Cap Ferret’s oldest place of worship is the curious Sainte Marie du Cap, also known as Chapelle de l’Herbe, but most often referred to a...

Chapelle de la Villa Algérienne: Cap Ferret’s oldest and most unusual place of worship

Cap Ferret’s oldest place of worship is the curious Sainte Marie du Cap, also known as Chapelle de l’Herbe, but most often referred to as Chapelle de la Villa Algérienne.

The "Algerian Villa" in question once stood barely 100 metres away from the spot where the chapel can be found, on the Bassin d’Arcachon-side waterfront of the affluent presqu’île, near to the picturesque fishing village L’Herbe.

The full story goes back to 1863, when the successful civil engineering entrepreneur Léon Lesca partnered with his brother to purchase 27 hectares of remote, untouched land (L’Herbe had yet to be founded at this time). Lesca had recently returned from North Africa to his homeland (he was born in La Teste-de-Buch in 1824) as a rich man, having overseen projects such as the construction of the port of Algiers and of the railway line that connected Constantine and Philippeville. 

At Cap Ferret he became a local mogul, planting vineyards, building fish farm reservoirs, importing mimosa, conceiving piers, funding schools and even dreaming up the narrow-gauge railway which is still in service towards the tip of the “Cap” today. He decided that his new residence would be inspired by Moorish designs and set about building a spectacular mansion that, upon completion in 1865, thus became known as “la villa algérienne”. 

The villa as it once was (source:, and the modern-day residence which has taken its place. The metal railings are the only common denominator.
Lesca was set to live there until his death in 1913. Over the following years, the mansion fell into a state of disrepair and, after being acquired by land developers, was demolished precisely 100 years after it was built, in 1965. It made way for an angular block of flats, with just the design of the metal railings serving as a reminder of what previously stood there.

But let’s go back to the 19th century: come the 1880s Lesca was frustrated by the distinct lack of churches in the vicinity, so he decided to build his own. He therefore commissioned the architect Eugène Ormières (the man who had also been responsible for the villa) to conceive a chapel which Lesca was to fund in its entirety. Although very much a catholic place of worship from the outset, the chapel was to draw on the North African influences which had clearly become such an integral part of Lesca’s genetic makeup.

The scene as it used to be as viewed from a jetty, with the chapel to the left, the "villa" to the right, and further long-lost Moorish constructions in-between (picture source: tourist information panel).
The chapel today: Léon Lesca would no doubt be delighted to see the chapel is now covered by free wi-fi.
And this blend of cultures is still very much in evidence today. Above the entrance, alongside an inscription in Latin (Gloria Deo, glory to god) is another in Arabic which translates as “welcome”. The chapel’s octagonal steeples are each topped off with small towers making them reminiscent of minarets. At the base of the cross which looks out from the top is a single crescent, and the crescent design can also be spotted elsewhere across the façade.

The chapel was consecrated on September 8th 1885 by one Abbé Lacouture and, for many years, people would travel from afar, on foot or by boat, to attend mass here as it long remained the Cap’s sole place of worship. Registered as an historic monument in 2008, the chapel now belongs to the town of Lège-Cap Ferret, and continues to operate as a catholic establishment. It was fully restored in 2011, which is reportedly when a fresh coat of the distinctive brick-red stripes was added, as a reminder of the colour scheme of the long-lost villa.

Inside the chapel sights include a magnificent flying boat.
Mass is celebrated on Fridays during the summer period, which also happens to be the only time of year the church is routinely open to the public. It must be said that it is a shame, as July and August aren’t necessarily the most peaceful months to be heading to Cap Ferret. In fact, during one out-of-season visit to the site, I spotted a message left by disgruntled visitors on a sign pinned to the chapel’s noticeboard: “C’est bien dommage pour ceux qui viennent en janvier”! (It’s a shame for people who come here in January.)

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