A determined Abbé
Here are two men happy in their work. Together they are making the world a slightly better place and their satisfaction is clear. Not a selfish, self-interested satisfaction but the joy of creating something that will enhance the lives of the people they love. Well, if there is a bit of pride in the twinkling eyes of Abbé Victor-Edouard Paysant and behind the moustache of M. Coulombe, it is quite deserved. Together they are creating a talking church.
Abbé Paysant arrived in the tiny village of Ménil-Gondouin deep in the Orne countryside in 1873, three years after the new church of Saint-Vigor was completed. He is described as ‘a man of faith, a friend of the poor, an indefatigable pilgrim’.
Wanting to inspire his parishioners, the Abbé decided to create frescos on the church for them to enjoy, like those he had seen in churches and cathedrals during his pilgrimages across Europe as a young man. The frescos would depict scriptures and lives of the saints. The Abbé said he wished to make a “true catholic and Christian museum”.
Old stories, new art
With the help of M. H. Coulombe, the Abbé set about creating his very individual interpretation of the old stories. The pair also decorated the interior of the church and installed a number of statues by local sculptor M. Petit. It would become the Abbé’s lifetime work.
Their creation was a sensation, helped by dozens of postcards commissioned by the Abbé to record and share what became known as the ‘living and talking church of Ménil-Gondouin’. People travelled from far and wide to see the curious church and were exuberantly welcomed by the effervescent Abbé.
Rubbing out art
The Abbé died after 50 years of caring for his parish, at the age of 80 in 1921. Despite the church’s own long history of radical saints and priests, the administration of the diocese of Sées decided to scrub the church and whitewash over any trace of its joyful fresco. Time passed and memories faded.
The return of Abbé Paysant’s vision
After decades, during the drought of 1976, something very odd began to happen to the church of Saint-Vigor at Ménil-Gondouin. Remnants of the forgotten fresco began to reappear, drawn out of the bricks by the heat and drought.
Questions were asked, old postcards found and the memories of one elderly member of the congregation listened to for the first time in years.
Interest piqued, the mayor Robert Balloche worked out the cost of restoration but funds were not available. When Guy Béchet became mayor in 2001 he had heard about the lost fresco from his mother, who was born in the village. Visitors who had seen the old postcards regularly came to Ménil-Gondouin but were disappointed to discover the artwork destroyed.
Another very determined man in Ménil-Gondouin
Guy was resolved to restore the church to its former glory and put the idea to the local council. He then began to raise funds – without asking the bishopric, whose views were perhaps not entirely to be trusted on the matter.
Guy proved his determination with a sponsored walk, of over 1500km to Rome. Which gaining for the project a considerable amount of media coverage. This fundraising, together with the support of the Fondation du Patrimoine, local association Les Amis du Houlme, the memories of one very elderly parishioner and over 200 old postcards, enabled work to start in July 2005.
Mural artist Henri Sineux from Argentan was engaged to replicate the original fresco and it was completed in June 2006.
On October 7, 2006, Bishop Boulanger of Sées gave diocese approval of the restoration by visiting the church and celebrating mass.
The frescos should be safe, for now.
This jewel of a church is free to visit. Opening times from April to October are Saturday from 3pm to 5pm and Sunday from 3pm to 6pm. We are told that from November to March the key is available at the La Taverne except on Thursday and Sunday afternoons.
Guy Béchet outside the church, talking about the restoration (Fr) including some views of the interior.