Eglise Saint-Merri is arguably the most unusual church in the City of Light.
As much a cultural center, gallery and concert hall as it is a house of worship, Saint-Merri is unique in all of Paris in that visitors are as likely to visit for a myriad of other reasons as they are to attend Mass. Possibly even more so.
Of course, Saint-Merri is a Catholic church first and foremost, and sits on the spot where a previous church was originally founded in the 12th century. A remnant of that ancient church still looks out onto the Rue Saint Martin from the current structure, which was built between 1500 and 1550 in the 16th century Gothic style.
Saint-Merri is dedicated to the patron saint of Paris’s Right Bank, Saint Medericus—or Saint Merry, as the French called the 8th century pilgrim who traveled to the City of Light and died there in the year 700. Saint Merry’s remains are still in the church’s crypt.
Eventually the name of the saint—as well as that of the church and of the street on which it sits in the Pompidou quarter—was bastardized to St. Merri, which it remains today.
The church also is historically noteworthy for two features: it is home to the oldest church bell in all of Paris, cast in 1331. And it houses a marvelous 18th century organ built by master craftsman Francois Henri Cliquot, on which the famous composer Camille Saint-Saens performed as chief organist for the church from 1853 to 1857.
The church and the surrounding area played prominently in the June Rebellion of 1832, an antimonarchist insurrection that arose after the re-establishment of France’s monarchy in 1830 (which ultimately lasted until 1848). This uprising—and the neighborhood—served as the setting for Victor Hugo’s novel Les Miserables, specifically the erection of the street barricades where the climactic battle took place.
Today, the neighborhood is famous for the nearby Pompidou Center and the adjacent Stravinsky Fountain, the whimsical kinetic artwork that lies just north of the church. (Indeed, many tourist photos of the fountain include the church in the background.)
It’s also well-known among Parisians for the free weekly concerts it hosts on Saturday nights and Sunday afternoons each week except for the month of August (when much of Paris shuts down). Up and coming young musicians are usually the headliners at these events, providing classical, baroque and gospel performances.
The church also is the home base for the Academie Vocale de Paris, an organization founded in 1993 that provides vocal training to young Parisians. The group has both a boys and girls choir, and hosts performances every Saturday at 5:45 p.m.
But it’s not just the aural arts that are celebrated at St. Merri.
The church regularly hosts visual art exhibits aimed at bringing attention to issues of inequality and suffering occurring around the world. For example, in late 2016 the church hosted “Higher Than Heaven,” an exhibit by Argentinian artist Pedro Marzorati aimed at raising awareness of those killed or left nationless due to acts of war and violence. The powerful exhibit included actual the clothing of men, women and children killed or forced into refugee status, all hanging from the ceiling of the church.
Another recent exhibit, also hung from the church’s rafters, is a Japanese origami display by Henri Hua.
And, of course, St. Merri is a Catholic church, offering daily Mass at 12:15 Monday-Friday, at 6:30 p.m., Saturdays and Sunday mornings at 10 and 11:15 a.m.