St Roch: A Church for Montpellier’s Saint

Church of St Roch of Montpellier, Église Saint-Roch de Montpellier, Montpellier, France

It’s not often that you can walk in the footsteps of saints.

The St Roch church is a product of the 19th century.  It was created by donations from the public and built between 1860-1868 by J Cassan, on the site of a church destroyed during the siege of Montpellier in 1622.  The neo-Gothic style of architecture has its models in north French churches, and it was designed to be a very grand building, with radiant chapels, the transept and apses were never finished.  Neither, if you look, was the facade – there are empty niches and flat stone sections that look like they should have been carved.

The Church of St Roch, Montpellier, France

Nevertheless, the church is a popular stop for pilgrims going to Santiago de Compostela.  If you visit other churches in the south of France, you may see that St Roch is often depicted in the garb of a pilgrim, with the shell of Santiago de Compostela attached to his cloak.

The central nave of the Church of St Roch, Montpellier, France

The stained glass window showing Montpellier Cathedral, Church of St Roch, Montpellier, France

The stained glass window showing Montpellier Cathedral, 1980, Church of St Roch, Montpellier, France

Not that St Roch ever went to Compostela.  The legend is that he was born in 1295 to a wealthy family – his father was governor of Montpellier.  His apparently miraculous birth was attributed to his parents’ piety and his own holiness was displayed when he was born with a red cross on his chest.  St Roch’s parents both died when he was twenty and he gave his fortune to the poor and became a mendicant pilgrim.

St Roch made his way to Italy, and met with the plague everywhere he went.  He ministered to the sick, and often by just making the sign of the cross, he cured the afflicted.  Ultimately, in Piacenza, he caught the plague himself.  He walked into a forest with the intention of dying, but was befriended by a dog, which brought him food.

Soon, St Roch was better, and eventually he decided to return to his home town.  The city was in the midst of one of its wars, and he was arrested as a spy.  He never revealed his identity and languished in jail for five years, until his death in 1327.  Then his cross birthmark spoke for him and he was recognised.

It is interesting, though, that St Roch’s dates have been re-evaluated, and the church’s own website suggest he was born in 1348/50 and died in 1378/80.  I gather this is to do with trying to place his life within the scope of known plague outbreaks in the cities he visited.  Whatever the details, a pilgrim named Roch of Montpellier was venerated from a relatively early date and his popularity surely owes something to the easily relatable image of an ordinary young man, helping others and suffering in consequence, who is accompanied by his faithful dog,

Statue of St Roch, Church of St Roch, Montpellier, France

Statue of St Roch, Church of St Roch, Montpellier, France

The pulpit and St Roch, Church of St Roch, Montpellier, France

Due to the endless episodes of plagues that afflicted the medieval world, St Roch became very popular – perhaps too much for his own good.  The Venetians, what with their constant trading, were always threatened by plagues – that is, mass-illnesses which killed off huge portions of the population.  In 1485, some Venetian ‘pilgrims’ went to Montpellier and stole St Roch’s body.  There was much rejoicing.  The church of San Rocco was built to accommodate it.

Quite honestly, the Venetian church is more attractive and grander than the one in Montpellier.  Somehow, that seems really sad, not least because Venetians had a nasty habit of body-snatching and relic-pinching (they had carried off St Mark from Alexandria several centuries earlier).  Here is the city’s most famous son, a truly popular saint, and he doesn’t actually have a church which does justice to his importance.  It’s charming and has quite a communal vibe, but it wasn’t what I was expecting.

Interesting ex-voto, from the Christians of Tche-Ly, which I think may be modern Zhili, Church of St Roch, Montpellier, France

Cute side-chapel, Church of St Roch, Montpellier, France

So In Summary

I tried to get into the church for about four days.  Each time the opening hours were not the ones advertised.  You can imagine, therefore, my slight disappointment that when I finally made it, it wasn’t quite as impressive as I’d expected.  And grown to expect for over four frustrated days.  I’m glad I made it there, though.

Further Information

The church does not have its own website, but it joined with those under the wing of the Cathedral: www.cathedrale-montpellier.fr

How to Get There

The church is located in the old town of Montpellier and is easy to walk to from most sites.  For local transport information, check out the local transport site (French only) – the link will take you to a map which shows the lines and bus stops: www.tam.cartographie.pro

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