Nov 30th, 2018, 10:00 PM

Discovering the Saint-Jean Protestant Church

By Sofie Granberg
Saint-Jean gate. Image credit: Sofie Granberg
A glimpse into the church located on AUP's Grenelle campus location.

Every day, students at the American University of Paris walk right past the Saint-Jean Protestant Church, barely noticing it on their way to classes in the Grenelle building. Despite it being on campus grounds, it is quite small and therefore quite easy to miss. Inside, however, it's a whole new world, filled with stained glass art, organ music, and a pastor in a fleece jacket reading passages from the Bible.

As you step through the heavy wooden doors, you find yourself standing under what looks like a boat turned upside down. The tall ceiling is curved and lined with dark wood that matches the benches, pulpit, altar and the wooden panels along the white stone walls. Above the altar, light enters the room through a series of stained-glass paintings depicting Jesus as a shepherd and Mary with the newborn Jesus.

The altarpiece, which is also a stained-glass painting, is lit by lamps and depicts Christian knights with red and white crosses emblazoned on their armors and shields.

“I would rather not have them there,” said Pastor Jean-François Breyne, who has been at Saint-Jean (French for St. John's) for two years. “The violence, it doesn’t reflect our faith.”

Pastor Jean-François Breyne standing by the altarpiece of the Saint-Jean church. Image credit: Sofie Granberg.

Breyne is not the only one in charge at Saint-Jean, but as he is the pastor, he is the main occupant of the church. He is tall and easily recognizable by his round glasses, and is as poised and welcoming as one would expect a pastor to be. Before each service, he takes the time to greet and welcome churchgoers and visitors. Saint-Jean's services are open to all, and are held at set times every week. On Wednesdays and Thursdays there are afternoon services, and on Tuesdays and Sundays they are held during the day. There are often as many as 70 worshippers in attendance on Sundays, and even more during religious holidays. Weekday services, however, are not quite as busy.

Every Tuesday at 12:45 pm, a 30-minute service takes place, during which the pastor reads for five minutes, accompanied by the sound of the organ. Since it’s a mid-day event, attendance is usually low — you might even be the only person present other than the pastor, organist, and the two female vergers, or church assistants. The service is peaceful and intimate, creating the perfect setting for silent worship. The pastor dresses casually, rather than in his clerical clothing, which might factor into the overall casual atmosphere of the service. As he reads, the vergers hand out pillows to make the hard wooden benches more comfortable.

The large amount of wood used in the interior architecture adds warmth to the church’s atmosphere, but also commemorates an important part of the parish’s history. In the 1850s, many German carpenters and craftsmen migrated to the Invalides area of Paris. As Protestant Christianity originated in Germany, this migration resulted in a growing Protestant community in the area. The Evangelic-Lutheran Church of Saint John was opened in 1862 in the nearby Rue Amélie as both a place of worship and a Protestant school. The school was shut down in 1905 after a French law separated the Church and the French state, and thus secularized the public school system. Nonetheless, the church remained.

The main room of the Saint-Jean church, furnished and decorated with dark wood. Image credit: Sofie Granberg.

The construction of the current church began after the architect of the Amélie church building, Denis Bühler, passed away in 1906. He left no heirs, and the church inherited his then-empty plot of land in what are now AUP's Grenelle campus grounds, where the current church was constructed in 1910. Because this took place after the 1905 secularization law, the project received no financial backing from the State and was funded entirely by parishioners.

Lutheranism was the initial form of Protestantism ever since the Reformation, when Martin Luther rebelled against the Catholic Church and Western European Christianity was split in two. With time Protestantism spread from Germany, and with the expansion, the ideas of new reformists caused the Protestant movement to split into several branches. Today, the largest group of France’s Protestant population — of about two million — are reformists, or Calvinists, the movement founded by French reformist Jean Calvin. Although there are certain differences in doctrines between the Protestant branches, Reformists and Lutherans joined forces in 2012 and formed the United Protestant Church of France. The Saint-Jean church is a part of this organization, yet still keeps its identity as a Lutheran church.

Organ music played during a Tuesday mid-day service at Saint-Jean. Video credit: Sofie Granberg. 

Breyne, who spent 20 years working at reformist churches in the south of France before relocating to Saint-Jean, is positive about the merger.

“There are differences, but in practice today, the faith of Lutherans and reformists is the same one,” Breyne said. He calls the merger a natural reaction to Protestantism being a small minority, with only two to three percent of the French population identifying with it.

Although French history tells many tales of brutal conflicts between Protestants and the Pope, Saint-Jean's relationship with Catholicism today is quite optimistic. So positive, in fact, that Pastor Breyne preaches at Saint-Pierre du Gros Caillou — the Catholic church on Rue St-Dominique — twice a year, while their priest preaches at Saint-Jean. When this exchange takes place, however, Breyne does need to avoid certain areas of faith like the still highly flammable topic of same-sex marriage.

