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Visiting Marchiennes, France and its curious church building: memories of church-state conflict in 1905

Updated on September 10, 2013
Flag of France
Flag of France | Source
Sainte-Rictrude Church at Marchiennes
Sainte-Rictrude Church at Marchiennes | Source
Sainte-Rictrude Church at Marchiennes
Sainte-Rictrude Church at Marchiennes | Source

Politics and religion in a quiet French town

This church building in Marchiennes, within the Douai arrondissement in France's Nord department, is interesting and unusual in that over the doorway an inscription dating from 1905 has: Liberté, égalité, fraternité (no need for a translation!), the traditional French republican motto (1).

It is unusual in that until the third quarter of the 19th century most French Roman Catholics were not overtly republican in their sympathies. At this time, when the Third Republic seemed to have established a permanent system of government, what was called the Ralliement occurred; that is, Roman Catholic citizens were encouraged to 'rally' to the Republic, whatever their sympathies might once have been. Interestingly, during the period of the Ralliement in the third quarter of the 19th century until 1905, the Roman Catholic chuch was still the established religion of the state, and it is doubtful if the Ralliement would have been as successful as it was if secularists had immediately effected separation of church and state upon the establishment of the Third Republic in the 1870s, after the Franco-Prussian War.

However, this was also a period of much ideological conflict. The convulsions which French society underwent in the closing years of the 19th century and the opening years of the 20th were to a considerable extent evoked by secular-religious issues. The profoundly unedifying, drawn out spectacle of the disgrace of the innocent Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a Jew who was wrongly accused of treason, and whom the conservative and sometimes clerically-inspired army authorities would not exonerate, served to polarize opinion. In 1905, the church was officially separated from the state, but the issue did not end here. Some secularists were deeply antagonistic to all expressions of Christianity; stories abound of nuns fleeing to Belgium, and of ideological arguments spilling over into violence.

The building is named for Sainte-Rictrude, and dates from the 18th and 19th centuries. Notable other features include a classical pediment in the form of a tower. The building was the responsibility of Benjamin Dewarlez.

A monastery is said to have been founded at Marchiennes in the 7th century; this was replaced by a Benedictine Abbey in the 11th century.

Sainte-Rictrude church is situated at Place du Général de Gaulle, Marchiennes.

September 10, 2013

Map location of Marchiennes, Douai arrondissement, Nord department
Map location of Marchiennes, Douai arrondissement, Nord department | Source


(1) Particularly when looking closely at the second photo of the church building (above, right), the inscription may be discerned.

Also worth seeing

In Marchiennes itself, the town hall building incorporates a local history museum; the building has an ornate, drive-through entrance; the town is adjacent to 800 hectares of forest.

Valenciennes (distance: 24 kilometres) has a splendid City Hall frontage; the Saint-Cordon Basilica dominates the skyline; the Maison espagnole recalls a period of Spanish rule.

Tournai, Belgium (distance: 27 kilometres); outstanding features include its Belfry and its Medieval Abbey.


How to get there: United Airlines flies from New York Newark to Paris (Aéroport Paris-Charles de Gaulle ), from where car rental is available (distance from Paris-Charles de Gaulle airport to Marchiennes: 190 kilometres). Brussels Airlines flies from New York to Brussels Airport (Brussel Nationaal / Bruxelles-National ), from where car rental is available. Brussels is the nearest large airport to Marchiennes (distance: 122 kilometres). Some facilities may be withdrawn, without notice. Please check with the airline or your travel agent for up to date information. You are advised to refer to appropriate consular sources for any special border crossing arrangements which may apply to citizens of certain nationalities.

MJFenn is an independent travel writer based in Ontario, Canada


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