A church built by the English - a must-see in Calais !

I have always lived in Calais. As a child, I lived in "North Calais" and the local church undergoing restoration really intrigued me. That church is Notre-Dame church. In 2014 it celebrated its 800th anniversary! As a guide for Calais Opal Coast Tourist Office, I was recently able to visit it again at a preview following more restoration work.

Seeing it today, it is difficult to imagine that just a short time ago it was still being restored! When I used to walk past it, it was surrounded by scaffolding and you could almost never enter. It was hit hard during the Second World War, and following bombing by the Allies in September 1944 it was roofless for around twenty years. The church as it is today is the result of several restoration projects. Work was only finished in November 2013.

Before I rushed inside, I had a look at the surroundings. Imposing fences enclose a Tudor-style garden which will soon be open to the public. Affixed to the side of the church is a plaque commemorating the wedding of General Charles de Gaulle and Calasien Yvonne Vendroux. The ceremony took place at Notre-Dame on 7 April 1921. Overall, Notre-Dame's architecture is surprizing. It is the result of a mix of Flemish and English influences. Allow me to explain to you why. The first church on the Notre-Dame site apparently dates from the 13th century and was called "Sainte-Marie" (Saint Mary). In the 14th century, Calais was taken by the English - you know, the Burghers of Calais episode. To extend the church, the English called in their Flemish allies who taught them construction using sand bricks. From the exterior, one construction certainly seems different from the rest. It is a 17th century cistern. It was built by Vauban, the Sun King's favourite engineer and architect and was used to hold rainwater running off the rooves.

When you enter, you will discover a 17th century altarpiece credited to the sculptor Adam Lottman. Not so long ago, it was not completely visible. Restoration work on it is now finished. It is surprizing due to its imposing size, delicate decoration and rich materials.  Legend has it that the sulptor merely reassembled an altar that Louis XIII had confiscated from a Genoese ship which had wrecked on the coast! Louis XIII supposedly then donated it to decorate the church. In the centre of the altarpiece presides an outstanding painting by the painter Anversois Gérard Seghers entitled "The Virgin's Assumption". A sign shows it before the 2006 restoration work. It was recently returned to its place in the altarpiece, thanks to work by AMVPAC, an association for the protection of local heritage, which has (and continues to) put a tremendous amount of work towards slowly getting Notre Dame back to its former appearance. The least that you can say is that it is back to its former splendour. At the back of the church is the Chapel of the Virgin which was added in the 17th century. Mass is currently held in this area on Sundays at 6pm. The church holds many other marvels! Several sculptures captured my eye: two marble angels by Carrare; a carved wooden Virgin dating from the 15th century; another sculpture by Lottman depicting "Saint George and the Dragon", and more.

Here are some practical points for visits to Notre-Dame :

The church is on Rue de Croy in Calais.

To visit the church outside of the summer period, you have to take advantege of Sunday Mass at 6pm in the Chapel of the Virgin. Another possibility is to form a group with friends and reserve a guided visit at the Calais Opal Coast Tourist Office (by telephone: +33 (0)3 21 96 61 70 or by email: commercialisation@calais-cotedopale.com).

Finally, in July and August, Notre-Dame opens its doors every afternoon from 2pm to 5pm. Entry is free. Volunteers from the Association pour la Mise en Valeur du Patrimoine Architecturale du Calaisis (Association for the Development of Architectural Heritage in Calaisis) will be available to provide information.


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