It is a striking sight, five golden onion domes standing dominant in the (traditionally) Catholic French capital. How did it come into existence? The answer is, with great difficulty. Here are four obstacles that the project faced, to become the HQ for France’s 200 000 Orthodox worshippers plus curious locals and tourists.
1. It almost wasn’t built. A highly political venture, the church’s construction made achingly slow progress since the first discussion between then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Alexis II, Patriarch of Moscow, in 2007. The main reason why it did get built is because the high-profile site next to the Eiffel Tower was a disgrace and something (anything) had to be done.
2. It was almost a mosque. Although something (anything) had to be done, Paris turned down an offer from the Arabian peninsula to purchase the site, for an undisclosed but “much greater sum” than the (rumoured) 73m Euros eventually paid by Moscow in 2010.
3. It was almost built in a very different design. Manuel Nuñez Yanowsky’s design – elected by a Russian panel and rejected indiscreetly then-mayor Betrand Delanöe – involved a Marilyn Monroe skirt topped with the five onion domes (“an insult to the Russian spirit, the Orthodox church in general, and Paris in particular” – Delanöe, 2011). The 2012 building permit for this version never materialised. Not to worry, if you require undulating canopies head to Patrick Berger’s Forum des Halles. Or if it’s Nuñez Yanowsk you want, take RER A towards Euro Disney, descend at Noisy le Grand – Mont d’Est to visit Les Arènes de Picasso – to the surprise of the nonchalant residents.
Then, it was almost the “serviette” (napkin) with single onion dome from runner-up Frédéric Borel. But no. Today’s church was masterminded by Parisian architect Jean-Michel Wilmotte and is said to resemble a mille-feuilles – the great traditional dessert of “a thousand layers” found in all traditional French patisseries. You can indulge in yours at one of the pastry shops on nearby Rue Saint Dominique.
4. It was almost built on Ile Seguin. The island in the Seine, located discreetly just outside of Paris, used to be home to an historical Renault factory, and since 2017, boasts Shigeru Ban’s multicultural space La Seine Musicale as well as cultivated-yet-wild parkland. Instead, the church’s actual uber-prominent location beside the Eiffel Tower was brokered through luck and a deeply embedded political network.
Image (left) courtesy of Hayley & Image (right) courtesy of PSS
I love it, all whipped cream and gold leaf. I am amazed by this strikingly religious and non-catholic structure in a major western-European location. Whether you love or hate it, are enthralled or appalled, la Sainte Trinité is worth a visit.
This article was inspired by the article published in Vanity Fair online on 29 March 2016, “L’incroyable histoire de la cathédrale orthodoxe en plein Paris”.
Words & Images by Hayley Azar
Enjoyed this read and want to read more interesting stories on city life and culture? Click here for our print journal.