The secrets of Sèvres-Babylone
By Jerry Marterer
Above, Hotel Lutetia. Images provided by the author.
This may sound like the title of an Indiana Jones movie, but it involves a pleasant Paris quarter in the seventh arrondissement that lies in the triangle formed by the intersection of the rue de Sèvres and the rue de Babylone. The close-by Sèvres-Babylone métro stop is served by the 10 and 12 métro, and the 86 bus gets us there from our apartment near the École Militaire. It is not a working-class neighborhood, nor is it showy rich. It is full of surprises, some elegant, some spiritual, but all of them interesting.
I recall the first time we rode the bus down the rue de Sèvres on our way to shop in the neighborhood; we passed a seven-foot Egyptian statue surrounded by a stone kiosk set in a wall next to the Vaneau métro station. In each of the statue’s hands was an amphora pouring water into a stone basin on a pedestal. We looked it up and learned that it was one of 15 fountains built under Napoleon to bring fresh water to the city from the newly built Canal de l’Ourcq. This one, finished in 1806, commemorated his Egyptian military campaign and is called the Fontaine du Fellah, the word for an Egyptian peasant.
In pre-revolution times the area was outside the city walls and most of the land was owned by religious orders that built churches, convents and monasteries, many of which survived but are now hidden from view. Around 1550, a bac, or ferry, was established to haul blocks of stone from nearby quarries across the Seine to build the Tuileries Palace. The path leading up to the ferry was named the Chemin du Bac, later the rue du Bac. It starts on the rue de Sèvres then cuts through the tip of the triangle and rue Babylone like cutting the point off of a wedge of brie cheese (something the French consider quite rude). It winds north through the fashionable seventh arrondissement all the way to the River Seine.
Le Bon Marché.
The two anchors of the quarter are Le Bon Marché department store and the Hôtel Lutetia. They are within a block of each other and have a connection that is not widely known outside of Paris. Le Bon Marché is the only big department store (grand magasin) on the Left Bank. Its name could be translated as “not expensive” or “good deal” but neither comes close to describing this landmark. Au Bon Marché was founded by Aristide Boucicaut as a dry goods emporium in 1838 and remodeled and enlarged several times during the next 50 years. Gustave Eiffel’s engineering firm designed parts of its structure. Its current owner, the luxury goods retailer LVMH (Louis Vuitton-Moet Hennessy), says everything about the store’s customer base. Compared to the glitzy Galleries Lafayette and Le Printemps on the right bank, Le Bon Marché comes across as understated elegance. Clothes for all ages, housewares and designer furniture attract clients from across the city. Their Grand Épicerie de Paris is a luxury temple of food and wine known to all. Don’t ever call it a food court! It features an award-winning bakery, olive oils and spices, cheeses, ready-to-eat entrées, boutique wines from the best French vineyards and even a formal restaurant, La Table, and a wine bar, Le Balthazar, as well as a tearoom, a pizzeria, a café and pan Asian and seafood bistros. Bon appétit!
In the early 1900s France was in the middle of the Belle Époque (beautiful era), a golden age that saw the building of the Eiffel Tower, the Paris Métro and the Opera Garnier. Le Bon Marché was already established as a luxury shopping destination. Its board of directors decided to build an equally luxurious hotel for their out-of-town clients. Named after the Roman village that became Paris, the Hôtel Lutetia’s façade was designed in a combination of the Art Nouveau style and the emerging Art Deco movement. Between the two landmarks at the tip of the triangle is a pretty park, the Square Boucicaut. After it opened in 1910, the Lutetia became a discrete Left Bank center for discussion of art, politics, science and philosophy. It was described as a place where “the anonymous could be found along with the famous.” During the German occupation in World War II, the Lutetia housed their intelligence unit and troops. In 1944 Charles de Gaulle reopened it to become a center for displaced persons to reunite with their families.
From time to time the five-star hotels in Paris close for a complete restoration and refurbishing. This takes years, but unless this is done, one of their stars may be lost. In 2014 the Lutetia closed, its contents were sold at auction and the interior was renewed at a cost of $234 million. It reopened in 2018. The Lutetia has been a setting for novels and movies as well as acting as a long-term residence for owners of luxury brands. Even during the pandemic its cheapest rooms went for more than $600 per night, probably half the normal rate. The Lutetia’s Bar Josephine is a place to see and be seen. One inexpensive way to take in the atmosphere of these five-star palaces in Paris is to just stop and have a glass of wine at their bars.
Left to right: Saint-Ignace Chapel, Saint Vincent de Paul Chapel, and Foreign Mission Society Chapel.
Hidden in the streets around the neighborhood are slices of history from centuries ago that are less visible to pedestrians. Several years ago, I read an article in Le Figaro about the top ten most visited tourist attractions in Paris in the prior year. Nine of them were obvious: Notre Dame, Sacré Coeur, the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre and other museums. Number eight on the list surprised me: The Chapel of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal. I had never heard of it. It doesn’t appear in Paris tour books. We set out to investigate it. It is located at the southern end of the rue du Bac at number 145 across from Le Bon Marché. It has a plain entrance that probably goes unnoticed by those walking by. At the end of a long courtyard, the chapel sits at the place where the Virgin Mary appeared to Saint Catherine Labouré in 1830. It was originally built in 1815 and dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Catherine, a novice sister of the Daughters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul, was visited in a series of apparitions by Mary, Saint Vincent and Jesus. Mary told her to have a medal made and those who wore it would be given an abundance of grace. The medal is sold in the adjoining shop. By 1876, one billion had been distributed. Many miracles have been attributed to them. We have purchased medals for friends through the years. They are inexpensive, some less than $20.
