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Last Updated: Thursday - 02/05/2004

Week of February 9, 2004

Serene Byzantine sanctuary

This patron saint of innkeepers was welcome at court

St. Julian the Poor -- Feast Day -- February 12

Special to the WCR

Crowded by ancient buildings on Paris' famed Left Bank, the little church is well worth seeking out. The name St.-Julien-le-Pauvre suits the exterior aspect of this inconspicuous "poor" house of God. And although the church is noted in most city guides, with other larger, famous religious structures in Paris' fifth arrondissement (district), some diligence is required to locate St. Julien's.

It has an unusual history and honours a relatively obscure and controversial sixth century holy man.

A shell of its former glory, the church faces northwest in the city's Latin Quarter. Dating from the 12th century, the tiny, rustic, Romanesque style church has had a complex history of usage, abandonment and structural reductions, including the loss of transepts, several bays and an original façade.

Of noble birth

The story of St. Julian became popular during the Middle Ages and may contain elements of the lives of similarly named saints. Also known as "the Hospitaller," he is said to have been of noble birth, married wealth, and was welcome at court.

While hunting one day, a stag spoke to him, predicting that Julian would kill his own parents, which he subsequently, accidentally did. Filled with remorse, he travelled to Rome seeking forgiveness then settled with his wife at the crossing of a large river. There they operated an Inn/Hospital for travellers, the sick and poor, and provided a ferry service.

A leper who the saint put up in his own bed, was a messenger from God who granted forgiveness for his error. He became a popular patron of Innkeepers, boatmen and travellers and is often identified in art with a stag or a boat.

Following a brief period of abandonment, the old church was acquired in 1889 by a Greek Melkite Catholic congregation. Reconsecrated retaining St. Julian's name, it is one of France's two active parishes of this Byzantine Rite.

Melkite followers

There are more than 1.25 million followers of the Melkite tradition centred in the Middle East and including about 500 parishes worldwide. They account for about eight per cent of Byzantine Catholics.

In Canada, the Montreal Archeparchy administers the 90,000-member church. Originating with immigrants from Syria and Lebanon, there are now 10 parishes and missions in six Canadian cities.

Eglise St.-Julien-le-Pauvre celebrates the Byzantine Rite in Greek, Arabic or French according to the requirements of the faithful, since 1857 using the Gregorian calendar.

Although it's lighted by round-arched original windows, the interior of the church is in sombre semi-shadow, with artifacts fading into darkened corners.

For a small donation, attendants in a tiny office will produce a one-page guide that provides backgrounds on St. Julien's and Melkite history.

Adaption of the church to the Eastern rite was effected quickly with the installation of a traditional, three-doored iconostasis, surmounted by a large crucifix, at the entrance to the choir. This wall, separating the Mass celebrant from the congregation, is ornamented with saintly icons. Through the open central doorway, a conventional altar is visible. Otherwise, the church is similar to other early stone structures with a combination of Roman and Gothic arches and columns defining the narrow 12th century nave.

A grand piano and microphones in front of the iconostasis remind visitors that, as with many Paris churches, St. Julien's is frequently the venue for religious and secular musical performances.

Leaving the little sanctuary, one of the more attractive features of a visit to St-Julien's becomes evident in the dramatic view from the churchyard of majestic Notre-Dame-de-Paris on the opposite Seine River bank.

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