus far. There is much work yet to be done, but caring enough to take action is what makes preserving the monuments of the past possible so that generations of the future may continue to find their own meaning in them. Together, we are carrying the torch of history forward.
About: David Sheppe has enjoyed a long career in international banking and now works as a financial and risk management consultant. It was while living in Paris in the 1980s that he first took an interest in the church of Saint Germain des Prés, and he has been a frequent visitor ever since. From 2013 to 2016, he was once again a Paris resident, and it was then that he became acquainted with the work of the “Fonds de Dotation,” the Paris-based fundraising arm for renovating the church. Following his return to the US in 2016, David did volunteer work for the US-based American Friends for the Preservation of Saint Germain des Prés, before joining its board in 2017. He is now leading the charge on the current Adopt A Saint Germain Star™ Campaign in the United States. David is a graduate of Dartmouth College and Cornell University. He resides in southwest Connecticut. For more information, visit www.PreserveSaintGermain.org.