The Torch of Heritage stops in France on its great European tour

The Torch of Heritage stops in France on its great European tour

The President of the Friends of the Church of Mont-devant-Sassey, Mrs Nanou Bouillet, welcomes us to her town and tells us the story of how a community reclaimed their religious heritage, founded the Young Heritage Ambassadors and brought new life to their Romanesque and Gothic church.

The Torch could have invited itself to Lyon, Lille or Bordeaux, but the “FRH Torch of Heritage and Culture” chose to stop in a small village in Lorraine, France on June 2nd. Mont-devant-Sassey currently has no more than a hundred inhabitants, but its history is nonetheless fascinating, starting with its mysterious Romanesque and Gothic church, built by a grandmother of Charlemagne; an impressive religious building, almost forgotten in its green setting since the Great War, whose revaluation is now emblematic throughout the the network of Open Churches in the Great-East of France.

On the go
A large and captivated crowd gathered for the 11th edition of the “Open Churches Days”, attracted by the many activities proposed for the occasion and of course by the exceptional arrival of the Torch of Heritage and Culture. A memorable event, as for the first time the Torch was carried in the hands of a triathlon athlete, also the first young guide in the history of the site.

Cultural heritage: everyone’s business
This unforgettable event was also celebrated by the commitment of the present contributors, all involved in the great challenge of the cultural reclaiming of buildings of worship. Their diversity testified to the importance of the multi-sectoral approach in this meaningful dynamic. On the podium, the young guides of the village, several elected local representatives, three musicians of international fame, a professor of the College de France, the senior officer in charge of commemorating the 100th anniversary of the First World War, a migrant couple from Syria welcomed in Val Meuse, the coordinator of the project of revaluation of the church, the FRH delegation, the bishop of Verdun, and Mr Stephane Bern, the “Mr. Heritage” of the French President was a video participant! Also, the deputy Emilie Cariou brought a special message from the French Minister of Culture Mrs Françoise Nyssen. As the public campaign has started, the public present were also invited to share a personal story/memory related to religious heritage, a “story-testimony” to bring life out from the old stones.

Europe, fantastic call for participation!
The Future for Religious Heritage network enables member associations and institutions to exchange expertise and “good practices”. But the Torch project FRH put in place in 2018 reaches a much wider audience. The arrival of this symbolic flame in the Meuse department offered local participants a highly appreciated European cultural recognition and a desired visibility on the international scene. Recognition and visibility are in fact difficult to obtain for some rural areas, neglected for several decades to benefit more “profitable” touristic grounds. Yet, this little-known land conceals gems and historical treasures and used to be a cherished area by the Merovingians.

An exceptional mobilisation
For over 20 years, the association “The Friends of the Church of Mont” participates in the restoration and enhancement of the Notre-Dame Church of Mont-devant-Sassey and welcomes visitors. This fantastic communal adventure brings together the young and more experienced forces of the village, transcending their political convictions. Small maintenance work, toothbrush cleaning, concerts, church nights, a great annual sauerkraut…are some of the key aspects of this beautiful project.

Religious buildings “open and welcoming”
It is also in this small cross-border area, on the foothills of the Argonne, where the “Open Churches Great East of France” was founded as part of the Open Churches European network, working for collective re-appropriation and enhancement of sacred heritage. To help reopen neglected religious buildings and restore access to the wonders they hold, Open Churches brings their expertise and powerful communication tools to often modest local communities. Launched slightly over 10 years ago, the network now has over 400 member buildings and continues to grow in Belgium, in the North and East of France, and in Luxembourg.

Sharing experiences
The strength of a network largely lies in the sharing of experiences and the pooling of projects. Open Churches is dedicated to bringing together ideas and solutions to help volunteers in charge of sacred heritage, but an innovative local project can sometimes also enrich the collective toolbox. This has been the case in Mont-devant-Sassey, where volunteers have been successfully conducting a pedagogical experience aimed to be accessible to all for 15 years; offering theoretical and practical church guide training to adolescents from 13 to 17 years of age.

Young Heritage Ambassadors
The challenge was to be able to welcome the public on this one-thousand-year-old site during high season, while preserving a human touch. Here, the middle school students of the village intervene, often facing a loose end during the summer months. Thanks to a 20-hour training in situ, they undertake the challenge of “giving a voice” to this church which has become theirs, as it had been that of their parents and their ancestors. More than a hundred of these “Young Heritage Ambassadors” have already participated in the adventure and the Meusian building now welcomes nearly 11,000 visitors a year (from only 300 in 2004).

Heritage as a tool for personality development
This experience has especially highlighted the beneficial role of heritage as a real tool in the process of building the character of young people, especially in rural areas, which are sometimes culturally disadvantaged. A building like a church in the middle of their village allows the teenagers to find their bearings, to locate their place in history, and realise that they are a link in the unfolding of events sometimes far in the past, that they are actors of and in society. Interactive contact with living culture allows for personal identification and awareness, a sense of belonging to a group or community that alleviates feelings of loneliness or isolation. By becoming young “history-bearers”, teens acquire a skill that distinguishes them and often brings out a great sense of pride. Being entrusted with the responsibility of a church that was built centuries ago helps them become full citizens: they respect and bring respect to what they have reclaimed and the effort it required, they are now aware of the value of this shared space.

Your turn!
As they have just welcomed the European Torch of Religious Heritage, the Young Heritage Ambassadors look forward to welcoming you as the next visitor of Mont-devant-Sassey!


*Written by: Mrs Nanou Bouillet, President of the Friends of the Church of Mont-Devant-Sassey and President of the Open Churches of the Grand-Est region of France



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