Bishop Jean-Yves Nahmias of Meaux has blessed the site of the future Saint Columban Church and school, a multi-million euro project that bucks the trend of church closuresChurch launches ambitious project near Disneyland Paris
Model of the future Saint Columban church and school. (Photo: PIER CARLO BONTEMPI AND JENNY-LAKATOS)
By Arnaud Bevilacqua | France
A Roman Catholic church that can hold up to 900 people and a private school that can accommodate more than 1,500 students. The total estimated budget: more than 40 million euros.
The Diocese of Meaux is building the sprawling facility, known as Saint Columban Church, in the new town of Marne-la-Vallée. That’s where the world famous Disneyland Paris theme park was opened some 30 years ago, currently attracting nearly 15 million visitors per year.
The US-based Walt Disney Company and the French government signed an agreement in 1987 to development the unique urban center in a large area of farmland some 20 miles east of Paris. The result, some three decades later, has been the construction of new districts, the establishment of companies and even a huge shopping center.
The ever-expanding population of the area known as Val d’Europe has grown from 3,000 to more than 35,000 inhabitants. And there are projections that there will eventually be 50,000, or even 100,000, inhabitants.
Faced with these facts, the Diocese of Meaux has long been thinking about building a church to keep up with this great urban upheaval. Bishop Jean-Yves Nahmias, who was appointed diocesan ordinary in 2012, blessed the site of the future church and school this past Sunday. He remembers that when the original plans for the new church center were first proposed he told his diocesan advisors they were not youth-oriented or bold enough.
“When I returned to Val d’Europe, the team presented me with what needed to be done: a large church, a presbytery, a pastoral center and a school,” he said. A cultural center was then added to the church complex.”
A gamble on a future that is already here”
The multi-million euro project comes at a time when many churches in France are being closed or abandoned and Catholicism is losing ground. But Bishop Nahmias says he and his people have no delusions of grandeur. “It’s a gamble on a future that is already here,” the 65-year-old Parisian says.
“We are not taking excessive risks,” he insists. “There is a missionary logic: we are affirming our faith. But, concretely, the demands of the families and young people on the spot are pressing. The school will be full, as will the church,” Bishop Nahmias predicts.Father Gérard Pelletier has been pastor of the Val d’Europe missionary cluster since September. The cluster includes eight towns and municipalities and eleven parishes. The priest says population growth has created the urgency for a bigger church facility. He points out that the village churches, none of which are in close proximity to Disneyland, are too small too for the current and future needs.
“We lack space and a parish house to carry out our activities,” Pelletier says. “Beyond 30 people, it becomes complicated very quickly. In addition, the churches are too small for gathering the entire parish, for instance on Christmas Eve,” he laments.
Bishop Nahmias remembers celebrating confirmations in crowded churches where not everyone could fit. The new church and the school — ranging from kindergarten to post-baccalaureate — are therefore eagerly awaited even by people who are not Catholic.
The bishop took his pilgrim’s staff and discussed the plans with the different stakeholders. He said people gave him an enthusiastic welcome, expressing their “interest and even encouragement”. Out of respect for secularism, the school is supported by the town halls, the department and the rectorate. The only obligation the diocese had towards Disneyland was to fit its project into the architectural logic of the Val d’Europe.
Bishop Nahmias is hoping to get financial support from people and institutions even outside the Meaux diocese. “Currently, we have three-quarters of the funding,” he says.
The construction of the church is supported by the Chantiers du Cardinal, a fund created in the Archdiocese of Paris in 1931 to support construction projects. Catholic education and the diocesan community are now being asked to contribute.
Two classes are scheduled to open in temporary buildings already next autumn. Construction of the complex is being planned in phases and should begin in 2023.