Paris,  Podcast

PGB 1: Notre Dame, Property of France?

Welcome to Episode 1 of the Paris Gone By Podcast

In this inaugural episode, after a brief introduction to the podcast, we explore why exactly Notre Dame is the property of France and not the property of the Catholic Church. This is despite being a functioning religious house. Unusual? Not in France!

Check it out!

Show Notes

As you heard, this story is one of revolution and bureaucracy.  Much like the rest of French history.  ;D

Timeline of Events

Let’s check out the timeline of how this came to pass:

2 November 1789 – State Takes Church

Mere months after the storming of the Bastille on 14 July 1789, the National Assembly passed the “Decree of the property of the clergy placed at the disposal of the Nation” (Décret des biens du clergé mis à la disposition de la Nation).  The decree does as stated, placing Notre Dame and all other church property in the hands of the state.  So begins the long, difficult problem of owning such old and venerable buildings. 

The document that started it all…

1794/1795 – Confusing Decrees of a Confused Age

As the bloodiest and most violent period of the Revolution wound down, a new government, The Directoire (The Directory), came into power.  In 1794 and 1795, several decrees are passed, allowing Catholic worship to resume in a limited and heavily surveilled way after a period of religious experimentation by the state.  But particularly the 1794 decree declared that the state will no long cover clerical expenses, while not enumerating exactly what those are.  The 1795 also limited the fund-raising capabilities of the churches and clergy members, placing the churches in a weird grey area as far as funding and upkeep.

15 July 1801 – The Concordat

First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte decided, by way of a concordat, to give the Pope back to the People. He basically wanted to keep them happy as he plotted to become emperor.  Of course, he didn’t want to give up complete control-we are talking about Napoleon! So he allowed the clergy to report back to the Pope, but kept control over the lands and even clerical selections, liturgy, and other aspects of the church.  With the Concordat, he also snuck in an additional document, the “Organic Articles” (“Les Articles Organiques”) that further watered down the pope’s power.  But no one said “no” to Napoleon, so Pope Pius VII signed them.  He would also go on to bear witness to Napoleon crowning himself in 1804, at Notre Dame.

Napoleon and the sidelined Pope Pious VII

19th Century – Hugo and Viollet-le-Duc Save the Day

Here we reach one of the more famous chapters of Notre Dame’s history.  After years of neglect, she is at risk of being torn down. But the popularity of Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame in 1831 and the subsequent outcry to save Our Lady resulted in the state finally ponying up to care for her.  In 1844, they hired a two man team, Jean-Baptiste Antoine Lassus and Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, to tackle this enormous job.  After Lassus died in 1857, Viollet-le-Duc went on alone. He completed the renovation in 1864, after twenty total years of work! The whole project reportedly cost about 2 million francs—an enormous sum of money. At last, the state had given us the Notre Dame that we knew and loved before the fire!

1905 – The “Separation” of Church and State

In 1905, the snazzily named “Law of 9 December 1905 concerning the Separation of Church and State” (“Loi du 9 décembre 1905 concernant la séparation des Églises et de l’État”], along with some follow up legislation, officially separated the Republic of France from the Catholic Church.  Except where it didn’t.  To oversimplify it a bit, France no longer had it’s hand in the clerical and liturgical cookie jar.  However it still held on to the church buildings and lands if they were still functioning churches.  The cathedrals were in the care of the nation and the “regular” churches were in the care of the communes (cities and towns) where they were located.

Of important note is that this applies only to church buildings built before the law of 1905. Religious buildings built after are private property and the responsibility of the owner. For a deep dive down a very tangled rabbit hole, here is a Sénat report on the status of religious buildings in France [in French]. Grab a cup of tea before clicking!

This law continues to place a huge burden on the local governments, especially on smaller communities with small budgets charged with maintaining centuries old buildings.  In some cases, the communes have demolished or sold off their churches instead of continuing to bearing the cost. 

This also left churches that are no longer consecrated religious houses without any form of assigned benefactor.  This combination has had terrible consequences for the preservation of France’s historic Catholic church properties.

21st Century – A Phoenix from the Ashes

Currently, the Ministry of Culture is responsible for financing the cathedral properties, through its regional branches known as DRACs or Direction Régionale des Affaires Culturelles (Regional Directorate of Cultural Affairs).  Basically, the government gives each region a budget, which then is in charge of fulfilling the cultural agendas of each region. 

