The Conservation of Religious Heritage Is Not Only About Preserving Some Old Stones

The Conservation of Religious Heritage Is Not Only About Preserving Some Old Stones

The conservation of religious heritage is not about simply preserving some old stones. There is so much heritage, particularly in rural places, lacking preservation that needs safeguarding for future generations.  This forms part of our living heritage, where religious buildings can be the centre of the community for all kinds of different events and uses, and they give local people a sense of place and others, like tourists and local visitors, reasons to visit and for people to work there.

It is well known that FRH, together with those who work to protect religious heritage across Europe, is concerned about the future of that religious heritage. However, an additional problem has emerged. If we want to ensure the future of religious heritage, we must also have enough craftsmen to safeguard it in the future. A few examples illustrate this, the first being the most dramatic.

About a year ago, Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris was nearly destroyed. Restoration of the cathedral posed a number of challenges, including the speed at which conservation could take place. To rebuild the 850-year-old church, there is a need for using pioneering technologies as well as old crafts for the restoration itself. A few examples illustrate the complexities:

  • 1300 lead tiles melted and spread toxic lead dust everywhere including the stained-glass windows though some of these were saved by the vaulted roof.
  • 28 flying buttresses had to be shored up – but each one was different. Timber frames were made at a specialist timber factory and in 5 months all buttresses were ready to support the vaulting.
  • 5 tons of scaffolding could collapse at any time.
  • There are 800 cubic metres of limestone in the building but not all of the same type of limestone.
  • 500 tons of oak is needed to restore the wooden roof frame called ‘Le Forêt’. Another year to stabilise the building and take down scaffolding will be needed.
  • Regarding the great organ, everyone was able to rejoice that it was miraculously preserved from the flames and water. Still, the situation is complex, and perhaps more worrying than it seemed at first, especially because of the toxic fumes from the burning of the lead from the roof.

In order to conserve religious buildings, we need skilled craftspeople to do it. It is about safeguarding living heritage, rural life (in particular) and the economy and local employment. Let’s clarify this.

Living Heritage combines the traditional use of a building with its tourist or historical attractions.  This heritage needs upkeep, which itself provides employment, but we need the right people with the right skills. Two religious buildings in rural Belgium, a modernist chapel near Oudenaarde (right) and a church in a hamlet in Condroz, illustrate this.

The pilgrimage Chapel of Our Lady of Kerselare, just outside Oudenaarde was designed by Juliaan Lampens and Rutger Langaskens, members of the modern church building group of the Saint Lucas School of Architecture in Ghent. This modernist chapel was constructed between 1963 and 1966 and is considered today as one of the finest examples of brutalist religious architecture in Belgium.  It attracts many visitors, pilgrims and architectural aficionados. In the vicinity of the Chapel there is a restaurant serving visitors, and regularly a food truck selling snails and other local specialities – the Chapel, therefore, supports the local community and economy in a variety of ways.

However, conserving the building has thrown up some interesting problems. It suffered concrete degradation, and struts were placed in 2012 to support the concrete roof. But more recent studies by experts have shown the constructional problems are much less dramatic. The yellow struts which give the Chapel its High Tech feeling will soon be removed. Continuing studies are needed to establish how best to preserve modernist religious buildings and building techniques as more knowledge is needed on how best to preserve these buildings.

The Romanesque church of Saint Peter in the hamlet of Xhignesse is still used by the parish of Hamoir. It dates back to the eleventh century, and is one of the finest Romanesque village churches in the province of Liège. Degradation over the centuries made restoration necessary. The first stage (left) involved restoring the exterior.

Once the first stage had been completed, restoration of the interior began. The layers of plaster, dating from an early 20th-century renovation, was partially removed to let the walls breathe.

These buildings support the local economy. The Condroz region is renowned for its rural tourism; the Romanesque churches such as Saint Peter’s in Xhignesse attract cyclists, hikers and other tourists.

Heritage buildings provide employment for conservation workers, but also because they are Living Heritage, they are at the centre of a community, giving it a sense of place and the economic benefits of tourism. The preservation and use of traditional techniques and the exploration of new procedures to tackle novel challenges are essential. Conservation of religious heritage in rural places can be a motivator for all kinds of local developments. It can be part of a renaissance of an area, with the church as a hub safeguarding the Living Heritage of localities.

In England, there are over 5 million listed pre-1919 buildings requiring maintenance or restoration. There are also many more that are not listed. But out of a workforce in the sector of 109,000 there is a skills gap of 76,000, with only 33,000 having appropriate skills (figures from 2013). Another example comes from Flanders: there are currently about ten organ builders with one to four of five employees, but in the next 15 to 20 years there will be just one or two companies left at most

So what is needed? During the FRH General Meeting in October 2019, the idea was launched to devote more attention within FRH to heritage crafts and by extension, education and training courses. An ad hoc working group has been set up to develop this further.  The first thing is to define the crafts that are needed for restoration, maintenance and conservation.

If we draw up a list of the main crafts for use in the ecclesiastical sector we get the following specialities:

  • Stonework of all kinds
  • Metalwork
  • Lime plaster and lime mortar
  • Brick making
  • Glass
  • Textiles
  • Picture and fresco conservation
  • Organ building and pipework


The intention of the ad hoc group is to create a Europe-wide database of educators, training programmes and professional craftspeople and conservators.  To start with, the ad hoc group wants to map out what exists already in education, training courses, professional associations, guilds, small businesses and single operators in the different European countries.  To do this, a questionnaire will be produced and sent out to FRH members and others to gather information. FRH will then be able to see where the gaps are and begin to set up a database of information and start making inter-country links. After all, it is important to invest in, among others, young people who learn crafts so that the future of the heritage sector regarding employment is guaranteed. As people say in the heritage sector, today’s youth are the guardians of tomorrow. We look forward to sharing more with you in the near future. For more information contact


Daniel Vanden Broecke, Marcus van der Meulen, Anneli Randla and Jennie Hawks, FRH Ad Hoc heritage skills group.

Photographs: Notre Dame (Wikipedia); Chapel of Our Lady of Kerselare and Saint Peter’s, Xhignesse (Marcus van der Meulen); organ-building : organ-building in the Netherlands and restoration in Flanders (Daniel Vanden Broecke); students from the Estonian Academy of Arts (Taavi Tiidor).

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