Not many people walk the length of the rue Jean Goujon in the 8th arrondissement. Either they are strolling along the river, or gazing at the likes of the Christian Dior boutique on avenue Montaigne (fashion central), the next street over. The rue Jean Goujon runs between the river and avenue Montaigne, and it is as quiet as the tomb. I use this simile advisedly.
We chose it by chance, and by chance we stopped to admire a handsome church facade and dome topped with a golden statue reflected in the windows of the office building opposite. The double glazing made a double image.
A small sign by the church caught our attention. Something to do with a “Bazar de la Charité.” We crossed the road for a closer look. No, it wasn’t about an upcoming rummage sale. It was the raison d’être for the whole structure.
The church is called Notre Dame de la Consolation, and the consolation is that of the bereaved whose wives, husbands, children and parents perished in the fire of May 4, 1897, that occurred here.
The Bazar de la Charité was an annual fundraiser for the poor, and like all successful fundraisers, the organizers had secured the participation of some celebrities — in those days, that meant people with titles. The Duchesse d’Alençon was the highest ranking of those in attendance.
The bazaar wasn’t just your average church craft and white elephant sale. The organizers had created something that looked like a medieval street in a large wooden building on this site, made of painted cloth, cardboard and papier-mâché. There was food and drink on offer, and trinkets to buy in little boutiques staffed by society ladies, but most of all there was entertainment. And so, to be as up-to-the-minute as possible (this was 1897), the organizers arranged for moving pictures.
Alas, the equipment didn’t work as it should have. In the end, nobody was really sure what happened. Some said the assistant did something wrong. Others said it was a malfunctioning projector that started the fire that immediately spread to the rest of the building. Many of those in attendance escaped, but about 130 people perished, most of them women.
The chapel was later built on the site to commemorate the dead of the Bazar de la Charité. It is not a large church, as it might seem from the façade, but a rotunda under a dome that can accommodate about 75 or so people. We also glimpsed a cloister open to the sky, with tombs on one side, opening off to the rear of the chapel.
Feeling thoughtful, we continued our walk. And a few steps further, we found another memorial of another kind, this one to people who died far away, in another country.
The Apostolic Armenian Cathedral in Paris, St-Jean Baptiste, is a completely different style of church, although it was built only a few years later, in the early years of the 20th century.
A small poster indicated a display of front pages from international newspapers and magazines relating to the massacre of the Armenians during the First World War. The exhibit was in a space behind the church, reached by a narrow passage that opened out into a courtyard.
Although the exhibit was officially closed (it was after 5 p.m.), a woman motioned for us and another visitor to enter through the glass doors, and descend the staircase to the underground exhibition hall.
We spent some time examining the display, but we didn’t want to linger too long and incommode the church staff. What we saw was sufficiently sobering. When we came up the stairs, the lady in charge asked if we would like to see the church. She ushered us through the side entrance.
The church was a little larger than the chapel of Notre Dame de la Consolation, but it was still an intimate space, with an organ in a loft over the entrance, and an impressive painting on the curved apse behind the altar. The space was full of colour, with rich carpets on the floor, and glittering chandeliers hanging from the ceiling.
We emerged into the sunny street thinking about two different stories of tragedy and loss — one local and immediate, one distant and unimaginably vast. Paris is a space of memories, held within its stones and its communities. There is still an association devoted to the memories of those who died in the fire of 1897, just as there are associations that perpetuate the memory of the victims of the Armenian genocide.
Behind almost any facade on any street in any city there are stories to be told. If we were to pick a Paris street at random and an address at random, and somehow talk to the oldest inhabitant of that address, what stories would we hear?
Text by Philippa Campsie; photographs by Norman Ball.