Ed Alcock for The New York Times
FROM the outside, St.-François-Xavier Church just might be the ugliest church in Paris. A 19th-century hulk, it drips with decades of brownish-gray grime. There is not one memorable feature on its facade. Although the gold-domed Invalides with Napoleon's Tomb is only a few blocks away, St.-François-Xavier stands on a loud, traffic-clogged intersection leading to the Montparnasse train station, facing some of the worst of recent Paris architecture.
But one Sunday morning, I find myself lurking in its vestibule, waiting for the 10:15 Family Mass to let out. Using head-bowing and tiptoeing rituals learned from the nuns of my childhood, I nudge my way through the departing faithful. Seeing no one in authority, I rush through a side door behind a gaggle of white-robed altar boys. There are no tourists here, and even the regular parishioners don't stop by.
I have entered the church's “wedding sacristy,” an unfurnished space that seems to have no other purpose than to store vestments in locked oak cupboards. The two stained-glass windows need cleaning, the parquet floor polishing, the walls a good paint job.
But there, framed in gold and hanging nonchalantly under slim fluorescent lights, is a 16th-century “Last Supper” by the Venetian painter Tintoretto**. The only Tintoretto to hang in a Paris church, the 8-by-11-foot painting found its way from Venice to this destination as a gift from a French baroness a century ago.
You have to find just the right spot — the far back of the room, slightly to the right — to make the reflections of light disappear from the canvas. A square, rather than long, table captures the intimacy and urgency of the reaction of Jesus' disciples just after his shocking announcement that one of them will betray him. Judas, in the foreground, hides a bag full of 30 pieces of silver behind his back. The stark white of the tablecloth is even brighter than the golden rays behind Jesus' head.
For a moment, the painting is mine.
Paris ordinarily defines itself to visitors as a city of museums, monuments, neighborhoods and shopping-and-eating opportunities. But there is another way into the history, culture and daily fabric of this city's life, a voyage of discovery into a world overlooked even by Parisians themselves: its nearly 100 churches.
Seeing Paris through its churches — its “vast symphonies of stone,” to paraphrase one of Victor Hugo's descriptions of his beloved Notre Dame — is to be thunderstruck. The surprises range from the hallucinatory (the intricately carved, lofted arch-screen of the 16th-century St.-Étienne-du-Mont Church next to the Panthéon) to the culinary (the basement stone crypt of the 17th-century Polish church Notre-Dame-de-l'Assomption that serves as a restaurant offering pickled herring and pork schnitzel).
Certainly, Paris is not Rome, where the Vatican competes to dominate the landscape, and every corner seems to have a church swarming with priests and nuns. There, it seems perfectly natural to wander in and out of churches, knowing that sooner or later you are bound to happen on a treasure.
Paris, by contrast, gives off the air of the sophisticated and the secular. This is, after all, the country that in 1905 codified into law such a complete separation between church and state that even today, census takers are forbidden to ask citizens to reveal their religions.
Churches are silent survivors, witnesses to successive upheavals in France. The most dramatic was the violent anti-clericalism following France's 1789 revolution that stripped churches of their riches, transforming them into “temples of reason” in the service of the new secular republic. Churches were razed; stained-glass windows broken; altarpieces and statues smashed; tombs emptied; church bells melted to make cannons; gold chalices sent to the mint.
The remains of St.-Geneviève housed in St.-Étienne-du-Mont were burned, as was the celebrated library of St.-Germain-des-Prés; St.-Joseph-des-Carmes was turned into a prison for insubordinate clerics who were massacred just outside. Notre Dame Cathedral was so badly defaced and desecrated that by the end of the 18th century, radicals called for its demolition.
Miraculously, many works of art were inventoried and carted away for safekeeping. Paintings were considered part of France's heritage — not vile religious objects — and were largely spared destruction. So were the tombs of the French kings at the St.-Denis Basilica just outside the city limits.
When Napoleon rehabilitated the Catholic Church and it came time to return the objects, a high-stakes free-for-all followed as well-connected and culturally savvy priests fought to secure the best objects for their own churches.
