The chapel of Saint-Rouin, a gem of the Argonne forest

Beaulieu-en-Argonne (Meuse)

From our regional correspondent

Whoever has taken the TGV Est or the A4 motorway has passed very close, without knowing it, crossing the Argonne forest. The Saint-Rouin chapel is a well-kept secret of the Meusiens. On the departmental road D2, between Beaulieu-en-Argonne and Futeau, the sign indicating the way to the site indicates only “the hermitage”, the house dedicated to pilgrims, and not the religious building, however architectural curiosity of foreground, classified in the supplementary inventory of historical monuments.

Framed by tall beeches, oaks and firs soaring towards the sky, the chapel is only revealed in its entirety once you have climbed a necessary approach path. Francis Jolly, passionate president of the Friends of Saint-Rouin association, responsible for maintaining the site, who accompanies us, warns: ” I love her so much. But she got people talking at the time. “

Concrete parallelepiped, built on stilts, on the slope, the building, pierced with large and soft stained-glass windows, imposes a stop on the visitor, seized. The construction is simple, and the lines are clean. But literally “Rough formwork”, the concrete has kept the imprint of the grain of the planks, and could almost be mistaken for wood. Inside, the calm, the darkness and the smallness of the place (about 12 meters long) immediately summons silence, while the trapezoidal shape directs the gaze towards the altar.

What dose of madness or genius did it take in the 1950s to carry out this project here? The site, called Bonneval, indeed hosts a secular pilgrimage, the embodiment par excellence of popular piety, which may seem to be the antipodes of the avant-garde. It is said that in the VIIe century an Irish monk came to evangelize the area and after having built a monastery on the promontory of Beaulieu, became a hermit in the valley. Over the centuries, a pilgrimage to this Saint-Rouin has been held there discontinuously, the water from the spring which flows there being reputed to be miraculous. The site was equipped with a hermitage (to house pilgrims), a chapel, ruined after the Second World War and a “cathedral of greenery”, where to hold the open-air mass, in which a carved altarpiece from the XVIIIe century, only vestige of the church of the Abbey of Beaulieu. In the midst of the pre-Vatican II period, however, a wind of freedom was going to swirl in this rural glade, which had become the great project of three priest-builders, with very strong personalities.

The young Dominican novice Serge Bonnet, child of Sainte-Menehould, graduating from law studies – and who would become a recognized sociologist – often came to Bonneval in his childhood. It was there that, as an adult, he received the vocation of the priesthood, and the desire to breathe new life into it, in the spirit of an occasional parish turned particularly towards young people. As early as 1949, this born mobilizer organized youth camps to clean up the site, and little by little gathered around him those, often militants of Catholic action, who would be called “the companions of Saint-Rouin”.

He meets the new parish priest of the neighboring parish of Islettes, Father Hannequin, former chaplain of the Christian agricultural youth. They agree: a chapel must be rebuilt. After a long search for an architect, they validated the project of the young father Louis-Bertrand Rayssiguier, another Dominican. He discovered art at the Saulchoir convent, the place of study in the Dominican province of France, and became passionate about Le Corbusier. His enthusiasm for the renewal of sacred art led him to get closer to Matisse and to develop with him the project of the Saint-Paul de Vence chapel. The bishop of Verdun, Mgr Georges-Marie Petit, is enthusiastic.

The first decision is not to rebuild the chapel in the same place (next to the hermitage). “For meditation, it was advisable to move the chapel away from the building where visitors are agitated”, will tell Father Rayssiguier. Access by a trail, at the time steep, is desired. “The building is difficult at first. God is more so. It is not enough to enter a holy place to find it ”, will justify the Abbe Hannequin.

Its architectural principles are inspired by those of Le Corbusier: reinforced concrete, flat roof and pilings, which raise the building, as if suspended in the landscape. The humidity and the isolation of the site also govern the choice of materials (concrete, glass, stainless metals) and the architecture with a roof inclined at 5% to allow the flow of water and the evacuation of the leaves. autumn, while the stilts isolate the chapel from the damp ground. The chapel should be sturdy and require little maintenance. Ascetic, it has no image, no musical instrument, except a bell, and no seat. It has neither electricity nor heating. Its interior layout, bathed in color thanks to the large stained-glass windows, is organized around three sacramental spaces (baptism, penance, Eucharist) and focuses on liturgical furniture, also very sober. The altar is made of 12 tons of sandstone.

The construction involves both local players, including the very invested wheelwright François Jannin, as well as prodigies from elsewhere. Like this 10-year-old Franco-Japanese girl living in Paris, Kimié Bando, daughter of a friend of father Rayssiguier. The child is entrusted with the boxes of the stained-glass windows – inserted in large and original triangular, round and square shapes -, the bell tower, the design of the wrought iron scraper (which really deserves to lower your gaze before entering) , and suggests drawing large irregular lines on the facade, like branches giving life to concrete.

After the sudden death of Father Rayssiguier at the end of 1956, the Hungarian sculptor Pierre Székely completed the interior fittings, in particular the Comblanchien stone paving, the 7-meter-high summit cross, or the front door, designed to remain forever open: it does not lock! The building is not to everyone’s taste, however: many inhabitants and members of the Church consider it ugly. They see in it a disfigurement of the landscape, almost satanic! The bishop of Verdun undertakes: “Concrete is the material of our century. He is just as capable of singing the glory of God as the faux carved stones, the wood painted in marble and all the “knock” that our predecessors love. “ The project leaders, convinced of leading a fair battle of sacred art, take sometimes brutal decisions, such as the destruction of the Stations of the Cross in false caves, dating from the end of the 19th century.e century, which is scandalous.

Laborious construction, which lasted from 1954 to 1961, was also due to a lack of financial resources, and would undoubtedly not have been possible without the voluntarism of Father Hannequin, who will give himself to the site body and soul – until being buried in the forest, just below the chapel – constantly appealing for donations. The Meuse building company Berthold, getting involved with militant disinterestedness, will wait a very long time before being paid! “Paid site visits, with on-site catering, were even organized by the volunteers, to save resources”remembers Noëlle Cazin, a child at the time, friend of Serge Bonnet, and former curator of the Meuse departmental library. She admits it, “The chapel remains unknown, although it is a major building of sacred art of the third quarter of the twentiethe century “. A building and a human adventure “Totally out of the ordinary”.


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