Pre-fire, the Ministry of Culture, through the DRAC Île-de-France, was providing about €2 million per year for Notre Dame’s upkeep. They also supplied funds for ad hoc restoration projects, like the the one that inadvertently started the 2019 fire.  In response to the fire, the Ministry provided an additional €31 million in emergency funds alone for 2019, as part of a total €50 million commitment (download report here). An enormous sum of money, though of course not even close to projected restoration costs!  This why the fundraising continues for her repairs.  Also, it appears that a lot of the large donors who made such a splash immediately following the fire have not yet ponied up, including the City of Paris itself!*

Of course the building upkeep is not the only cost for running Notre Dame.  The diocese has to pay for the day to day expenses of the church, including paying staff, cleaning, clerical costs, etc. Les Echos reports the heating alone cost €1000 a DAY pre-fire!  Incredibly, laws and customs prevent the church from doing most forms of fund raising, such as entrance fees, which help offset costs at other great churches like Westminster Abbey

But the state has allowed Notre Dame a few fundraising exceptions: the Tower tours and the Treasury collection, which includes the Crown of Thorns.  The diocese doesn’t directly control these, though.  The towers are managed by the Centre des Monuments Nationaux (French National Heritage Centre), which is run by the Ministry of Culture.  The Treasury is run separately by a private non-profit foundation that also runs the gift shop and other aspects of the cathedral.  

In the end, after over 800 years, despite the ravages of time, revolution, and fire, she stands tall.  And after the restoration is complete, may she stand for at least another 800.  No matter who is paying the tab!


Donating to the Restoration

  • Friends of Notre Dame: An American/French non-profit. They’ve been helping fund restoration and upkeep since 2017. Their website also has information on the progress of the restoration. Per the official Notre Dame website, this is the best organization for those of us outside of France.
  • In France? You can donate to the French fond (fund), even selecting if you want to fund the restoration, cultural activities, or the choir/musicians charity.
    • There is a separate donation page if you specifically wish to donate to the restoration and purchase of interior finishings here.
    • All of the French funds listed here are part of the Fonds Cathédrale, a special foundation set up by the larger Fondation Notre Dame. All are directly associated with the management of the cathedral.
  • Buy a souvenir from the Notre Dame Shop from the convenience of your own home! Watch out for those shipping fees, though…

Further Reading

As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases of items marked “affiliate link” below.

Want to read more about Notre Dame? Check out these books and articles:

The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo. The classic book that saved her in the nineteenth century! Read about Quasimodo, Esmeralda, and the Notre Dame herself, for Kindle [affiliate link], in paperback [affiliate link], or a 19th century translation for free.

Notre-Dame: A Short History of the Meaning of Cathedrals by Ken Follett. A charming, short little book about Notre Dame, both factual and full of Ken’s own thoughts and memories, written as only Ken can. For a light, easy exploration of Our Lady, grab the Kindle version [affiliate link] or the hardback book [affiliate link].

On Restoration, by E. Viollet-le-Duc and a Notice of His Works in Connection with the Historical Monuments of France by Charles Wethered. If the title didn’t give it away, this is a 19th century English treatise on Viollet-le-Duc’s writings on the restoration, including a translation of the relevant text found in Dictionnaire raisonné de l’architecture française du XIe au XVIe siècle. All free, thanks to the awesome internet!

“Church and State disagree over management of religious heritage in France” by Jerome Bernard, on The Art I couldn’t work this in to the show notes, but I thought this article was a great example of how convoluted the whole “separation of church and state” thing is when it comes to the physical property of the churches.

Going Forward

The plan is to have two new episodes per month.  There is definitely a learning curve with this, so bear with me as I figure out the details! You will be able to stay up to date by subscribing on your favorite podcast app.  And as always, to stay up to date on all things PGB, subscribe to the newsletter! 😄 

Your Thoughts?

What do you think?  Do you like the podcast idea?  Did you learn anything new about the “separation” of church and state in France or the history of Notre Dame?  Let me know in the comments below! 

Merci et à bientôt!

*To be fair, this is still in negotiation. However, it seems that the Ville de Paris is now assigning that €50 million for the improvements to the parvis (courtyard) and not for the restoration itself. Which feels a bit slippery, however, Paris has a lot of expenses on its plate right now, between COVID costs, Olympics prep, and the continued “greening” of Paris. How do you feel about this slight of hand? Comment below!

Image Credits

Décret des biens du clergé mis à la disposition de la Nation. Wikimedia Commons, “Décret de saisie des biens du clergé.jpg” Uploaded by PMX, based on image from Archives Nationales de France. Public Domain.
Extract from The Coronation of Napoleon by Jacques-Louis David. 1805-1807. Wikimedia Commons. Uploaded by Soerfm. Original found in the Musée du Louvre. Public Domain.
Notre Dame on Fire.Notre-Dame en feu, 20h06” by Wikimedia Commons user “GodefroyParis“. Used under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

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