The cool Norman day begins with the sound of hammers, on an oak porch rebuilt as in the 15th century. Clinging to the battens two meters above the ground, volunteers from a participatory project started thirty years ago spread layers of mortar between a wall and a start of tiles. Others wipe down the rebuilt building with squared wood with an axe. In the distance, undulate the green countryside of the Pays d’Ouche and its rural paths passing through fields.
These finishes are the culmination of the associative restoration of one of the oldest churches in Normandy: the former parish church of Pierre-Ronde, in the hamlet of the same name. A rescue started in 1991, when the archeology student Frédéric Épaud came across this building whose roof was leaking, with a crooked bell tower, broken stained glass windows and a stolen door. A heartbreak for a church with a nave of Romanesque origin, endowed with a paneled and painted vault, lost in a charming nature. “Scandalized” at the sight of the frame open to the four winds, the then archeology student put tarpaulins on the roof “with the means at hand” and began looking for the last owner. The latter agrees to resell the land and the church to the small town of Beaumesnil (Eure). Frédéric Épaud then convinced the municipality to follow him in his crazy idea: a restoration via volunteer sites mixing craftsmen, researchers and neophytes.
Thirty years of restoration work
Foundations and frame on posts saved, bell tower straightened, old tiles restored, interior medieval paintings restored… in thirty years, everything has been redone or almost, “respecting traditional know-how, materials and techniques”, specifies, from high on a scaffolding, the archaeologist turned CNRS researcher, whose hair has turned salt and pepper. “By also making sure that the restoration is not visible,” he adds. For example, archaeological readings of the walls have shown plasterwork dating from the 16th, 12th and even the 10th century, of different compositions, each redone in the manner of the time.
Ancient techniques and materials
On the nearly finished site, the work at the top of the porch continues all morning until we share a cup of coffee. Among the volunteers on a break, Quentin Chouquet, an archeology student with short hair in front, long behind. Several hundred people have worked on these sites, rejoicing like Quentin at having brought their “little stone to the building”. For a cost probably “fifty times cheaper” than an ordinary site, assesses Frédéric Épaud.
“We have to stop saying that heritage is too expensive to restore,” he says. “Volunteer work lasts longer, but this is how we can save heritage.” We must also wonder about the current way of restoring, continues the specialist, and about the importance of educating the population in the history of art and ancient techniques. That’s good, for the inhabitants of the hamlet and of Beaumesnil, the village to which it is attached, the site was a way of reclaiming local history and heritage, as explained by Yannick André, elected official and owner of a house in the hamlet, which comes to pass a head.
From the beginning, he has been following the restoration of the “superb little building”, where the last masses were celebrated in the 1960s. to attack the gutted roof, the collapsed arrow”, says the elected Beaumesnilien.
Moreover, the voluntary site has not only benefited from subsidies from the State, from the Historic Monuments or from the Heritage Foundation. He also received the unconditional support of the town hall of Beaumesnil, responsible for writing the rest of the story. Because, the structural work now completed, the church located on the route of a hiking trail should become a small museum that can be visited independently only in good weather, kept as much as possible in its own juice. The rescue is all the more extraordinary as many small rural and deconsecrated churches have definitively disappeared.
Recipes for success
- An ethical project Using original materials and techniques, the site is an example of restoration. This has earned him numerous awards, including the Treviso Prize in 2017.
- A mobilized village Supported by the State, the volunteer site is also supported by the village of Beaumesnil. Thirty years ago, the municipality agreed to buy the building from an individual so that the site could be done.
- A place of learning The site attracted students in architecture or building archeology.