The Sacred Heart of Montmartre, a conflicting memory

Wherever we see it in the capital, it emerges in the landscape as evidence. In just over a century, the Sacré-Coeur de Montmartre has become part of Parisian retinas. However, the basilica, visited by more than 11 million people each year, is still not classified as a historic monument, a protective status enjoyed by more than 45,000 buildings in France.

To remedy this incongruity, the town hall of Paris, owner of the basilica, obtained its registration in the inventory of historical monuments in 2020, the first step in the classification procedure. This week, she proposes to the Council of Paris to approve the classification itself. Once classified, a monument cannot be destroyed or modified, even in part, and the State can participate in the financing of restoration work, up to paying for it in full.

But why has the Sacred Heart never been listed? The conflicting history of the monument explains this long legal vacuum. Built from 1873 and consecrated in 1919, the Sacred Heart has long been caught up in the conflict between the two Frances, the Catholic and the secular. Its genesis is rooted in a traumatic French history, that of France’s defeat by Prussia at Sedan in September 1870.

In an extremely tense political and social context, two Catholics from the Parisian bourgeoisie, close to social Catholicism and the Society of Saint-Vincent-de-Paul, Alexandre-Félix Legentil and Hubert Rohault de Fleury, made the vow in December 1870 of erect a sanctuary dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. According to the dolorist spirituality which is theirs, it is a question of doing penance, expiating and repairing the collective sin which led France to catastrophe.

A conflicting construction

These social Catholics are rather moderates, who keep their distance from the political scene, but the surrounding climate will quickly color their project, taken over by the monarchist right hostile to the Republic. “In its original version, the wish of Legentil and his relatives predates the Commune of spring 1871, but the construction of the Sacré-Coeur, which begins in 1873, is later, which will influence the spirit of its construction. , explains Étienne Fouilloux, specialist in the history of contemporary Catholicism. It was driven by the anti-Communard climate of the so-called Moral Order chamber (between 1873 and 1876-1877). »

The funds collected to build the Sacred Heart are private, but an 1873 law declares its construction “of public utility” and facilitate it. The project fits with difficulty on the Montmartre hill, the scene of one of the bloodiest episodes of the Commune’s repression. Back in power from 1877, the Republicans tried three times to interrupt the construction site. Failing to achieve this, they make the Eiffel Tower a rival emblem, symbol of a modern, secular and scientific France.

On the side of the Church, the construction of the basilica is invested with a spirit of revenge. “By occupying high places, with triumphalist architecture, French Catholicism at the end of the 19th century sought to set itself up as a counter-society, to affirm that France was still a Christian nation”, continues Etienne Fouilloux.

A progressive reconciliation

It was not until the First World War and the Sacred Union that the situation normalized.. “Peace around the monument was only truly achieved in 1940, in the midst of a military crisis, when Cardinal Suhard celebrated a Te Deum at the basilica, in the presence of the President of the Republic Albert Lebrun and numerous ministers. There, the symbiosis is made “, adds the historian.

Since then, the Sacred Heart no longer arouses major hostility, but it continues to be hated by part of the radical left.. “The Sacred Heart remains a church that is not like the others, analyzes Father Jacques Benoist, specialist in the history of the Sacred Heart. It affects the place of the Church and religion in French society, secularism, creates divisions between left and right, but also between the left and even between the right…”

Even recently, in 2020, a petition brought together 2,600 signatories opposed to the classification project. And the town hall has come under a lot of criticism for having initially planned to have the monument classified in 2021, the year of the 150th anniversary of the Commune, unnecessarily rekindling the wounds. “It was totally clumsy, I can understand that it shocked”, reacts Father Stéphane Esclef, rector of the basilica, anxious to avoid controversy.

A classification with a touristic stake

Is the classification of the Sacred Heart the symbol of a page that turns? “The memory of the Sacred Heart is peaceful today. It has become so emblematic of Paris,” considers Etienne Fouilloux. “It’s a sign that the great boa of heritage has swallowed everything”, smiled Father Jacques Benoist for his part. It must be said that the classification has mainly tourist and financial motivations.

It will come to consolidate the candidature of the butte Montmartre to an inscription on the list of the world inheritance of UNESCO, wished by the town hall. It will also allow it to share the cost of its maintenance. “Since the 1960s, with the development of tourism, the Sacré-Coeur has had revenues which enabled it in part to ensure its self-maintenance, deciphers Father Jacques Benoist. Today, the finances of the Church are struggling to follow and the town hall of Paris hopes for financial support from the State.. »

For Father Stéphane Esclef, this classification is in any case ” An evidence “. He hopes that this change of status will make it possible to start work that has been necessary for many years. “Today, the basilica is not accessible from the forecourt for people with reduced mobility, this project is the first of our priorities, indicates the rector. The second concerns the organ, a very fine Cavaillé-Coll, which is deteriorating at high speed. »

But the rector sees further. He would like to be able to open the huge crypt of the basilica to the public, which implies major work to bring it up to standard. “We want to offer an immersive device that would explain the meaning of what is happening in the basilica”, he indicates, aware that the Sacred Heart is today “first discovered by visitors as a monument before being discovered as a spiritual place”. After overcoming its stormy past, the Sacré-Coeur now faces a new challenge: that of a fading religious memory.


Important dates for the Sacred Heart

December 1870. Worried about the situation in France, Legentil and Rohault imagine the construction of a church dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and formulate the “national wish”.

April 14, 1872. Official launch of the project.

1873. Vote of the construction project by the National Assembly.

1874. Architect Paul Abadie wins the competition.

June 16, 1875. Laying of the first stone.

1er August 1885. Beginning of continuous Eucharistic adoration, which has never ceased since.

June 5, 1891. Solemn inauguration of the basilica, without the large dome which is not yet built.

October 16, 1919. Consecration of the basilica.

October 21, 2020. The monument is “registered” as a historical monument.

October 2022. Vote of the Council of Paris on the classification of the monument.

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