March 2016 Print

Saint-Nicolas du Chardonnet

by Dr. Marie-France Hilgar

The story of Saint-Nicolas of Bari, and the miraculous benefits with which he supplied his parishioners and neighboring villagers, is illustrated by the amazing history and development of the church of Saint-Nicolas-du-Chardonnet, 5th arrondissement, in Paris. First of all: Why Chardonnet? Because in 1239 a chapel was constructed on a site in a field planted with thistles (chardons). The thistles, in those days, were used in the carding and combing of linen and wool cloth. As the population of the region grew, several structures were added to the chapel, until in 1656, a total reconstruction of the complex took place. Because of financial problems, the reconstruction was not completed until around 1763. Later the church was closed, remodeled and, during the Revolution, was spoiled of its works of art. In 1802 it was given back to the Catholics, and little by little, the works of art were recovered. Since 1977, the church has been ours, that is, the home exclusively of the SSPX. At that time, Monseigneur Francois Ducaud-Bourget, who was ordained in 1934, had refused to go along with progressives of his day, disdaining their modernist innovations. Independently of the diocese, he rented meeting places where he could offer the Latin Mass. Two of these meeting places were la Salle Wagram, a banquet hall near the Arch of Triumph, and a room in Maubert Mutualité lecture hall. On February 27, 1977, he had a plan: When traditionalists met at Maubert that Sunday, Monseigneur Ducaud-Bourget led everyone across the street to Saint-Nicolas, which had been practically abandoned. From 1968 to 1977, priests from Saint-Séverin would open the door of Saint-Nicolas for a single novus ordo Mass only once a week, for which just a hand full of parishioners showed up. It was Monseigneur’s intention, said Father Norber, to say the Mass at Saint-Nicolas that particular Sunday in February, pray during the day, and leave. But there were so many people who stayed that day, and the next, and the next, and Saint-Nicolas became permanently occupied. Of course, their occupation was illegal. Police entered the church with guns, opened the tabernacles, and forced priests and nuns out, says Father Gaudrey. Churches in France belong not to the diocese but to the State. But what could the State do against a group of peaceful worshipers? Months later, the State issued a decree of expulsion, but it was never executed. Officials understood it was better to keep silent than to give the traditionalists a lot of publicity. Monseigneur Ducaud-Bourget was getting old and was anxious to continue his traditional efforts. This is when he reached out to Archbishop Marcel Lefèbvre. The rest is history. Since then, Saint-Nicolas, although not the official center of the SSPX in France, has become its de facto national center. Let us not forget that Cardinal Stickler in 1995 stated that the Latin traditional Mass was never prohibited. Today Saint-Nicolas boasts of some 7,000 parishioners.

The church is oriented north to south now, but in the 17th century the main door was on la rue des Bernardins. The main doorway has remarkable wood carvings designed by Le Brun, the Louis XIV painter and Saint-Nicolas parishioner. It offers the best exterior features which display the classical ornamentation prevailing at the time, with ionic and composite pilasters, triangular frontons, and sculpted angels. The two doors have delicately sculpted heads of cherubs and festoons. The flying buttresses gracefully display winding or sinuous lines, which are very characteristic of the Louis XIV period, and the high windows are decorated with elegant garlands. The bell tower, dating from 1625, is reminiscent of the end of the Gothic style; in fact, it is the bell tower of the preceding church. In 1856, the bell tower was given four bells: Napoléone, Louise, Eugénie, and Hortense, in honor of the imperial couple who accepted to sponsor them. The Jesuit-style interior is liberally decorated. Shining chandeliers and large windows provide a light and airy atmosphere. The keystone has a date of 1666. The marble decoration of the sanctuary, as well as that of the church pillars, goes back to the 18th century. The altar is made of green marble (1814). The chandeliers of the sanctuary are in the style of Louis XVI. The decoration of the nave is the work of Le Brun. Unfortunately, the glazing has suffered. Remaining from the 17th century are only the borders of the high windows in the sanctuary and of the transept, as well as those of the sanctuary chapels. The ambulatory chapels are all enclosed by pseudo-marble rails installed in 1880. The Stations of the Cross were added in 1869. The many side chapels are often used by visiting priests who need to celebrate their daily Mass.

When entering the church, on the right side, there is an 18th century canvas of La Presentation de Jesus au Temple, and on the left side, a Le Brun painting of Saint-John devant la Porte latine (1660). It is one of Le Brun’s early works which he produced at the age of 23 for the church; this painting still hangs where it was originally placed in his time. The painting depicts the martyrdom of Saint John the Evangelist, who was tortured in Rome under Trajan. He survived that torture unharmed and later died a natural death. Le Brun chooses the moment when the Evangelist is about to be lifted into a cauldron of boiling oil. Angels observe the proceedings with flowers and palm branches, symbols of his martyrdom. The composition strongly emphasizes the violent movement which dominates the painting. Le Brun is evidently concerned in representing the emotion of the event in the expressive faces and gestures of the participants. The baptismal fonts, dating from the 18th century, are made of red marble. The copper lid is of the 19th century. On the left side is the Baptismal of Christ (1846), and on the right, Jesus Curing the Blind Man of Jericho (1858).


