Visitors to Paris are, of course, familiar with most of the vicinity around the Louvre—the gorgeous, massive museum itself, the pristine Tuileries park to the west, the picturesque Seine to the south and the trendy Rue de Rivoli to the north.
Note, the use of the word “most” in the paragraph above. Because even the savviest tourist typically misses the buildings just “behind” (to the east of) the renowned museum, and that’s a shame, because it’s home to one of the most beautiful and historic churches in all of Paris—Saint-Germain-l’Auxerrois.
Located at 2 Place du Louvre, the church, originally called Saint-Germain-le-Rond, dates back nearly 1,400 years, with construction first begun in the 7th century. Parts of the current church were built in the early 12th century, and in fact the house of worship’s main bell tower dates from this period, although much of it was renovated in the 19th century in the Gothic style
The church was rebuilt several times over the centuries, with major additions and renovations conducted in the late 13th, 15th and 19th centuries. Today, it contains Romanesque, Gothic and Renaissance elements stemming from these many construction phases.
In addition to the stately bell tower, other key features of the church include a large stained-glass rose window; a balustrade created by Jean Gaussel in the 15th century that encircles the entire church; statues of Saint Germain, Saint Vincent and Saint Isabelle of France; a wooden Flemish altarpiece; and a “churchwardens’ pew,” made in 1683, that hosted worshipping nobles and other historical figures.
Given that the next-door Louvre was once a royal palace, the church was a common house of worship for members of the royal court and other influential Europeans.
Of historical note, the church played a key role in the infamous St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre that pitted the nation’s Catholic aristocracy against Europe’s burgeoning Protestant movement. Thousands of protestants had gathered in Paris in August 1572 to celebrate the marriage of Henri de Navarre, the future King Henry IV of France, to Marguerite de Valois, the sister of king Charles IX, who currently sat on the French throne.
The church bells were rung on the evening of Aug. 23 to signal the armed supporters of Charles IX and of Catherine de Medicis, his mother, to launch a surprise attack on the assembled Huguenot protestants. As many as 2,000 protestants were murdered by Catholic zealots in Paris, and a wave of mob violence that followed resulted in as many as 70,000 deaths throughout France.
While many visitors to Saint-Germain-l’Auxerrois incorrectly believe that the main bell tower—the oldest remaining part of the church–was the site of the signal to launch the massacre, the bells were rung in a smaller tower located along the southern façade of the facility.
Visually, the beauty of the church is enhanced by the ornate architecture of the next-door Mairie du 1er Arrondissement de Paris, the administrative building of district that includes the Louvre, Les Halles and the Palais Royal. This hall is located just north of Saint-Germain-l’Auxerrois, and while connected to the church with two archways and an interior courtyard parking lot, is a separate facility and is not associated with the house of the worship.
Saint-Germain-l’Auxerrois is open Tuesday-Saturday from 9 a.m.-7 p.m., and Sunday from 9 a.m.-8 p.m. Admission is free.
Catholic Masses are offered at 12:15 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, with a Latin-language Mass held Thursdays at 6:30 p.m. Sunday services include Latin Mass at 9:45 a.m., French-language Mass at 11:30 a.m., Spanish-language services at 1 p.m., and a Gregorian musical service at 7 p.m.