What do the Church Saint-Étienne du Mont and the movie Midnight in Paris have in common? The answer: a set of steps. The north steps, leading to the side entrance of Saint-Étienne du Mont, are where the lost Gil (played by Owen Wilson) sits down and wonders where he is.
Sitting on the steps, Gil sights the yellow 1920 Peugeot Landaulet approaching the Rue de la Montagne Saint Geneviève that transports him back to the 1920s, to the Paris of his dreams.
Ruth and I approached Saint-Étienne du Mont from the Rue de la Montagne Saint Geneviève. We did not know then of the association between the Church and the movie. We had no intention of visiting this Church as we were on our way to the Panthéon.
However, it started to rain, so we sought shelter in the Church, like many others. And we just happened to walk into the middle of a wedding. The wedding party was not small, and guests filled the Church. The crowd seeking shelter was forced into the back of the Church.
The traditions, rituals and gestures of the Catholic liturgy are somewhat foreign to me. But there was no mistaking the apparent faith of the wedding guests. They were no boozy pre-wedding mob hanging out for the reception. They were committed worshippers and engaged in the service.
Such was the atmosphere that even onlookers found themselves kneeling on hard stone floors and partaking in the Mass. When the priest invited everyone to offer a sign of peace, strangers on either side surprisingly greeted me. It was impossible not to be moved by the singing of modern-day hymns, the music from a magnificent organ and the demonstration of faith.
Surprisingly, the solemn mood eventually gave way to the frivolous sounds of a mariachi band waiting outside for the wedding party to exit. The reception was about to begin. The band continued to play its lively music while the wedding party spilled out onto the church steps, and the photographer struggled to take pictures of a hundred-plus group from his position atop a stepladder.
Thankfully for all, the rain had ceased.
As an aside to this story, one of the beautiful stained glass windows in the Church depicts The Parable of Those Invited to the Wedding Feast.
Also, one of the first impressionist paintings of the Church was Wedding in Saint-Étienne du Mont by Stanislas Lépine ca. 1878-1880. Interestingly, the wedding guests in the painting are similarly distributed along the church steps.
From the outside, Saint-Étienne du Mont is not all that exciting. If it hadn’t been for the rain, we probably would never have discovered its peaceful, light-filled, Flamboyant Gothic interior.
Besides Geneviève, the patron saint of Paris, such men as dramatist Jean Racine and mathematician/physicist Blaise Pascal are entombed here.
But there is one particular element that compels attention. A rare architectural feature called a jubé in French (rood loft in English) spans the middle of the Church. The loft originates in the rood screen, which separates the liturgical area from the secular space or the sacred from the profane.
Crossing the nave with spiral staircases on either side, the loft is unique in Paris and one of only a few worldwide. A magnificent specimen of carved stone, its staircases do not stop at the top of the loft but continue up another level to side galleries that lead into and overlook the apse.
The Church also houses the oldest organ case in Paris, dating back to 1631, and some impressive 16th-century stained glass.
Disappointingly, we could not spend more time in this Church. Perhaps we will return one day, sit down on the north steps at midnight, wait for the chime of the bells, and dream of a Paris long gone.
- The featured image of Saint-Étienne du Mont was taken from the Panthéon colonnades (276 steps).
- After the excitement of Saint-Étienne, we went across the road to an English pub, the Bombardier, for a cold beer.
- Then it was off to the handbag and shoe shop; beer first, then bag and shoes.
Place Sainte-Geneviève, 75005 Paris
+33 1 43 54 11 79
Hours: 8:45 am to 7:45 pm (Closed Mondays)
Metro: Cardinal Lemoine (M10)