Old Nice has 9 churches in about a square mile, and from the most opulent to the most obscure, each has its own quirks and story. Here’s what’s behind all that stained glass…
Cathedrale Sainte-Reparate, the oldest and most ornate church in the city, has been in existence since the 1200’s; it was rebuilt and made a Cathedral, and has been the Catholic heart of the city for 400 years. It’s named after a young Palestinian teen, Reparate, who was arrested for her Christian faith in the year 1060, but refused to renounce. Her torturers tried their worst, but nothing could convince her to abandon her faith, and as each of their execution attempts were foiled by angels… Burn her at the stake? Sudden downpour. Drink poison? Cast iron stomach. Finally they went with the foolproof method and just beheaded her. As was the custom after such executions, to deny her a Christian burial, her body was put out to sea on a raft to rot and be desecrated by sea birds …but the angels took over once again and guided her raft across the Mediterranean to the bay of Nice, where her body arrived pristine and untouched, and was declared a miracle. That is how the bay of Nice became named the Bay of Angels and how the young martyr became Saint Reparate, the patron saint of the Cathedral in Old Nice.
The local’s favorite is the Eglise Sainte-Rita, which has the most unassuming entrance but inside is one of the most beautiful (or kitchy, depending on whom you ask), with its rosy glow, crystal chandeliers, and pink marble everywhere. Rita deserves a pretty church: as the patron saint of lost causes, she has a really tough gig!
The magnificent Eglise du Gesu is the most baroque, and looks out on the most auspicious intersection of the former Street of the Jews (where the city’s Jews used to be locked in at night; now rue Benoit Bunico), and Jesus Street (Gesu is Jesus in the Nissart language). The Church of Gesu is the only church in Nice that is open until midnight everynight.
The luminous yellow Misericord Chapel (which means ‘mercy’) is right in the middle of Cours Saleya, and is noted for its unusual circular walls and windows. As luminous as this church is, it had a very somber mission: starting in 1329 after the Cholera epidemic, its role was to arrange pauper’s burials as well as to minster to prisoners condemned to death.
At the top of Cours Saleya, the Saint Suaire Chapel held the famous Shroud of Turin (Saint Suaire in French), the burial cloth said to bear the imprint of Jesus Christ, before it was moved permanently to Turin. Currently, this little church holds a Latin mass every Sunday, sometimes with Gregorian chants. There is a little museum in the Cimiez Monastery that has a really great display on the Shroud of Turin, and it’s free.
Just outside the Old Town, across the top of the Promenade du Paillon gardens and fronted by a beautiful little orange grove, is the Church of the Vow. In 1832, Cholera had decimated the Var and was making its way toward Nice. The town council put emergency sanitation measures in place, but just to be on the safe side, voted a municipal order placing Nice under the protection of the Virgin Mary and making a solemn vow: if the town was spared, it promised to build a new church dedicated to the Madonna and do a yearly procession and religious celebration in her honor. Both sides did indeed keep their bargain, and every spring the statue of Mary is dutifully carried in a possession from the Church of the Vow all through the Old Town.
The story of the Penitents. In the beginning of Christianity, after confessing a very grave sin, the sinner might be assigned a penance that was to be carried out over a period of time, which might be to self-punish, do works like repairing a church, or help the poor and sick. The penitents wore special colored robes to denote their low status while doing this work to purge their sins. In the 4th century, there were those that entered the order of Penitents voluntarily, which was essentially entering into a monastic life of privation, service and prayer. Old Nice has 4 penitent churches, each of which had a different mission and dress, including a specific hairstyle, accessories, and most important, robe color.
- Whites: The earliest order of Penitents in Nice were formed in 1306, and were based at the Chapel Sainte-Croix (on Place St-Augustin in Old Nice). The White Penitents started with small 11-bed hospital for the poor on nearby rue Zanin, where they would accept anyone that was sick… except those that were crazy, contagious (for security reasons), incurables (because they would uselessly take up a bed), or prostitutes (because their sickness was seen, rather judgmentally I might add, to be their own fault). Eventually their hospital grew and they needed reinforcements, so they invited in the Order of the Humiliated Sisters, aka the Grey Penitents.
- Blacks: The Penitent Blacks were formed in 1329 after the Cholera epidemic swept through Nice, and it fell to the appropriately attired Blacks to hold pauper’s burials and deal with prisoners condemned to the death penalty. For such a somber focus, it’s surprising to discover that their home was the sunny yellow Chapel de la Misericord in the middle of Cours Saleya.
- Reds: the focus of the Penitent Reds was abandoned children, and they ran an orphanage out of their Saint Suaire Chapel, the tiny chapel at the very top of Cours Saleya. The chapel that got its name from when it hid the Shroud of Turin, or Saint Suaire, for 5 years in the 16th century to protect it from invaders.
- Blues: The mission of the blues was to tend to the lepers, but once leprosy was less of a problem, they turned the leper hospital into a orphanage for abandoned girls. Their Chapel of Saint Sepulcre is an easy one to miss: the door is hidden in the middle of restaurant row on the south side of Place Garibaldi, and the actual church is a surprise to discover on the second floor.
For more on the monastic life in Nice in the middle ages, stop by the free Franciscan Friar Museum tucked into the Cimiez Monastery, mentioned below, with link.
Notable Churches Outside of the Old Town
On Cimiez, on the site of the ancient Roman city, you walk through a 2000-year-old olive grove to arrive at the ancient (but still working) Franciscan Monastery with a stately church, magnificent Italian-style gardens, a wonderful summer classical concert series held in the cloture, and a tiny Friar’s museum in the church, which is a startling look into the life of a monk, and there is an especially interesting room dedicated to the Shroud of Turin (Saint Suaire in French), the burial cloth that may or may not show the imprint of Christ’s body, which was held in Nice for a time in the 14th century. Behind the Monastery you’ll come upon a cemetery, where you can find Matisse’s surprisingly sober tomb as well as that of artist Raoul Dufy.
The neo-Gothic Notre-Dame Basilica on boulevard Jean-Medecin looks non-coincidentally like a mini-version of the famous Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, but without the hunchback or gargoyles. The largest church in Nice, and hosts some amazing classical concerts.
Speaking of classical concerts, in the winter the Eglise du Port, the Church on the Port, hosts free Sunday afternoon orchestra concerts at 3:30pm, alternating with the Notre-Dame Basilica, above. (In the summer these concerts happen in the seaside gazebo on the Promenade du Paillon gardens.)
The main Synagogue is just behind Galeries Lafayette, with a sober limestone facade, and unfortunately, due to a spate of shameful anti-Semitic acts around France, has a 24-hour military guard.
The Saint Nicolas Russian Orthodox Cathedral is kind of a shock, with its boldly colored turrets and dramatic minarets that seem entirely out of place. It was built by Tsar Nicolas II, and after a lengthy and recently-settled legal battle with France, is now run by the Kremlin!
There is currently no Mosque in Nice, but that doesn’t stop the faithful, who meet in a makeshift prayer room on rue de Suisse, and sometimes spill out onto the sidewalks on the side of the Notre-Dame Cathedral (to the great displeasure of certain right-wing organizations…) The Islamic community is trying to open a huge new Mosque on the western outskirts of Nice, but is embroiled in an administrative battle with the Nice Mayor’s office.
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