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  • Writer's pictureWill von Behr, MA

A Brief History of the Église Saint-Paul-Saint-Louis in Paris

What is the Église Saint-Paul-Saint-Louis?

The Église Saint-Paul-Saint-Louis is a 17th-century Jesuit church in Paris that's built in Baroque style with various literary connections.

The Église Saint-Paul-Saint-Louis

Église Saint-Paul-Saint-Louis History

In 1871, France had been defeated by the Prussians, Emperor Napoleon III (the nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte) had been captured, and Paris had been under siege by Prussian forces for four long months. The National Assembly, elected to broker a peace with the enemy, had a royalist majority, thereby creating fear amongst the republican Parisians that they were set to restore the monarchy.

As a result, a Commune government of revolutionaries was established in opposition to the National Assembly. The final week of the Commune’s two-month rule, known as ‘la semaine sanglante’ or ‘the bloody week’, was one of destruction and death. 20,000 Communards perished at the hands of the French army, whilst, in desperation, the revolutionaries executed a number of hostages and set fire to many public buildings. On a pillar in the nave of this church is a barely visible inscription that reads, ‘République Française ou la mort’: ‘French Republic or death’. No one knows exactly how these words came to be there, but it is believed they were written during this very week.

The church itself was constructed well before the days of the Commune, with its first stone laid in 1627 by King Louis XIII. Saint-Paul-Saint-Louis was one of the first churches in Paris to adopt a Baroque architectural style and it quickly became one of the most important religious buildings in the city. It was said to be so popular that servants were sent to the church early on holidays to reserve a place for their masters. The church opened in 1641 and was inaugurated by no less than Cardinal Richelieu himself, a French clergyman who has frequently been represented in fiction, most notably as the villain in Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers.

The church also has another interesting literary connection, as the inspiration for a key setting in one of France’s most acclaimed and beloved novels, Les Misérables. In the mid-19th century, Victor Hugo lived not far from the church in the Place des Vosges, and his daughter Leopoldine got married to Charles Vacquerie in the church in 1843. The author even donated two clamshell shaped holy water holders, which can still be seen to this day. Sadly, the newlyweds would both drown in a boating accident only a few months later, but despite this tragedy, their wedding and the church in which it took place, would serve as inspiration for the marriage of Marius and Cosette in the novel.

There’s plenty to see once your inside. In the north transept, you’ll find the dramatic Christ On the Mount of Olives by the French Romantic artist Eugène Delacroix and the dome of the church itself is of great significance as one of the oldest and largest in Paris.

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