So far, the Protestant Church has held that for them to wed a couple, the marriage must be recognized by the State. So when France legalized same-sex marriage in 2013, the Protestant Church followed, and Saint-Jean has seen same-sex couples walk down their aisle since.

The organ is in the back of the church, above the entrance to the main room. Image credit: Sofie Granberg.

Same-sex marriage is not the only issue Protestantism and Catholicism disagree on. For example, celibacy is not required of Protestant pastors in order for them to perform their duties, as they are allowed to wed and have children. Breyne is both a father to four children and grandfather to two grandkids.

When asked if there were any personal sacrifices he has had to make for his position, Breyne replied: “I do not live in terms of sacrifices. I am grateful for what is given to me in life.” He did, however, point out that being a pastor is not something you do for the money, “The wages are extremely low, but we are often very well lodged.”

A pastor must also be mobile, as they stay at each post no longer than twelve years before being moved to a new church, possibly in a different region of the country. Despite being allowed a family life, he says it’s not always easy to reconcile with the duties and the pace of the profession.

Inside the greenhouse, a staircase leads up to the pastor's office. Image credit: Sofie Granberg.

While Breyne’s life as a pastor can be demanding and stressful, that is certainly not what sticks out upon meeting him. On the contrary, he seems to be in tune with the peaceful and calm atmosphere surrounding Saint-Jean. AUP students might attest to the feeling induced by walking through the Grenelle gates, of being instantly shielded from the fast-paced city life on the outside. With the small houses on either side of the gate, the greenhouse – which is Breyne’s office and personal library – and the little park and playground behind the church building, Saint-Jean is a sanctuary within the otherwise busy 7th arrondissement of Paris. For the pastor, this is their most valuable asset.

“We want to be a quiet break from the city, a retreat,” he said. The outdoors area is an important part of this, and the park and playground are open to the public. The church also offers meditation sessions every Wednesday evening, with a religious twist. The latter is a part of a project by the United Protestant Church called Medit'en Dieu, Meditate in God. A group of pastors from different Protestant churches alternate leading the sessions, but they are always held at Saint-Jean. 

Saint-Jean also takes part in the local cultural scene, as they arrange concerts and rent out rehearsal space to a music-teaching organization. The latter is also an important source of income for the church. Since they receive no governmental funding, all their income comes from donations and rental fees. They often rent out a portion of the church, but also the old keeper’s house by the gate, and parts of the land they own around the church, which brings them higher revenues.

The old keeper's house by the gate, which is now in private rental. Image credit: Sofie Granberg.

AUP is in fact one of Saint-Jean’s tenants, as the Grenelle building stands on grounds owned by the church. The university has a co-ownership tenant deal with the church, which gives the university free construction rights. According to Breyne, the land is in practice shared by Saint-Jean, AUP, and the city of Paris. The co-ownership deal has a duration of 50 years, of which around 20 years are remaining.

Breyne regards the current relationship between AUP and the church as a fruitful one, but wishes that the two could better co-exist. He says he is more than happy for students to use the church’s outdoor areas when they are at Grenelle, and says those interested are welcome to attend services and events at the church.

Although eager to advertise the church to AUP students, Breyne has no intention to convert the student body to Protestantism. When asked about his vision for the church, he said that he wants it to be a place that welcomes everyone, where one can enjoy peacefulness while in the city and worship God if desired. As he discussed this, he seemed just as invested in the atmosphere and openness of the church as in its religious aspect.

This liberal vision for the church’s role does not overshadow Saint-Jean’s primary function as a place of worship. It is not a spiritual sanctuary for meditation and mindfulness, it is a church, and both the services and events they host, likeApero Debates”, are centered around the Lutheran faith in God and the Bible. It is by combining this religious foundation with an openness for everyone to enjoy the gardens and cultural events that Saint-Jean finds the balance Breyne seeks.

The quiet park behind the church, which is open to the general public. Image credit: Sofie Granberg.

What remains now is to expand the reach and recognition of the parish. As a Lutheran church in Paris, they appeal to a very small demographic. Reaching outside of this demographic can be difficult, and involves breaking several barriers.

“People are not ready to perceive what is actually happening in churches today,” Breyne said. He particularly referred to misconceptions about religion and church life as being conservative, and argued that the modernized aspects of their beliefs and practices are overlooked.

For young students, visiting a church is often something done only out of tradition or obligation. However, if Pastor Breyne succeeds in his mission, Saint-Jean will become a place where people of all ages can stay in touch with their faith, or enjoy a calm break from the city without feeling excluded by prejudice.

If you want to know more about Saint-Jean and their events, they have a blog that they frequently update about what is happening at the church and within the Protestant community.