There is an extensive strip of land in the north of France looks oddly new. This is unusual in a country that has been settled for thousands of years and bears that history still in its everyday surroundings. We can see the physical remains of Celts, Gauls, Greeks, Romans, and Arabs even before the medieval world that we photograph. But the Picardie and Marne are different. Its physical history, usually present in architecture, has been mostly erased. This land has been ravaged by three major wars just since 1870. Each passing of warring armies has left it further scarred. We drove through this area on for a couple of rainy days and it seemed to fit somehow.
However, there are churches who have withstood, not without scars, the troubled times of centuries; Notre Dame de Morienval in Oise and Notre Dame de Mont-devant-Sassy in the Meuse. In both I felt a strong sense of relief, a resounding “YES”, that these pieces of history have survived and have come to symbolize a sense of endurance. They aren’t fancy or grand but they are loved. They are beautiful in the way a beloved face becomes more treasured for the pain, sorrows and joys it has witnessed. And they share something else in common – both churches are cared for by communities that are collectively determined to ensure their survival.
Morienval has become the keeper of this area’s sacred story since all of the other local churches in the immediate neighborhood have vanished. It is full of sculpture, remnants of ancient tombstones, pieces rescued from the ruins of other churches. As much of a museum as a church, it is a visual record of everything that has passed its doors.
Notre Dame of Mont devant Sassey has a guardian, the Association of the Friends of the Church of Mont-Devant-Sassey. One of the Association members, Madame Mercier, an Alsatian from Strasbourg who lives in the town now, devotes her time to overseeing the care and restoration of her church. Twice a year the town gathers to picnic and scrub the mold from the walls that threaten the integrity of the stone.
Photographing these particular churches reminds me that that it is important to leave something meaningful behind – symbol, a reminder that we can be so much more that our history would sometimes lead us to believe.