Peinture du chemin de croix à Notre Dame des Anges
Information of the Association for the preservation of Pondicherry and French heritage in India
LETTER TO THE MEMBERS
After having given away, since our founding in 1995, Heritage Awards to eight excellent restorations in Pondicherry, and then in 2004 having initiated and participated in the renovation of the Alliance Française on the Bay of Bengal (also called the Maison Colombani), the Friends of Pondicherry Heritage chose in 2009 to restore the church Our-Lady-of-Angels.
Three main motives inspired this choice.
The first reason is spatial. Each morning, the church Our-Lady-of-Angels witnesses a remarkable phenomenon. From beyond the sea skyline, heading straight from Burma, the first ray of the sun reaches out and touches the statue of Joan of Arc before entering the great door and threading its way to the altar where the first mass of the day is celebrated. A correspondence that we found striking.
The second reason is historic. The presence of the church Our-Lady-of-Angels goes all the way back to the arrival of the French in Pondicherry, even if the current church built between 1851 and 1855 by the engineer Louis Guerre, an ancestor of the treasurer of our association, is only the fourth building to share the same name. In fact, two Capuchin monks accompanied François Martin in 1674 when he took office as the first Governor of Pondicherry. The Capuchins of course, belong to the Franciscan order, whence the name “Our-Lady-of-Angels”, in tribute to the Basilica of Saint Mary of the Angels at Assisi, where Saint Francis restored his first chapel and founded his first community.
The third reason is more humane and spiritual. If most of the French in India, in the course of three centuries of their presence in the sub-continent, landed in Pondicherry and thus either passed in front of or entered this church, then its restoration is also the occasion to commemorate three great witnesses of the dialogue between Hinduism and Christianity: Jules Monchanin, Henri Le Saux and Bede Griffiths… who also passed through this church.
In full concurrence with the new parish priest, Fr. Michael John Antonysamy who arrived in 2008, the work was begun in September 2009. We had by then, assembled the first donors and chosen Patrick Lafourcade as the site foreman. The church till then had undergone some minor maintenance work, but never the complete restoration that was overdue.
The structural work began with the waterproofing of the roof and walls. Then, the 22 windows of the nave and the 8 dome windows were either restored or replaced. Shortly after, the sound, lighting, electrical and ventilation systems were refurbished. Finally, the wooden furniture, unique to Pondicherry, was completely restored, along with the window panes and some of the flagstones. Then came the paint…
Left entirely in white since its construction, the church’s exterior alone had been repainted with Neapolitan pink and cream-yellow at the beginning of the twentieth century. The white in the interior had meanwhile turned grey with time. Encouraged by India’s appetite for colors and by our site foreman, we prepared to add color to the church! Decisions were only taken after gradual discussions between those involved and after consulting the experts, and were at no point imposed from above. For the exterior, Neapolitan pink and yellow were retained but two colors were chosen for the 12 apostles: brown for the cloaks and sky blue for the shirts. For the interior, the three existing colors of the windowpanes guided our choice: blue - celestial and Marian, in three different shades; yellow - solar and luminous; and red - enhanced with clear beige and pink, in a tip of the hat to India. As for the stations of the cross, entirely in papier mâché, the colors that breathed life into it came from the audacious brush of a woman artist from Pondicherry. Meanwhile, the three entrance doors changed color from reddish brown to navy blue.
The restoration work was completed before the 4th of March this year, when the archbishop of Pondicherry held a benediction ceremony. The two and a half year construction work was jolted by two ordeals. First, the brutal death of Patrick Lafourcade on the 4th of March 2011, followed quickly by that of Charles de Candappa, the parish treasurer, laying a wreath on the coffin of the former. Secondly, the cyclone Thane that devastated the region of Pondicherry on the 30th of December 2011, uprooting trees and smashing in the doors of the church. But spirits at the work site continued to be high and all the teams of workers were committed to finish their work under the supervision of the new site foreman : Samuel Victor, a friend of Patrick Lafourcade.
Today, work has resumed on the restoration of the wall surrounding the church and preparations are on for the refurbishment of the garden of Joan of Arc.
And the Our-Lady-of-Angels church has once again become a place of silence, of liturgies and a place that is open to the outside world, through the use of three languages: Tamil, French and English and through the presence of a replica of our Lady of Velankanni, worshipped in equal part by Christians, Hindus and Muslims.
Finally, our heart goes out, filled with gratitude, towards all the donors, known and unknown, in France and in Pondicherry, whose generosity made this restoration possible, not to mention the VMF Foundation and the French Government who have allocated grants to us.
Charles H. de Brantes, President of the FPH.
download the pdf Format