Chapel of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal.
The chapel is a pilgrimage site, like Lourdes and Fatima, and draws groups from around the world. It is full every day with continuous services. Saint Catherine’s body lies in a glass coffin at the chapel’s side altar. It is a moving sight for believers as well as nonbelievers.
The Jardin Catherine-Labouré is close by on the rue de Babylone. The pleasant two-acre park contains grapevines and ornamental berries. It was the kitchen garden of the Daughters of Charity since 1633.
Close by at number 128 is La Société des Missions Étrangères, the Paris Foreign Mission Society. It was established in 1658. Since its beginnings, it has sent thousands of missionary priests to Asia and North America as France’s colonial empire rose and fell. Universities, hospitals, seminaries and churches were built in these countries, some of which are still in use today. The 19th-century revolts against the French caused the imprisonment, torture and beheading of missionaries. Hundreds of them were canonized as saints, most recently Saint Charles de Foucauld by Pope Francis. A permanent display called the Salle des Martyrs displays artifacts, relics and disturbing paintings show the martyrdom of missionaries. In the society’s chapel, which was established in 1691, hangs a large oil painting showing a young priest with his parents at mass before he is sent to his mission. All this area was rural fields when these institutions began. The society had its own seminary, and its grounds are the largest private park in Paris. It is open to the public on Sunday afternoons.
I remember the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul from when I was young, because of their charity clothing drives and thrift stores, but I had no knowledge of the person. Vincent de Paul was born in France in 1581 and ordained in 1600. He is known as a champion of the poor but also of the rich, for he taught them to do good works with their treasures. He founded several charities and several religious orders including the Vincentians. He died in 1660 and was canonized in 1737 by Pope Clement. The chapel dedicated to him is at 93 rue de Sèvres, another building you would walk by without noticing, but inside there is a beautiful church. As you enter the Chapel of Saint Vincent de Paul, you’ll see the glass reliquary containing his body, high above the main altar.
The next secret is the Church of Saint Ignace (Ignatius), dedicated to the founder of the Jesuits in 1540. Unless you really look for it, you won’t find it. It is tucked behind a ground-level retail shopping mall that’s part of an office building and accessed by a tiny passage. The last time we went there a Guerlain perfume shop was next to it. Don’t give up — it’s worth it!
The Jesuits were seen as threats to royal governments in Europe, and in 1773 their French chapter was abolished by Louis XV. By the time they were readmitted in 1814, their churches and schools had been sold and taken over by the government. The 1830 July Revolution that overthrew King Charles X resulted in another dispersal of the Jesuits. In 1845 the new emperor Napoleon III readmitted them. Construction of a new Jesuit church in the neo-Gothic style was begun and completed in 1858. The emperor himself was a major donor. The following years saw growth in the attendance, but history repeated itself in 1870 with the defeat of France in the Franco-Prussian War. The Paris Commune uprising afterward resulted in many executions of Jesuits and other clergy, including the Bishop of Paris. The order was again dispersed, and the church was closed for 22 years.
World War I eased tensions between the Church and government. In 1918 the church building was used as a warehouse to store religious objects taken by the Germans from around the city. In 1923 it became the “Church of Foreigners” with services in many languages. In 1938, the Jesuits bought the church back from the government. It remained open during World War II. In 1961 it became the Chapel of Saint Ignatius and attached to the parish of Saint Sulpice. The interior looks more like a cathedral than a chapel. There is no façade facing the street. Entry is through a plain hidden door.
A more lighthearted stop is 17 rue de Sèvres across the street from the tip of the triangle. The flagship Hermèsstore was opened there in 2011. Across from the entry you descend stairs leading down to the immense showroom, which was once the former swimming pool of the Hôtel Lutetia around the corner on the boulevard Raspail. The pool was built in 1935 and used for more than 50 years until the hotel installed its own indoor heated pool.
Le Petit Lutetia.
If you haven’t already dined at the Grand Épicerie at La Bon Marché, you may be attracted to Le Petit Lutetia at 107 rue de Sèvres, a 1920s era bistro/brasserie. We last enjoyed its fried calamari and sautéed chanterelle mushrooms followed by duck confit and roasted chicken. It is open every day.
I’ve often thought about why these religious institutions are hidden. Is it because of antireligion movements through the years? Then it dawned on me. Most of the land in Paris was once owned by the church and the royalty. The revolution bankrupted most of the royalty. Economic hard times led the church to sell off parcels to developers who built the city around them, giving us their secrets to discover.
Jerry Marterer is the author of Paris 201 — Uncommon Places in the City of Light. He and his wife, Suzanne, divide their time between Charleston and Paris; he may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.