So how to start on this journey of discovery? It is easy — essential, really — for the first-time visitor to make pilgrimages to Notre Dame (the No. 1 tourist destination in town) and Sacré Coeur (No. 2), ahead of the Louvre (No. 3) and the Eiffel Tower (No. 4).
Deciding what else is worthy of discovery is harder, in part because there is no coherent unity to Paris churches.
They fall into distinct historic categories: medieval structures like Ste.-Chapelle, one of the world's most glorious examples of Gothic architecture; French Renaissance structures that blend imposing Gothic proportions with tiny classical detail like St.-Eustache near Les Halles; 17th-century Baroque and Classical churches that sprang up with the expansion of Paris like the Jesuit showstopper of St.-Paul-St.-Louis; neo-Classical grand temples that came a century later including the Panthéon; and finally, the 19th-century wedding cake extravaganzas built with iron columns and girders like St.-Augustin, the product of Baron Haussmann's 19th-century urban renewal that razed entire neighborhoods, churches included.
Another challenge is that some of the more intriguing if little-known churches are unaccustomed to accommodating tourists. English-language tours that focus exclusively on churches are unreliable, so you have to love lonely wandering. Without an understanding of words like “chancel,” “rood” or “iconostasis,” guidebooks can seem impenetrable.
Some time ago, when I started visiting churches randomly — both to light candles for my ailing (and very Catholic) mother and out of curiosity — I discovered serendipity.
Many churches have only natural light so their moods change with the time of day. The painting of “St. Étienne Preaching to the Angel” in St.-Thomas-d'Aquin, an elegant, well-scrubbed structure hidden in a square off the rue du Bac, is luminous in the morning, dull in the afternoon. So is “The Transfiguration” on the ceiling above the altar, the only original decoration to remain after revolutionaries emptied the church of its treasures.
Visitors might head to St.-Sulpice in the chic part of the Sixth Arrondissement to see two paintings and a fresco by Eugène Delacroix and find them wrapped in darkness. A more striking — and better-lit — Delacroix (“Christ in the Garden of Olive Trees”) hangs above a doorway in St.-Paul-St.-Louis in the Marais on the other side of town.
A church can change with the neighborhood according to the day of the week. From Monday through Saturday the southwest corner of the rue du Bac in the Seventh Arrondissement belongs to shoppers at La Grande Épicerie, Paris's largest upscale food emporium. Sundays, the store is closed, and Notre-Dame-de-la-Médaille-Miraculeuse next door takes over. Miracle-seekers from around the world converge on the site of this chapel, where, in 1830, a young novice named Catherine Labouré was said to have had visions of the Virgin Mary, who told her to have a devotional medal made. The beggars are regulars, with jealously guarded fixed positions on the street. A stocky woman with smooth skin, dyed black hair and a permanent perch just outside the entrance kisses the hands of children who drop coins into her hand.
Churches are also refuges. There is no better way to escape the crush of tourists maneuvering around the cafe tables in front of Deux Magots on the Boulevard St.-Germain than to dash into the cool, quiet dampness of the Church of St.-Germain-des-Prés across the street. And you don't have to buy a $5.50 espresso in exchange for a place to sit.
Unless a church is a destination, it can be overlooked. You can get so worn out visiting the Louvre that you skip St.-Germain-l'Auxerrois Church, across the street from the museum's Cour Carrée. One of Paris's oldest churches, it is the resting place for many of France's poets, architects, painters and sculptors, the site of one of Paris's most beautiful church organs — and the church where the basketball star Tony Parker and the “Desperate Housewife” Eva Longoria were married in July.
And you can spend so much time trekking up hundreds of stairs to the top of Montmartre to Sacré Coeur (nicknamed by Émile Zola “the basilica of the ridiculous”) that you don't take the short walk along a cobblestone path to St.-Pierre-de-Montmartre, the last vestige of the 12th-century grand abbey of Montmartre.
Meandering doesn't always deliver, and it's easy for the uninitiated to walk into a fabulous church and miss the best parts.
In the vast St.-Eustache, you can be so put off by the scaffolding and the loud pounding of renovations that you don't notice “The Life of Christ.” A bronze triptych bathed in a white gold patina by the American artist Keith Haring, it sits unannounced in a side chapel.
