The church is one of the most architecturally remarkable modern Catholic churches of the 20th century, built following devastation by shelling during the Second World War. The city was rapidly reconstructed under the direction of Auguste Perret, a remarkable and still underrated architect and city planner, who designed this church. His office designed many other churches in the city on a modular system, giving them a unity while avoiding monotony. St Joseph is a landmark which aids navigation in the English Channel on account of its astonishing 101 metre lantern-cum-tower which rises above the high altar.
Those of conservative taste might find the interior of St Joseph challenging, with its unfinished, shuttered concrete and bold structure laid bare. It is constructed at the scale of a large factory, and the lofty interior comes as quite a shock when one first enters. I found it magnificent, with a decidedly uplifting atmosphere, due to the coloured glass in the windows, which extend up into the tall lantern. The glass was handmade by the pipe-smoking glass artist Margerite Huré, who was a pioneer of abstraction in church stained glass. She had previously work with Perret on smaller scale churches and understood how to soften the heroic use of grey unadorned concrete without conflicting with it.
The church and its surrounding rebuilt town are now a World Heritage Site, celebrated for its successful replanning. Today Le Havre appears prosperous, green and well-loved, unlike so many areas of wholesale reconstructions dating from the postwar years. St Joseph is located sightly off-centre from the commercial and civic hub, surrounded by housing, much of it rented. There is no chance you can miss the location of the church, however, given the height of its tower, and the loud bell at its summit which summoned us urgently as we walked there from the train station. The parish website shows this church to be one of three in a combined parish, and there seems to be a lively range of activities. Two parish pilgrimages were advertised in the mass sheet.
Two priests, one acting as deacon, and an altar party of three. A cantor and small choir to one side of the sanctuary led worship.
What was the name of the service?Messe Paroissiale (Parish Mass).
How full was the building?
We arrived with 10 minutes to spare, when there were about 50 in the congregation, which felt lonely in the cavernous space of St Joseph. But most people came in at the last moment, and I reckon there were at least 300, comfortably filling the sloping banks of seats on three sides of the altar. They included all ages and socio-economic classes.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
A duty welcomer handed us the paperwork, and bade us bonjour.
Was your pew comfortable?
They were tip-up cinema seats, doubtless supplied by a firm that normally delivers to theatres and movie houses. Very comfortable and upholstered in neutral fabric, not jazzy as they might have been in a cinema of this period. The floor slopes down towards the altar, accentuating the theatrical effect established by the seating. This gives a clear view of the action in the sanctuary, as well as comfort, while the tip-up mechanism of the seats expedites access along the rows for those moving to take communion.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Quiet, prayerful, expectant.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
A ce monde que tu fais chaque jour avec tendresse, donne un coeur de chair, donne un coeur nouveau – ‘To this world that you make each day with tenderness, give a heart of flesh, a new heart.’ These words were sung antiphonally by the choir and congregation.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
The paperwork was slightly confusing for a newcomer as it was in three sections, with a parish newssheet thrown in for good measure. I would guess most attending this mass were regulars, however, and had got the hang of it.
What musical instruments were played?
A chamber organ in the sanctuary accompanied the choir, and a larger instrument at the west end was used for the concluding voluntary.
Did anything distract you?
The cantor who sang the worship hymn antiphonally with the congregation had a voice with something of the timbre of Jacque Brel, the influential Belgian singer and composer.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
It was dignified and gently modern, a straight-up sung mass of the sort you might find anywhere across Europe. The Gospel procession circumnavigated the spacious central sanctuary. The congregation were on three sides of the altar, so there was a good sense of engagement, though the priest and altar party sat against the east wall to preside.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 — He was clear, plausible and measured.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
He stuck mostly to the text of the day (I Timothy 6:11-16), a passage as challenging and abstract as it is rousing: ‘But you, man of God, flee from all this, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness.’ In interpreting its relevance to us today, the preacher referenced our attitude to refugees and asylum seekers, among others. In northern France this has a particular resonance at the present.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The sun breaking through the acres of coloured glass, which it did regularly, between the clouds of a stormy day.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Nothing hellish, just an occasional annoyance at the confusing service sheet.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
After the altar party left, the church emptied with remarkable speed, to the sound of a well played Bach organ voluntary. Large double doors were swung open to expedite this – further echoes of a cinema visit! We walked around three sides of the church to enjoy the sun streaming through the coloured glass and to look at the historic photos of Le Havre after (mostly British) shelling in the 1945 Battle of Normandy, when retaking the town from the fascists cost 5,000 lives. A kindly person switched on the illuminations so we could ponder these grim photos, together with more upbeat ones, of St Joseph arising from the ashes. A few people chatted sociably (but not to us), and most seemed to promptly head off for Sunday lunch. The priests greeted many in a reception line, but others went to the side doors for a quicker getaway.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was no coffee as far as we were aware.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 — As my (non-churchgoing) companion observed afterwards, it had everything: dignified liturgy, a spectacular space in which to celebrate it, a good sense of community within the congregation, a modern outlook, and plenty of links to the town.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
For sure – and though my liturgical French is more rusty than my conversation, it was nice to follow the mass word for word, so close was it to the English version I know.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The huge concrete interior as we stepped inside.