On the face of it, Notre Dame Cathedral would seem a probability since the Grand Old Lady’s first stone was laid by Pope Alexander III as long ago as 1163 A.D. There are, however, a couple of problems with Her candidacy. First, Notre Dame wasn’t finished until the mid 1300s – some scholars claim She’s still not quite complete – and in the intervening two centuries many other churches were erected in the capital. Not least of these was the Sainte Chapelle, built soaringly and with astonishing rapidity at the behest of King/Saint Louis IX to shelter relics of Chirst’s passion. He had ordered “Do it now!” – 1242>1248.
Problem number two: on that same 1163 visit, Alexander III consecrated the extension of the Saint Germain des Prés Abbey church. Originally built in the sixth century to house relics of Saint Vincent, brought (bought or swiped?) by Clovis’ son King Childebert from Spain, Saint Germain had been trashed pretty much to the ground by Viking marauders in the ninth century. OK, but the church had been rebuilt circa the year 1,000 and the Pope’s twelfth century foray was indeed a reconsecration: extended nave and new choir.
So much for Notre Dame, then. And so, “the winner is” Saint Germain des Prés? Whoa there, not quite so fast. A defining question is: what do we mean by “church”? If we’re talking about an entire building pretty much of a piece and one epoch, Saint Germain doesn’t qualify: its belfry and first nave bays are just over a thousand years old, but there was the 12th century extension just mentioned, and yet another revamp in the 13th century.
Hmm… It looks like Saint Julien le Pauvre, whose construction dates are ca. 1170>1240.
BUT if your definition takes account of the fact that many Parisian churches were reconstructed two, three or more times through the ages, then we’ve got a whole new ballgame. And batting a tie-breaking homerun in the bottom of the ninth is… Saint Germain des Prés. At least some of the diminutive black marble columns that rhythm the triforium second storey gallery around the choir of Saint Germain des Prés (where monks could sing Mass without seeing or being seen by the parishioners below) are thought to be from the original sixth century structure.
Well, not quite. The next defining question is: what do we mean by oldest church in “ Paris”? More to the point: “Paris” when?
Under the Second Empire, with population growth and improved urban transport, a number of suburbs were annexed to the city in 1860. Among them was Montmartre. And atop the “Martyrs’ Mount” (Mons Martyrium, perhaps actually a corruption of Mons Martis, “Mars’ Mount”, referring to a possible two-millenium-old Roman temple up there dedicated to the God of War) is… Saint Pierre church. Hunkering behind the 19th century neo-Byzantine Sacré Coeur, and little-visited, it was consecrated around 1147 and boasts four sixth century Meriovingian column capitals. A tie with Saint Germain des Prés’ triforium, then? Nope. The columns atop which perch those capitals are… re-used Roman, probably from either the possible Mars temple or that, alongside and attested, erected to Mercury ( Mons Mercurim).
And the oldest house in Paris? We’ll check that out in another article!
* Paris-based Arthur Gillette guides theme- and period-specific strolls to help visitors discover “Paris Through The Ages.” If interested in taking one, or more, contact him on