Posted in education on December 28, 2017 12:05 pm EST

The Cathedrals of Paris

A seasoned journalist and longtime Church Designer contributor, Carolyn Heinze, reports on the modern significance of the sacred space wonders of Paris, her city of residence.

La Basilique du Sacré Coeur de Montmartre; copyright Paris Tourist Office, photographer: Jacques Lebar.











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TAGS: acoustics, architectural design, architecture, community connection, materials, worship,


By Carolyn Heinze

When my editor approached me about writing a piece on unique attributes of cathedrals in Paris, my adopted city, some rather un-unique words came to mind: Stone. Gothic. Stained glass. Domes. Frescos. Marble. Gargoyles. Sculptures. Echoes. More stone.

Then: cold.

Because that’s the thing: no matter the time of year, no matter the temperature outdoors, no matter if it’s a cathedral, or a basilica, or a plain-old church; in Paris, these buildings are cold. Even when photographed in the setting summer sun, they rarely conjure up feelings of warmth, reassurance, the notion that this is, indeed, a safe place. A sacred place? For sure. But a place where one is encouraged to feel secure in their journey of faith? I don’t think so.

Hôtel des Invalides; copyright Paris Tourist Office, photographer: Sarah Sergent.

Like many structures throughout France, the houses of worship here were built to be impressive, not inviting. Beautiful and unapproachable. Imposing––and unwelcoming. Their intent was to remind visitors of how powerful the country was, and to suggest how little everyone else was in comparison. Today, we talk about how one small person can undergo a major transformation and make a big difference in their social circle, their congregation, their community, their country, even the world. It’s hard to imagine, even today, how encouraged one would feel to change things up for the better while shivering within those cold, cold stone walls.

Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris; copyright Paris Tourist Office, photographer: David Lefranc.

That’s not to say that I’m dismissing the cathedrals and basilicas––and plain-old churches––here in Paris. Who could? They’re gorgeous, and awe-inspiring, and just plain inspiring, and they offer one a lot to learn. But to me they’re more like museums: one visits them to admire the work of masters. They don’t feel like the place one goes to explore their relationship with God. At least, not in my North American mind.

L’Eglise de la Sainte-Trinité; copyright Paris Tourist Office, photographer: Amélie Dupont.

Apples to oranges

Comparing houses of worship in Paris to those in America seems like comparing apples to oranges. In a way it is, and in a way it’s not. After 20 years of writing about American churches, mainly contemporary, it’s difficult for me not to compare them, if only to understand … context? History? Cultural differences? A bunch of stuff. In the U.S. today, churches are concerned with things like platform design: is the pastor close enough to the congregation? Does the worship space feel safe, warm, and intimate, even when it seats several thousand? Or the siting of the building: does the façade/entryway/exterior landscaping invite curious passersby to come in and take a look––and eventually, if they wish, as they wish, participate? Aside from the specific activities of specific ministries, does the facility itself––and we call them “facilities” now, and that’s an important word to keep in mind––evoke a spirit of community outreach? Is our coffee bar comfortable enough to make people want to come and simply hang out? The more things change....

It was a first for France: rock ‘n’ roll in an old church? It could have been a scandal, but it was generally well-received.

... here in Paris, at least, they stay the same. In the centuries-old churches at least. Sort of. Two weeks before I sat down to write this, France’s biggest rock star, Johnny Hallyday, died. Johnny was Catholic; his funeral Mass took place at L’Eglise de la Madeleine in Paris. And amidst all that cold stone and marble and Greek pillars (la Madeleine was conceived under Napoleon I, a fan of Caesar and thus, a fan of pillars), Johnny’s band played. It was a first for France: rock ‘n’ roll in an old church? It could have been a scandal, but it was generally well-received.

A sign of the times? Definitely. A sign that we’re going to see centuries-old Parisian churches outfitted for contemporary concert-style worship on a regular basis? I doubt it. In a society that continues to remind everyone who’s élite and who’s not, that stuff is for VIPs only. But I could be wrong....



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