Just across the Seine from Notre-Dame cathedral, at the corner of Rue Galande and Rue St-Julien-le-Pauvre, stands the mess that is the front of a small church – St. Julien the Poor. As the visitor approaches, it appears that this in not a church at all, but a mere ruin of a church. To the left, stretching all the way out to the sidewalk, stands a wall that once formed part of the vestibule, most of which was torn down (as a result of student riots in the 16th century, as we are to learn). Set back from the street is a modest, squat, stuccoed neoclassical false façade with a simple door and some walled up windows – this part would not look out of place in the Mediterranean. An ancient looking round stone planter sits off to the right, and beyond that is a large paving stone jammed up against the wall of the church, set slightly above pavement level. Classical concert posters are plastered all over the fence, and there are signs in Greek. The entire ensemble appears to be a sort of architectural purgatory, not quite derelict, but certainly not fully restored. What on earth is going on here?
Actually, this is one of the oldest churches in all of Paris. A basilica was here as early as the 6th century, and pilgrims making the journey to Santiago de Compostela in Spain stopped here to make use of its dormitory and adjacent fountain, known for miraculous healing powers (the monks charged a fee to access the healing waters). The street just to the west of this church is named Rue Saint-Jacques (St. James street), and was the principal route south to Spain, where the remains of St. James were washed up on the shores and subsequently enshrined. The faithful continue to make this pilgrimage to the present day.
The extant Romanesque building, constructed 1165-1240, but never finished, has origins that are contemporary with Notre-Dame cathedral. When the great educator Peter Abelard had a theological falling out with the authorities at Notre-Dame in the early 12th century, thousands of his students followed him across the Seine and set up shop in this area. They attended lectures in the open air, perched upon bales of hay. The name of the absurdly short Rue du Fouarre, which forms the southern entry to the grounds of St-Julien-le-Pauvre, refers to this (“fouarre” is an old French word that means “forage” or “hay”). Hay protected the back sides of the students from the filth and dampness of the streets, which served as latrines for the student population. As the capacity of the colleges increased, St-Julien-le-Pauvre became the home church of the university, and construction of the present, larger church building began. However, as the university expanded southward toward Montaigne Ste-Geneviève, the fortunes of St-Julien-le-Pauvre floundered. Still, the elections of the Rector Magnificus of the university continued to be held here, until students, upset over the election of a new rector in 1524, rioted and caused so much damage to the church that it was forced to close, beginning a period of long neglect.
Soon three quarters of the vestibule was in such precarious condition that it had to be dismantled; the front door was moved back from the street as part of a false wall built across the start of the nave. This accounts for the curious, partially-ruined wall that projects out to the left of the front door; what we are looking at actually served as the north interior wall of the vestibule. The round planter to the right of the front door was formerly a well that was positioned inside the church itself, providing water for baptisms, and the elevated paving stone is an actual relic of the adjacent Roman road (Rue St-Jacques) that was unearthed and placed here in 1926.
But it gets even stranger. In the 17th century the derelict church was ceded to the hospital (Hôtel Dieu) that was based next to Notre-Dame cathedral, and they spiffed things up a bit. During this time St-Julien-le-Pauvre served as the hospital chapel, not so odd a concept when we remember that this hospital stretched all the way from the banks of the Île de la Cité across the bridge to the Left Bank. A hundred years later the revolutionaries seized all church property, and St-Julien-le-Pauvre was deconsecrated and used to store salt.
What is now the picturesque north church yard known as Square Viviani was once occupied by several three story hospital annexes, not removed until 1877, when the hospital relocated to new quarters on the north side of the Île de la Cité. The disused church of St-Julien-le-Pauvre was then deeded to the Melkites, a congregation of Eastern Catholics who observe the Byzantine Rite. This accounts for the signs outside in modern Greek.
The Melkites built the handsome wooden iconostasis with painted icons depicting Christ, the Virgin, and various saints in 1891. An iconostasis is a feature of churches that use the Byzantine rite of worship, dividing the sanctuary (representing Heaven, which only clergy are allowed to enter) from the rest of the church.
Because of its fine acoustics, many classical music concerts are held in Saint Julien le Pauvre, principally piano recitals and chamber music.
The oldest street sign in Paris, a carved 14th-century stone bas-relief above the entry to no. 42 rue Galande, depicts St. Julien the Hospitaller and his wife rowing Christ (disguised as a leper) across the river towards a chapel. This address was described in 1380 as the “Maison de la Heuze et de Saint-Julien” (House of the Boot and of Saint Julien) and “La Maison où au dessus est l'enseigne de Saint Julien” (house above which is the sign of Saint Julien).
According to legend, St. Julien unwittingly killed his own parents, and to atone for his sin he built a hospice near a river where he and his faithful wife provided lodging for poor travelers, cared for the sick, and ferried pilgrims across the dangerous waters. Julien finally earned God's forgiveness by aiding one such pilgrim, a leper who turned out to be Christ in disguise. The legend was very popular during the Middle Ages, and hospitals, hospices, and churches all over Europe were named for the Hospitaller named Julien. He was the patron saint of innkeepers, ferrymen, circus performers and travelers. Medieval travelers often prayed for his help in finding good lodgings for the night. His feast day is February 12.
In the middle of the Square Viviani, which sits between St-Julien-le-Pauvre and the banks of the Seine, there is a sunken area with an unusual fountain in the center. Dedicated in October 1995, the fountain is the work of Georges Jeanclos, and it tells the story of St. Julien the Hospitaller in scenes depicting his caring for the needy. Forty years ago this square was a run-down disused tract of weeds. It has been replanted and is now scrupulously maintained. Today weary tourists can rest their feet on the plentiful benches and take in the best view of Notre-Dame cathedral that the city affords.