After parking his car near a viewpoint overlooking the green Moselle valley, Sylvio Ciccotelli, 63, hits the ground with his foot. “Imagine that our town’s mine passed there, just below us”, camped the president of the Chaligny Patrimoine association, named after this small Lorraine town of 3,000 inhabitants south-east of Nancy (Meurthe-et- Moselle). “Here, the mining past permeates the whole atmosphere, and religion has not escaped it”, continues the child of the country.
It is easy to measure the correctness of the remarks by going down, a little further, in front of the emblematic chapel of Notre-Dame du Fer, with its pediment marked with banners: “The sweat of volunteers is not negotiable”, “Workers, keep our heritage”. Built in 1956 by around sixty workers and miners – in their spare time – opposite the steelworks, the building was the subject of negotiations with the bishopric, owner of the premises, who was trying to get rid of it. to separate.
But, in recent months, the inhabitants of Chaligny have largely mobilized to preserve the future of the chapel, which no longer really has any sacramental use: the offices are celebrated in the other church of the city, Saint-Rémi , following a rotation with the neighboring steeples, as now in the French countryside. His beret carelessly placed on a pile of files, the mayor (without label) of Chaligny, André Bagard, 80, would like to transform the chapel into a cultural center: “The duty of memory commits the town to Notre-Dame du Fer. Everyone is so attached to it. »
This is how the city councilor offered to buy the building for a symbolic euro, a derisory sum which he justifies by the need to undertake costly work – in particular on the roof – to rehabilitate the bell tower. For its part, the bishopric has already made significant efforts to lower the sale price: it has again offered a 10% discount on the €58,000 based on the estimate of the Estates, while real estate agencies, made offers up to €140,000. But he is counting on this sum to make up for his deficits. Within each of the parties, we concede that the arguments of the other are “audible” and we hope to quickly find a peaceful outcome to the dispute.
Mgr Pierre-Yves Michel, new bishop of Nancy and Toul (Meurthe-et-Moselle). / Diocese of Valencia
In hollow, the conflict around Notre-Dame du Fer says a lot about the recent history of the diocese of Nancy and Toul, where Mgr Pierre-Yves Michel will be installed bishop Thursday, May 18. Beyond the dynamic cradle of Nancy, which relies on active parishes and committed actors, it recounts the memory of workers on edge, deindustrialization having left Lorraine workers idle. It testifies to the gradual disappearance of social Christianity, once so firmly established, but also to the significance of a popular piety that resists the scarcity of religious vocations and secularization.
Hasty reconstructions after the war
Brought back into the spotlight by an information report from the Senate in the summer of 2022 (1), the thorny question of the reconversion of churches arises in Meurthe-et-Moselle a little differently. A third of the nearly 650 churches covering the pastoral territory only open there today two or three times a year, for weddings or baptisms. “Among them, hundreds were built in concrete, in the reconstruction efforts after the Second World War, contextualizes a connoisseur. Some were built too hastily and deteriorate faster than the stone churches of the 19th century and earlier. »
Like the religious buildings erected before the law of 1905, those financed later with war reparations are the property of the communes. However, many mayors can no longer afford the exorbitant costs of rehabilitation or maintenance. On the diocesan side too, the burden is heavy: three of the twenty churches that belong to the Church are up for sale. Saint-François-d’Assises de Vandoeuvre-lès-Nancy, south of the ducal city, would have just found a buyer. In 2012, her case caused a national stir when the fast-food giant KFC positioned itself to buy her out.
A shared use of churches
Why does the subject trigger so many passions in France? “The population, even non-practicing, feels symbolic owner of these churches, deciphers Benoît de Sagazan, editor-in-chief of the World of the Bible (published by the Bayard group) and director of the Pilgrim Heritage Institute. This stirs up countless issues, touching on the identity of the inhabitants, ecclesiology, history, the establishment of Christianity, town planning, social ties, local politics…”
At the level of the department, the reflection was fueled by a Franco-Quebec cooperation program, launched in 2017 by the Council for Architecture, Urban Planning and the Environment (CAUE 54). At the time, a delegation – also including a laywoman from the diocese – had traveled across the Atlantic to study cases of converted churches. “We saw interesting illustrations there, which respected the religious message by opening up to social or cultural activities at the service of the populations”, supports Virginie Watier, co-pilot of the project within the CAUE 54.
The initiative had paved the way for the holding, in October 2018, of an international symposium in Nancy. At the time, Bishop Jean-Louis Papin, bishop of Nancy from 1999 to 2023, was the first French bishop there to publicly encourage the possibility of a “shared use” of churches. “It was the idea of an alternative way which, without calling into question the first assignment to the cult, could make it possible to render usual services to the population”, he explains. On his pastoral territory, where relations are often very good with elected officials, he remembers that his intervention “had met with the support of many mayors in the room”.
Case by case
But it had also caused dissension among the priests of the diocese, some of whom defend a strict assignment. “There is a generational divide on the issue,” he observes. A few years ago, the bishop had called for the creation of a commission to reflect on the file, which ultimately never really saw the light of day. Recently, an experiment within the communal church of Igney has, however, relaunched reflection on shared uses.
How are sales of bishopric churches decided? “It remains on a case-by-case basis,” explains bursar Michel Petitdemange, from the Domaine de l’Asnée, a welcoming place open to society. Without success, Bishop Papin had also considered devoting one day an ordinary diocesan assembly – an annual body bringing together nearly 200 Church actors around a chosen theme – to the question of the future of the churches. The decision will now rest with his successor.
Granting that he had not yet given much thought to the subject, Mgr Michel said he was convinced of the need “for the churches to be able to continue to make a sign in our societies”. The fate of the small chapel Notre-Dame du Fer, in Chaligny, should appear in the pile of its first files.
The key figures of the diocese
Divided into ten pastoral sectorsthe diocese of Nancy and Toul, which follows the contours of the department of Meurthe-et-Moselle, has 55 parishes.
Of 132 resident priests, 82 are active, including 19 Fidei donum. There is currently a seminarian for the diocese.
28 permanent deacons are on mission in the diocese.
37 lay people are assigned as “parish coordinators”, an office established in 2010 by Bishop Jean-Louis Papin – who has significantly strengthened the place of lay people in governance bodies – to make the link between local communities and priests.
Succeeding Mgr Papin, Mgr Pierre-Yves Michel, until now bishop of Valence (Drôme), will be installed Thursday, May 18 at 3:30 p.m. at the Notre-Dame-de-l’Annonciation cathedral in Nancy.