For the past 12 years or so, I have had the view in the photograph below from my bedroom window:
No, the sky has not always been this blue a colour, and it has not always been sunny, but the buildings have not changed in all those years! Does that tall building look to you as though it could have been a church? The buttresses, the window…?
The southern end of the building fronts onto Place Saint Aignan, also called Le Plo in local vernacular. That facade is pretty nondescript, and doesn’t really give us much of a clue.
The northern end of the building offers more of a helpful hint:
That arch definitely looks as if it could have been part of an old church, wouldn’t you agree?? Turns out that our hunch is right! Behind that nondescript facade on Place Saint Aignan is what remains of the Eglise des Recollets, the church of the Recollects.
Four of the members of the historical society of Saint Chinian, Les Richesses du Saint Chinianais, have just published a book called La presence de l’Ordre des Recollets a St Chinian – the presence of the Recollect Order in Saint Chinian. As part of the “book launch”, a guided visit of the former church had been organised. Of course I went along – how could I not, after all those years of looking at that building!! And my trusted camera came along with me, so I would have something to share with you :)!
The Recollect order was a branch of the Franciscan order, following the ideals of poverty and recollection, at a time when many orders had given up ascetic living and were more into decadence. The Recollects arrived in St Chinian around 1643 to “set up shop”. The church was built probably between 1643 and 1690, with simple materials such as stone, brick and wood. For the location, the Recollects chose the faubourg, the suburb of St Chinian, which was a populous and poor part of the village, outside the walls.
Fast forward to the present day – we’ll work our way back in time. Right now the building is used as a municipal works depot. It houses some of the trucks belonging to the village, along with other bits and pieces.
The former choir is currently a workshop:
Prior to being owned by the village, it was in possession of the departmental works commission (DDE) and used as a depot. The DDE acquired the building in the 1950s. The original doorway was enlarged during the time of the DDE, and the concrete floors and galleries upstairs were put in. Here is what is left of the original doorway:
Before the DDE, the church belonged to one of the large estates in St Chinian, presumably being used for storage. During the early part of the 20th century the building was used to show silent movies, and also for theatre performances. The winch is purported to be a remnant from the theatre days, and there are other bits of ironmongery stuck in the walls, which could date from that period.
Now we’ll go back to the Recollects. Since they were a poor order, very little has been found in the archives in the way of records. They monks did not lead a cloistered life, and their convent did not conform with what we mostly know to be a monastery, with a cloister and restricted areas. In St Chinian, the Recollects appear to have owned some, but perhaps not all, of the buildings around Place Saint Aignan. On the north side of the church used to be the cemetery for the village, and to the east were gardens, fields and orchards, which supplied the monks with food. To the west of the church was a small garden, also belonging to the monks, bordered by the houses along rue Saint Laurent.
The church building is similar in size to both the parish church and the church of the Benedictine abbey. As I mentioned earlier, they used very simple materials for the construction of their church. Some of the elements have stood the test of time – such as the diaphragm arches, which held up the roof structure. The round holes were there to help ventilate the roof void.
The roof structure would not have been visible. Some kind of vaulting would have been added, probably made of brick. You can still see the lines of where the vaulting would have met the wall, in this picture. look carefully, and you will be able to see the bricked up window which I can see from my window:
The church had six chapels, three on each side, built in between the buttresses on the outside walls. Two of them are still in existence and open to the inside of the building. The locations of the other chapels are visible in the cracks, which have developed in the plaster over the years. The arches of the chapel roofs seem to have been made from thin bricks, in a somewhat unusual way. They seem to be almost cantilevered rather than the more usual approach to making brick arches. The chapels had lancet shaped windows, and if you look very carefully at the first picture in this post, you can just about make out the outline on the wall.
Some of the chapels were sold off very early on when the church passed into private hands, and today they are incorporated into houses, which have been built against the church.
So there we are, back on Place Saint Aignan – our visit to this fascinating building over. Its history holds more questions than it provides answers. Here is a little more history for you:
The Recollects ministered to the people of St Chinian until 1768, when their numbers had dwindled to such an extent, that the convent was closed down. The monks stayed on for a little while, but eventually all the buildings were sold off. The large building to the east of the church became a hospital. The church became private property, and was used for services during the years immediately after the French Revolution, when the parish church had been turned over to the cult of the Supreme Being, and the church of the Benedictine abbey had been shut down. After that, decline was steady. The bell tower had to be pulled down before it fell. The roof of the choir rotted away, and the roof was only replaced by the DDE, on lower walls. Part of the roof over the nave collapsed after 1900, taking with it the upper part of the end wall and the opening which would have held the rose window. The new roof was built with a metal structure, possibly a much cheaper alternative at the time.
The research done by the historians is fascinating. They must have spent hours and hours in the archives, reading one dusty document after another. I should probably write “decipher” – if the postcards I featured a couple of weeks ago are anything to go by. The project seems to have taken them four years to come to fruition, and there are still a fair few unanswered questions. If you are interested, you can purchase your own copy of the book at the Maison de la Presse in St Chinian, for 10 EUR – a bargain when you consider the many hours spent on gathering all the information.