During the reign of the Carolingians (Charlemagne in the 800s), Paris began to be built up on the right bank, notably the Port du Grève, where todays’ City Hall (Hôtel de Ville) stands, and the Église St-Gervais-et-St-Protais, an unusual church with a seventeenth century neo-classical façade (the first of this style in Paris) tacked onto an earlier Gothic church. Its origins date back to the fifth century, making it one of the oldest churches in Paris, dedicated to the martyred twin brothers St-Gervais & St-Protais, the patron saints of Milan.
During the Middle Ages this church was the seat of the powerful brotherhood of wine merchants, and residents of the neighborhood would sign contracts and settle debts under the centuries old elm tree in the square in front of the church, resulting in the moniker “Crossroads of the Elm.” An oath made “under the elm” was considered inviolable. That tree was pulled down during the French Revolution, and the one that replaced it was not planted until 1912.
Beginning in 1653, the Couperin dynasty of musicians, most notably Louis and François, was employed by St-Gervais for nearly two centuries. The historic organ they played still exists, including the original 18th-century keyboards (on five manuals). The home of the Couperins still stands next to the church, and there is a plaque noting it.
In more recent times, a WW I German bomb smashed through the roof during Good Friday services in 1918, killing fifty and wounding hundreds. However, the small atmospheric square behind the church was undisturbed, and on a tiny lane leading off it is a French memorial devoted to the Jews tortured and killed by the Nazis – Le Musée du Martyr Juif Inconnu (the Museum of the Unknown Jewish Martyr), housed in a small building at 17, rue Geoffroy l'Asnier. An eternal light burns, and there is a photographic history of the systematic Nazi execution of the Jews.
Since 1975, the church has been home to the brothers and nuns of the monastic order, the Communion de Jérusalem (an Ascetic order, which accounts for the simple, backless benches that serve as seating) , which celebrates mass daily at 7 a.m. 12:30 and 6 p.m., and every Sunday at 11 a.m.
An aside: St-Gervais is the church in which the Chiracs worshiped, and during those times it was so spruced up and clean that you could eat off the floor. Now that Sarkozy is in power, we’ll have to see how well that happy state of affairs continues. Frankly, I’d be happy if Sarkozy, after one of his all-night benders, would atone at the great church of St-Eustache, which is in appalling condition, full of water leaks, mold – and in a state of general decrepitude. The city of Paris should be ashamed of such neglect.
The beautiful façade of the Couperin organ of St-Gervais.