The Chapel of the Epiphany
Welcome to the Paris Foreign Missions (MEP), a Catholic missionary society whose priests have departed for Asia and the Indian Ocean for the past 360 years. In addition, each year more than 150 lay volunteers use their skills to serve in the missions.
Under the direction of the architect Pierre Lambert, construction of the chapel began in 1683. Previously, the chapel was located on the ground floor of the main building. It was blessed on October 27, 1663 in the presence of the bishop of Babylon as well as Jacques-Bénigne Lignel Bossuet, the renowned theologian, who delivered a sermon for the occasion.
During the stone-laying ceremony on April 24, 1683, a medal bearing the image of King Louis XIV was placed in the foundations as official recognition of the king’s good will towards the Seminary.
On August 7, 1683, the crypt was blessed with the name Chapel of the Epiphany, which was the first appearance of Jesus to the Gentiles. It became the provisional chapel.
Construction was completed in 1697. Throughout the 18th century, the departure ceremonies of the missionaries were held in the Chapel.
It was used as a barracks for the National Guard during the Revolution, and in 1798, it was declared state property. Later it was put up for sale, and then was discreetly bought back.
In 1802, it reopened its doors under the name of the Church of Saint Francis-Xavier, a subsidiary church in the parish of Saint Thomas Aquinas, and saw a great increase in the number of missionaries who were sent on missions.
On July 8, 1848, it hosted the funeral of one of its most famous parishioners: François-René de Chateaubriand, in the presence of Victor Hugo, Sainte-Beuve, Honoré de Balzac and almost all the members of the Institut de France.
In 1851, Charles Gounod, the chapel’s official organist, composed the music for the ‘Song for the Departure of the Missionaries’, and for the ‘Song for the Anniversary of the Martyrs’. In 1874, the construction of a new parish church was completed in President Mithouard Square. This church was called the Church of Saint Francis-Xavier of the Foreign Missions. The chapel of the Rue du Bac returned to its earlier function and its original name.
Painting of the Departure of the Missionaries
During the age of travel by sea, departures for the missions were celebrated with great emotion in the chapel. The missionaries stood in a row, facing the public, in front of the main altar. The public then went into the nave, and each person kissed the feet of the new missionaries and embraced them, while the ‘Song for the Departure of the Missionaries’ was sung. The painting depicts this touching scene.
In the painting, the painter included himself on the far left. On the right side of two women is a Dominican friar called Lacordaire wearing a black cope. The bearded man, with a frock-coat, kissing the second missionary, is Gounod. The missionary on the right, with whom an artist is shaking hands, is the future Saint Just de Bretenières, beheaded in Korea in 1866. On the far right is Mgr Thomine-Desmazures, the first Bishop of Tibet.
In the foreground, the painter has represented his two youngest children. The boy who is turning his head is Pierre de Coubertin, the future founder of the modern Olympic Games.
After displaying his painting in the Paris Salon the painter Coubertin, offered it to the Paris Foreign Missions Seminary. It was placed at the top of the main staircase.
MEP has 180 priests in 13 countries.
These priests work in a variety of areas: evangelization, founding new Christian communities and faith groups, training local clergy, doing charitable works in education and health, helping ethnic minorities and migrants, engaging in inter-religious dialogue and serving French Catholic communities in Asia. Each year, 150 lay volunteers put their skills to work by serving in missions.