FROM THE OUTSIDE it looks much the same as many other medium size Parisian parish churches. The five-bell array on the roof and the larger, exposed bell in the bell tower are perhaps a little quirky but apart from that nothing else seems out of the ordinary. So why then is the Église Notre-Dame du Travail listed as a monument historique?
Despite its rather undistinguished exterior, for me this is one of the most interesting churches in Paris. Inspired by the doctrine of social Catholicism, the church was founded largely thanks to the devotion and zeal of one man, Abbé Soulange-Bodin.
Stepping inside the Église Notre-Dame du Travail, it’s easy to see that this is no ordinary church; on the contrary, it’s quite extraordinary.
Jean-Baptiste Roger Soulange-Bodin was born on 4th February 1861 in Naples where his father was the French Consul General and his mother was the sister of a former French ambassador to Rome.
Roger spent his early years in Italy but in 1869 the family moved back to France where he was enrolled at the Collège Stanislas in Paris. When the Franco-Prussian war broke out in 1870 the family quit Paris and moved to Arcangues, near Biarritz where Roger went to the Petit Séminaire de Laressore. He then went on to spend a year studying at the Grand Séminaire de Bayonne before moving back to Paris and the Grand Séminaire de Saint-Sulpice. He was ordained at the age of 23.
Once ordained, Roger’s family were keen to see him established as a priest at one of the fashionable Parisian churches, Saint-Augustin or Saint-Philippe du Roule perhaps, but Roger was having none of it. Instead, he was appointed vicar at a church in a working-class parish in a district almost unknown to the rest of Paris.
The church of Notre-Dame de Plaisance was located in rue du Texel in what is now the 14th arrondissement. It was small, built of wood and served a small settlement of residents between Montrouge and Vaugirard. It became a parish church in March 1848 when its name was changed to Notre-Dame de l’Assomption.
In 1848, the parish comprised some 3,500 souls; there were a few maisons de plaisance with gardens and a few guinguettes and main occupation was market gardening.
By the time Abbé Soulange-Bodin arrived there in 1884, the neighbourhood had been completely transformed. It had been incorporated into the City of Paris in 1860 and with a population of over 35,000 it had become one of the most densely populated districts of Paris. The old wooden church had doubled in size but could still hardly contain more than 250 to 300 people. Even so, the church was seldom filled with the faithful, they preferred the neighbouring parishes of Saint-Pierre de Montrouge and Notre-Dame des Champs, or the chapel of the Franciscan Fathers in the rue des Fourneaux, where the services were better and the preachers more renowned.
In spite of the desolate nature of his new parish, the Abbé set to work with all the ardour of his impetuous nature. He carried out his parochial duties with enthusiasm and a personal warmth that endeared him to his flock but he sometimes grew weary of what he saw as the immense spiritual misery of his densely populated parish. He felt that the old parochial methods seemed so ineffective and he dreamed of a more popular, more direct, more practical, apostolate.
On Wednesday, 17th January 1896, Abbé Soulange-Bodin’s hard work and devotion to his parish were rewarded when he was promoted and installed as parish priest and given the task of building a new church.
He resolved to build a church that would unite the workers of all classes by the bond of religion. In honour of the workers in the parish, many of who were involved in constructing the massive Exspositon Universelle site in the Champs de Mars, the new church was to be called the Église Notre-Dame du Travail. The style would be modern: “Stone on the outside, but iron on the inside. Our ancestors had only stone and built enormous pillars, which prevented the altar and the pulpit from being seen; we shall henceforth have light iron columns which will terminate in thin ribs like the leaves of the palm. “
Land for the new church between rue Vercingétorix and rue Guilleminot was acquired and the architect Jules-Godefroy Astruc was engaged to design the church. But money was needed for the construction so, mustering all his vivacity, impetuosity, communicative warmth and fighting spirit, Abbé Soulange-Bodin set about the considerable task of raising over one million francs to finance the work.
The parish was poor so the Abbé needed to extend his appeal for money to a wider audience. From commerce and industry he copied their innovative use of advertising. He printed 100,000 prospectuses outlining his project, which he supplemented with brochures and posters and advertising in the successful monthly newspaper he founded, L’Echo de Plaisance. He was also not beyond appealing to his prospective subscriber’s vanity: “Benefactors of 1000 francs will have the right to a vault arch with arms or inscriptions of their choice.”
The final design of the church came from the third of three plans put forward. As far as the architect was concerned, using iron in the design was a practical solution to make the structure as cheap as possible. But for Abbé Soulange-Bodin the use of iron had a deeper meaning: iron was a material that allowed large spaces to be supported with few pillars but it also offered the workers of the parish a familiar framework, close to that which they knew in their world of work.
At that time, iron was used on this scale exclusively in civil and utility buildings (railway stations, factories, halls, etc.) so to incorporate iron in a church structure was a controversial decision. Conversely, the choice of the church’s outside façade was more conventional, inspired by Romanesque façades.
Inside the church, ten chapels decorated with floral lines painted with stencils representing several patron saints of the workers and the oppressed, flank the large nave. Local artists Giuseppe or Joseph Uberti and Émile Desouches painted these chapels. These paintings, paying tribute to the world of work through holy protectors, imitated an approach dating back to the Middle Ages.
Sounds inside the Église Notre-Dame du Travail on the day I visited:
Despite the extraordinary fund raising efforts of Abbé Soulange-Bodin, money often ran out and construction work had to be stopped but, on 1st January 1902, the church was finished; the roof was in place, the huge windows were filled with stained-glass and now it was a question of furnishing the interior. Once again using his newspaper, l’Écho de Plaisance, as a megaphone the Abbé called for donations in cash or in kind for ornaments, furniture and decorations to complete the church.
One thing the Abbé didn’t have to call for was a bell. In 1860, the Emperor Napoleon III had given the previous church, Notre-Dame de l’Assomption, a bell from the siege of Sevastopol and it now sat proudly on a wooden frame close to the front door of the new church. Today it hangs in the bell tower at the side of the church.
The new church was finally inaugurated in April 1902 and on 15th July 1976, the interior of the church was listed as a monument historique.
The man largely responsible for the Église Notre-Dame-du-Travail, Abbé Soulange-Bodin, was a devoted parish priest dedicated to carrying out his apostolic mission, but his unfailing commitment to his parish made him one of the outstanding figures of social Catholicism at the turn of the nineteenth century. He was very much attached to syndicalism, the movement influenced by Proudhon and the French social philosopher Georges Sorel for transferring the ownership and control of the means of production and distribution to workers’ unions. He was also a defining figure in personal commitment in an age of power relations between the Catholic Church and the French State. In later life he was involved in serious incidents related to laws against congregations and the separation of the Church and the State. He once published a book in which he defended the idea of training in economics and social policy for future priests. It was quickly banned from sale.
In 1909, the Archbishop of Paris appointed him pastor of Saint-Honoré-d’Eylau, after twenty-five years of service to the parish of Plaisance. In 1924 he resigned and died in May 1925.
The Église Notre-Dame-du-Travail is an interesting landmark in the history of the architecture of Parisian churches, but it is also a testimony to a social current in Catholicism at the end of the nineteenth century and to the dedication of one man in particular, Abbé Soulange-Bodin.
La Main Creatrice by Serraz