  • Chapelle Saint-Joseph has, on the left, an altar in the style of Louis XV. Above it, is a 17th century Dreams of Joseph. On the right side, The Annunciation (17th century), and in the back, a statue of Saint Joseph with the Child Jesus. In the vestibule of the Chapelle des catechismes, we see on the left side, le Martyre de Sainte-Juliette, and on the right, Saint-Francis-de-Sales Receiving Extreme Unction; both were painted around 1760.
  • Chapelle du Calvaire et des Martyres features, on the left side, Descente de Croix (1850). On the right is Sortie de Tombeau (1852). The altar has a beautiful bas-relief representing the Mise au tombeau. The East Transept has, on the right, a statue of Saint-Anthony of Padua, and on the left, pictures of Notre-Dame-du-Perpetuel-Secours (1880).
  • Chapelle de la Communion au de Saint-Sacrement stands exactly on the ground of the sanctuary of the previous church. The stained glass windows on the right are reminiscent of Saint-Geneviève. The Chapelle of Saint-Sacrament was built only in 1710, the new church being raised as the old one was being demolished. The two buildings, therefore, co-existed for a long time. Until 1906, Chapelle of Saint-Sacrament was the chapel of the Seminary. The wooden altar is painted to look like marble. Above the altar is a painting of the Pélerins d’Emmaus (1706). On each side are two large canvases, the Sacrifice of Melchisedech, and Manna. On each side of the altar are two rows of stalls (18th century).
  • Chapelle Saint-Victor features an altar from the 18th century. On the right side is the Martyre of Saint-Adrien, and on the left, Deploration de Croix.
  • Chapelle Saint-François-de-Sales has a very beautiful altar dating from Napoleon, with a statue of Saint-François-de-Sales. The Sacristy is composed of several rooms. The many altar boys vest downstairs; they wear gorgeous lace surplices. Some vestments are from the 18th and 19th centuries, and the altar cards date from the days of Louis XIII.
  • Chapelle du Sacré-Cœur has the oldest stained glass window of the complex. On the left is a 17th century altar with a statue of the Sacred Heart, and on the right, a painting of L’incredulité de Saint-Thomas (1860).
  • Chapelle de Sainte-Thérèse features, on the left wall, Jesus on the Cross Between the Two Thieves (1610), and on the right, the Extase of Saint-Theresa of Avila (1730).
  • Chapelle Sainte-Geneviève, until the Revolution, was reserved for the daughters of Sainte-Geneviève. On the right is a painting of Sainte-Geneviève (18th century), and in the back is a very beautiful reliquary showcase. The altar is in the style Louis XV, and above the altar is la Ville de Paris aux pieds de Sainte-Geneviève.
  • Chapelle of Our Lady used to be twice as large until the Boulevard Saint-Germain was built. All of the decoration is in the Second Empire style, with statues of the Curé d’Ars and Saint-Michael. Above the altar is the Virgin. In the left tympanum is the Wedding of Our Lady, and in the right tympanum are the Presentation in the Temple, and on the sides, Saint-Joachim and Sainte-Anne. On a green marble stand is a bust of Monseigneur Ducaud-Bourget.
  • Chapelle Marie-Reine-du-Clergé (or Saint-Clair) displays a 17th century altar, and above it is a painting of the Predication of Saint-Clair (1820).
  • Chapelle Saint-Charles has a 17th century altar. A painting of Saint-Charles Borromée is above the altar. There are tiles from the 18th century, and a ceiling painted by Charles Le Brun.
  • Chapelle Sainte-Anne or Sacré-Cœur de Marie displays on the right, a First Empire altar, and in the niche above, is a statue of Sainte-Anne; on the left, an 18th century painting of the Wedding of Our Lady.
  • Chapelle Saint-Bernard features, on the left, Saint-Bruno Celebrating Mass (1700). On the right, there is an altar of the same era surmounted by a wooden statue representing Saint-Bernard.
  • Chapelle Saint-Pierre features, on the right, a First Empire altar with a 17th century bas-relief showing Saint Pierre Crying; on the left, la mort d’ Ananias (1678); towards the left, there is a very nice bust of Saint Pius X (1907). In the West transept, on the right, is a statue of Notre Dame de Lourdes, and on the left, a statue of Saint-Nicolas.
  • Chapelle Saint-Vincent–de-Paul has, on the right, a First Empire altar with a statue of Saint-Vincent-de-Paul, and on the back wall, a statue of Sainte-Louise-de-Marillac. On the left, there is Saint-François d’Assise Receiving the Stigmata.
  • Chapelle des Ames du Purgatoire displays, on the right, Descente de Croix (first half of 17th century), and an altar and bas-relief from the First Empire. On the left, is Les Ames du Purgatoire (18th century).
  • Chapelle Sainte-Catherine features, on the left, the Baptism of Christ (1758), and on the right, Sainte-Catherine (1753). The altar is from the First Empire.
  • There are old and beautiful confessionals in all chapels, each with a sign indicating which languages the priests speak.


    See my article: “Cérémonial au Séminaire Saint-Nicolas-du-Chardonnet à l’époque de Louis XIV”. Cérémonies et rituels en France au xviie siècle. North American Society for Seventeenth Century French Literature, 2001, vol.4, 157-162.