The Church of Saint Germain des Prés is the oldest church in Paris, with its history dating back to 543. After almost 15 centuries, its significance in religion and culture has been at risk of crumbling—an inevitable downfall if the lack of preservation persists. But last year, a campaign called Adopt a St. Germain Star launched in France, spearheaded by the non-profit organization American Friends for the Preservation of Saint Germain des Prés (AFPSGP) along with its French counterparts, The Preservation of Saint Germain des Prés Foundation. Today, that fundraiser continues, offering a total of 3,000 painted stars (at $100 each) in the restored Monk’s Choir in the church to be purchased. Once a star is purchased, it will be illuminated on an interactive map online.
“We recognized early on that the church had a significant impact on Americans who traveled to Paris (including servicemen in WW2), and on world culture more generally, and that this was in danger of being lost if some action was not taken,” said David Sheppe, a Connecticut-based program leader at AFPSGP. “It enables small donors to participate and to see the tangible results of their effort and generosity. Our partnering French foundation has a contract with the city of Paris regarding the restoration, which is audited and supervised.”
While restoration is underway, the church remains open for visitors to see the process of this extensive preservation. With approximately 85 percent of the funding coming from private donations, the restoration is expected to finish in 2021.
To learn more about AFPSGP’s monumental efforts, Whitewall spoke with Sheppe.
WHITEWALL: Can you tell us a bit about your professional background leading up to American Friends?
DAVID SHEPPE: I worked in international banking for many years and lived in Paris on three separate occasions, for nearly 10 years in total. On all three occasions, I lived within walking distance of the church of Saint-Germain des Prés (SPG). So, this church was always a major presence in my day-to-day life in the neighborhood. Over time, I was privileged to get to know the extraordinary parish priests and staff of SGP as well as the French foundation working so diligently on the church’s restoration. This unique and indescribably beautiful church just grew and grew on me. So, banker by day, devotee of all things SGP by night…and day.
WW: Tell us a bit about AFPSGP.
DS: AFPSGP is a US-based 501(c)(3) non-profit charity organized to raise funds in the US for the restoration and preservation of this iconic church. We are incorporated in NY and registered in several states. AFPSGP was set up about 4 years ago and has collected and donated well over $1 million to support ongoing works at the Saint-Germain des Prés church. We work very closely with our French counterparts in Paris and in essence conduct on either side of the Atlantic a single, unified campaign. The AFPSGP team is small in number but quite dynamic and, perhaps most importantly, all volunteer. This means that our overhead is very low. Funds raised go to support church restoration.
WW: Tell us a bit about the current campaign’s two parts.
DS: First, there is a classic “major donors” effort underway. There we hope to identify individuals, corporations, foundations and the like in the United States and solicit substantial direct-support gifts. These larger gifts are so important to us. The other track is our recent “Adopt a Saint Germain Star” Campaign, and we are very excited by it. This “Star” track is tailored to, well, non-major donors, to people from all walks who are interested in our campaign and want to participate at lower dollar levels. How does it work? Donors can go to our website, and there they will see an interactive view of the church’s ancient and beautiful vaulted ceiling. That ceiling contains some 3,500 individual gold stars. The donor goes online and for a contribution of $100 can “adopt” one of these stars, naming that star for a loved one – a parent, a child, a friend, a fallen comrade—we have seen it all. Whenever the donor goes back to our site, he or she can scroll across the ceiling and see not only his or her loved one, “up there”, shining down on the church below, but also hundreds of other stars adopted by people from all over the world. It is really quite moving and has resonated with so many people. Many donors have contacted us after the fact and told us some of the stories behind the names they have honored with their adopted stars. Regardless of whether the donation is major or not, we are enormously grateful for these tax-deductible contributions. Funding remains of paramount importance to the restoration of the church. And that is what this campaign is all about.
WW: What made you interested in this cause enough to do something to help?
DS: The church of Saint Germain des Prés is not going to fall down anytime soon. But it does need urgent and significant restoration if it is to be preserved for future generations. I learned about this need for major repair and revitalization at the same time as I learned that fully 85 percent of the cost of restoration must come from private hands. This is what really intrigued me. How can we not support an irreplaceable piece of world heritage, an ethereally beautiful edifice whose art and structure have been ravaged by the effects of benign neglect and under-funding for more than 170 years? (The last major restoration, not entirely felicitous, dates back to the 1840s). Grime, structural degradation, humidity, leaks in the roof and walls, rot, failing mortar, breakage, overuse—all these and more have put the treasures of the church and the church itself at risk of loss. And so, speaking just for myself, I find it so meaningful to work on something that is already a thousand years old and which, if we are successful, will be passed forward, renewed, into the next thousand years of history.
WW: What’s particularly special to you about this at-risk property?
DS: The answer to that question is quite simple: it is the history of the church itself. The Saint Germain des Prés church is the oldest church in Paris. The current structure is one thousand years old, but the original abbey was founded on the exact same footprint as today’s church, in 543 AD. So, in fact, the church has been standing there for nearly 1,500 years. For centuries, all the way up until the French Revolution, Saint Germain des Prés church was the intellectual center of Paris, a place of great learning and research, both religious and secular. A Benedictine order of Monks lived and worked here and was instrumental in the founding of the Sorbonne. Great names have gathered here, including early Christian benefactors of the church, as well as Rene Descartes and Victor Hugo. Moreover, the church has had a special relationship with Americans in Paris, including Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and John Jay (who, in 1787, a block or two away, signed the Treaty of Paris whereby England first recognized the independence of the United States of America). GIs from both world wars were visitors, parishioners, and supporters. American jazz greats, expatriate authors and thinkers lived and worked alongside their French counterparts in the Saint Germain des Prés “quartier” in the 20s, 30s, and 40s. I could go on…
WW: What will the restoration include?
DS: The works have been planned to occur in five successive tranches, stretching out until 2022. The first tranche (the Monks’ Choir) is complete and breathtakingly beautiful. The second tranche centers mainly on the transept and is just about finished as well. The next three tranches remain to be done and funding is needed. Our website does provide pictures and tranche-by-tranche descriptions of all works completed and all those still to come. .
WW: What can the average person do to help the initiative—working with Adopt a St. Germain Star or otherwise?
DS: First, financial support. Whether via major donations or our “Adopt a Saint Germain Star” campaign (both easily accessible on our website), funding is vital. All tax-deductible donations are crucially important and immensely appreciated.
Second, outreach and communication. Spread the word to family, friends, colleagues—to anybody who has an abiding love for Paris and its monuments, for art history and architectural preservation, for this beloved ancient church which stands in perpetual guard over Saint-Germain in the heart of Paris’ sixth arrondissement.
Third, reflect. Reflect on the beauty of this church and the inspiration and solace it has provided over the centuries to Paris’ inhabitants and to its visitors from all over the world; reflect on its long and uninterrupted history as a center of learning and art; reflect on its timelessness as you listen to the sound of bells tolling as they have tolled for a thousand years; and reflect on what you can do, in thought and deed, to ensure this church, which we today hold in trust, passes from our hands into those of generations to come.