We find ourselves in Pyla-sur-Mer, and tucked away in one of the quiet residential districts, just a few hundred metres inland from the w...

Chapelle Saint-Esprit: the alfresco place of worship

We find ourselves in Pyla-sur-Mer, and tucked away in one of the quiet residential districts, just a few hundred metres inland from the waters of the Bassin d’Arcachon, is a curious church: la Chapelle Saint-Esprit.

The chapel is a seasonal operation, with masses held there solely during the summer holiday period, in July and August, at hours which are part of a rota that includes five other chuches in and around Arcachon.

What sets la Chapelle Saint-Esprit apart from most churches is its unusual seating plan, which includes a number of pews which are permanently stationed in an area which, though under cover, is very much out in the open air, so that the congregation can combine prayers, hymn-singing and worship with the pleasant sensation of experiencing the cool breeze blowing through the surrounding pines.


All very unusual, but not unique in the area. There are in fact other open air chapels across Arcachon Bay in Cap Ferret (Chapelle de Piraillan) and further up the coast in Longarisse, near Lacanau (Chapelle Saint-François d'Assise). Back in Pyla-sur-Mer, the church was completed in 1975 to the modern designs of the Parisian architect Xavier Huvelin. Locals also played a large part in the project. On a plaque, the Labbé family is credited as having been the “generous” instigators of the chapel, which was built on land donated by the Maysonnave family.

The plaque also harks back to the visit of Bordeaux archbishop Monseigneur Maziers, whose decision it was to give the chapel its name (which means “of the Holy Spirit”). One Robert Marcou is referred to as parish priest although contemporary accounts claim that many early masses were led by clergymen who just happened to be on holiday in the area at the time!


Further information about the chapel is surprisingly hard to come by. One interesting titbit is that the elegant triangular belltower had to be totally rebuilt in 2003 after the original was brought to its knees by an army of hungry house longhorn beetles (Hylotrupes bajulus, or simply “capricornes” in French). And prior to this modern construction, a small barn-like wooden chapel had stood more or less in its place since 1935.

The original 1935 chapel (source: Mémoire en images, Pyla-sur-Mer).

It would be great to know a little more about this peculiar place of worship and its open-air gatherings… it may be a case of returning there for a mass over the summer! 

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