Anyone who is an avid reader of this blog will soon realise that Ruth and I have a penchant for visiting religious institutions. Not that we are particularly religious, but the history, architecture, art and music of these magnificent buildings impel us to open their doors and discover the beauty beyond.
I have lost count of the times that we have opened a church door and walked into the middle of a baptism, wedding, funeral, or mass. Most often these occasions are accompanied by some of the most amazing organ music imagined.
Some years ago, we came upon l’église Saint-Thomas while walking around Strasbourg. Unbeknown to us at the time, we had walked into the church where Albert Schweitzer gained prominence as a musical scholar and organist. We spent the afternoon as the only people in the church, listening to the local organist play Bach. What luck and what music!
Paris is the organ capital of the world, housing 234 instruments, 126 of which are the property of the City of Paris. The churches that act as guardians of these great instruments often hold free organ recitals, mainly on the weekend.
L’église Saint-Eustache was another one of those occasions when we were curious to explore inside. And, we just happened to walk into the middle of a workshop by Baptiste-Florian Marle-Ouvrard, Titular Organist of Saint-Eustache. A thirty-minute free recital followed.
It is hard to describe the experience of listening to this talented musician, but judge for yourself with the following video.
The origins of l’église Saint-Eustache go back to 1213 when a local merchant, Jean Alais, lent King Philip Auguste a large sum of money. To repay him, the King allowed Jean Alais to tax the fish sold at Les Halles. To give thanks for his good fortune, Jean Alais erected a Chapel dedicated to Sainte-Agnès, a Roman martyr.
In 1303, the chapel acquired the status of a church and was dedicated to Saint Eustace, a Roman military officer whose conversion to Christianity in the second century AD led to his martyrdom. The Church also became the guardian of the Saint Eustace relics, acquired from the Saint-Denis Abbey.
The current building commenced in 1532, and although its construction took more than a century due to religious wars and lack of funds, the edifice is remarkably harmonious. The eighteenth century saw a new facade added.
The French Revolution saw Saint-Eustache looted and desecrated, but some famous works of art survived, including a painting by Rubens.
In 1804, on the occasion of the coronation of Napoleon, Pope Pius VII consecrated the Chapel of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
During the Seige of Paris (1870-1871), many missiles hit the edifice, and the bell tower collapsed. The attics and buttresses were, however, repaired, and the bell tower rebuilt.
Restorations have been carried out ever since and in 1971 work begun to restore the south-west tower.
When the central Paris market moved to Rungis in 1969, the life of the neighbourhood completely changed from a thriving open market to a sophisticated cultural centre. The recent development of Les Halles shopping mall and the continued attraction of Rue Montorgueil has placed Saint-Eustache in a prominent position within the First Arrondissement.
Saint-Eustache is a real community church, the legacy of being in the midst of a vibrant market neighbourhood. It manages to blend the spiritual and pastoral with the social and artistic needs of the people.
Jardin Nelson Mandela sits on the south side of Saint-Eustache. Previously named Jardin des Halles, the garden is one of the major components of the urban renewal project of the Halles district. It provides a green oasis in the midst of a bustling commercial centre and a reminder of the importance of community in the life of Saint-Eustache.
In keeping with its tradition of classical music, the church hosts performances all year round by symphony orchestras and choral ensembles. But, it does not exempt more contemporary offerings.
During the Festival of Music in June, the Festival 36 Hours of Saint-Eustache is an opportunity to expose the parish to thousands of people for 36 hours of uninterrupted music where children’s choirs intersect with organ, jazz, folk and rock music.
The Nuit Blanche Festival is held every year from 7:00 p.m.-7:00 a.m. on the first Saturday in October when Paris morphs into a heart-stopping celebration of art, music and theatrical events. This year, the work of Miguel Chevalier will light the vaults of Saint-Eustache, accompanied by Baptiste-Florian Marle-Ouvrard, Titular Organist of Saint-Eustache, and Les Chanteurs de Saint-Eustache.
With nearly 8,000 pipes, the organ of Saint-Eustache is considered one of the most prestigious in France alongside that of Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris.
L’église Saint-Eustache saw its first organ in the sixteenth century, but there is little information about its original composition. Evidence exists that Saint-Germain-des-Prés transferred its organ to Saint-Eustache during the French Revolution, but that Saint-Eustache never returned it once the conflict had ended.
Rebuilt in the early nineteenth century by Daublaine-Callinet, a fire destroyed it in 1844. It was again rebuilt between 1849 and 1854 by Charles Barker and Charles Verschneider but suffered further damage during the Seige of Paris in 1871. The instrument limped along for several years until Joseph Merklin restored it in 1879.
The organ underwent numerous changes in the twentieth century but was eventually ruined by some unfortunate restorations, including that of 1978.
In 1985, the City of Paris decided to organise a European competition to rebuild the instrument. Jean-Louis Coignet designed the organ under the direction of Titular Organist Jean Guillou. The successful tender went to the Dutch company, Van den Heuvel.
The organ is entirely new, except for the buffet, which was built in the mid-nineteenth century on the design of the architect Baltard.
Construction of the new instrument began in 1986, and was completed and assembled in the workshop of Van den Heuvel (Netherlands) in August 1988. In the same year, the instrument was dismantled and sent to Paris, where it was re-installed. The inaugural recital took place on September 21, 1989.
Following several lightning strikes that damaged the electronics of both church and organ, it was decided, in 2010, to modernise it with a state-of-the-art computer system. The memory system now holds 20,000 combinations, which can be copied to a USB memory stick.
The City of Paris owns 126 of the Paris organs. A yearly budget of 250,000 euros is insufficient to cover maintenance and restoration works of all these great instruments. Saint-Eustache’s organ requires regular and detailed maintenance. In 2016, the parish is financing work costing 53,000 euros.
So, you should not be surprised to see volunteers collecting donations at the end of the free recitals. In giving to the collection, you contribute to the maintenance of the instrument as well as to the musical vocation of the church. Your contribution can help perpetuate the rich tradition of the church’s musical heritage for the benefit of future generations.
2 Impasse Saint-Eustache 75001 Paris
33 1 42 36 31 05
Open every day: 9:30 a.m.-7:00 p.m. week days; 9:00 a.m.-7:00 p.m. weekends
Metro 4: Les Halles