Haring, who died of AIDS in 1990, began to create the work after his disease was diagnosed two years earlier, and his foundation gave copies to the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York, Grace Cathedral in San Francisco and the city of Paris. Paris's ended up in St.-Eustache, whose former pastor, the Rev. Gérard Bénéteau, ran projects to help AIDS victims.
Some churches are secret and unassuming, open only for weekend services or by appointment. My favorite is St.-Séraphin-de-Sarov, a Russian Orthodox church on a working-class street in the 15th Arrondissement. Only a small plaque on a painted green door announces its presence behind a locked gate at the far end of a courtyard.
The church — an unlit, one-room structure made of wood — was built in its present form in the 1970s around two trees, whose trunks within sit as pillars of nature of a sort. Russian icons grace its altar, transporting visitors far from Paris. “You have entered paradise,” announces the Rev. Nicolas Cernokrak, the Croatian-born pastor, as he ushers me in one afternoon.
Visitors are invited to services on Saturday evenings and on Sundays, when coffee and tea are served in an overgrown, tranquil garden. Otherwise, the church can be visited by appointment with a painter who lives in a house on the site, and who will be happy to invite you in to look at his watercolors (all for sale).
Perhaps Paris's most overlooked religious gem, given its size and importance, is the St.-Denis Basilica. In the working- and lower-class suburb of St.-Denis outside of Paris, it's easily reachable on Métro line No. 13 and a perfect outing on Sunday morning.
According to one legend, after St. Denis was decapitated near Montmartre during a persecution of Christians, he picked up his head, washed it off and carried it about five miles to the north before he collapsed. A shrine was built, replaced by the basilica, which became the place of burial for France's kings from Clovis and Dagobert I to Louis XVIII (with royals like Catherine de Medici, Maria Theresa of Austria, Henri IV, Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI along the way).
Unlike Notre Dame, Paris's star Gothic church that glitters from years of sandblasting, cleaning and polishing, much of St.-Denis's Gothic facade hides behind black soot. I find its cool, pillared burial crypt the perfect place for children to play hide and seek (respectfully). Sculptural details delight: the feet of Blanche de Navarre resting on two dogs, those of Charles Comte de Valois on a lion.
Just a few hundred yards from the serenity of the basilica is an outdoor market with the feel of a raucous Middle Eastern souk — with vendors hawking cheap fabrics, piles of clothing, costume jewelry and running shoes, even mousetraps and zippers — and a covered glass-and-metal food market.
There are other discoveries in Paris churches: the 8,000 square feet of stained glass of Ste.-Chapelle; the medieval facade of St.-Julien-le-Pauvre; the view from the back chapel deep in St.-Roch toward the front of the church, a sort of theatrical-religious stage set through a series of archways; a Zurbarán painting of Joseph walking with Jesus as a child in St.-Médard; a sculpture of a hauntingly beautiful Virgin Mary with Jesus by Antonio Raggi, who worked in Bernini's school, in St.-Joseph-des-Carmes.
There is power as well. I wander into St.-Gervais-St.-Protais in the heart of the Marais late one Saturday afternoon and by chance it is the time of the Vespers service. The voices of the white-robed nuns and monks fill the space with such sweetness that it seems perfectly plausible that the choir at Vespers one Christmas in Notre Dame could have suddenly moved the youthful Paul Claudel, the 20th-century diplomat and writer, to become, as he wrote later, a believer.
That sort of happening helps explain the mystery of Paris churches. They are static, beautiful museums, certainly; they are also vibrant parts of the everyday lives of their communities, places of music and ritual and prayer where infants are baptized, believers take Communion and the dead are mourned.
And so it seems normal that one Saturday afternoon, while looking for that Delacroix* in St.-Paul-St.-Louis, I suddenly find myself witness to a wedding.
In front of me is the bride, Emmanuelle, in white satin and long curls, flanked by a maid of honor in layers of peach. There is the groom, Bertrand, a young man wearing glasses and the look of a banker, in gray tails. They exchange their vows, she grinning, he struggling to stay serious, both of them looking hopeful. Altar boys burn incense, a woman who may have been one of the mothers gets teary. And the tourists study their guidebooks.