Construction started on it in 543 A.D. It was rebuilt after the Vikings sieged and sacked Paris in 845 A.D. And all its property was turned over to the state during the Revolution and Napoleon’s rule.
But Saint Germain des Prés in the sixth arrondissment has not only survived, it’s endured.
“It’s the oldest church in Paris,” says Brian Smith, director and treasurer of American Friends for the Preservation of Saint Germain des Prés. “It’s a continuing church with a large, vibrant parish community.”
Being owned by the City of Paris presents certain difficulties, however. The city can’t afford to take care of all its historic properties, so the French formed a foundation to raise between $10-$12 million for its complete restoration. And they called on Smith, a Florida-based financier, to head an American foundation to do the same.
They’ve been successful so far, raising about 40 percent of that figure. But more is needed, even five years after Smith volunteered. “We’ve been raising money ever since – not just for the physical plant but for an unnumbered works of art,” he says.
There are seven steps involved in its renovation and the two groups are on step three now. They’re restoring frescoes and paintings and hundreds of the silver stars peppered across the ceiling. “You can save your own star,” he says. “There are tens of thousands of them.”
The foundations have raise about $1.5 million in the states and $2 million in France, with one donation of $1 million and a number in the $100,000 category. But schoolchildren, too, are moved to get involved. They’ll donate $10-$15 on a regular basis.
But the stars may offer the most popular appeal. “If you contribute $150 they’ll name one after you,” he says. “Or, you can pick a painting or group of paintings and have them restored in your name.”
Whatever the amount, this is the rarest of good causes – and Smith and his associates are determined to see it through. “We’re going to keep at it until we fix the damn thing,” he says. “We’re going to preserve this if it kills us.”
Now that’s the kind of attitude that every American should be known for in Europe.
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Photographs by David Sheppe