Sometimes a building is worth a thousand words. Ste. Marguerite’s chapel is like that for me. I bumped into it accidentally, while looking into the lives of Gilles Pinel and his father, Nicolas. Ste. Marguerite is more than the place were Nicolas Pinel and Madeleine Maraud married on September 29th, 1630 and baptized their sons in 1631, 1635, and 1636, it is an icon of the power struggles of a changing Europe.
Ste. Marguerite started as a convent in La Rochelle in the twelfth century and its walls witnessed the complicated history of the Protestant Reformation, Catholic persistence, and political upheaval that came several centuries later. During the 16th century, political and religious concerns combined to fracture the Christian tradition of Western Europe. La Rochelle became an early stronghold of Protestant thought, often Calvinist, in the 1530s.
Unsurprisingly, the convent of Ste. Marguerite saw a decline in its population of sisters as the Protestant Reformation made inroads into La Rochelle’s social fabric. In 1531, there were eleven sisters. By 1557, there were only five remaining. In 1560, La Rochelle saw religious riots. In 1568, La Rochelle became a Huguenot (French Protestant) stronghold. The White Sisters of Ste. Marguerite’s numbers shrunk even farther. In 1572, two sisters remained. In 1573, only one sister was left.
But despite the declining numbers (and maybe because of its location in the north central section of La Rochelle – away from waterfronts,) Ste. Marguerite became a center for both Protestant and Catholic life. In 1568 Huguenot leaders demolished most of the Catholic parish churches, and then repurposed the church stones to fortify La Rochelle’s walls. This decline in sacred space gave greater importance to Ste. Marguerite’s remaining chapel – which served members of both Catholic and Protestant faiths as a site for both baptisms and marriages from the late 1500s until 1630. The chapel returned to single faith use when Cardinal Richelieu made a play to consolidate royal power for Louis XIIIth and regained Catholic control over La Rochelle in 1627-28.
After 1630, the Ste. Marguerite chapel served an exclusively Catholic clientele again. Nicolas Pinel and Madeleine Maraud’s marriage at the Ste. Marguerite chapel reminded me that the sixteenth and seventeen centuries were full of religious and political turmoil.
The Pinel family’s connection to the chapel marked the beginning of unique period in the convent chapel’s history. It had been 60 years since it served only one faith — and Ste. Marguerite’s role as a center for Catholic life celebrations would only last a short while. By the 1660s, Catholic churches were rebuilt in LaRochelle. The convent chapel at Ste. Marguerite no longer celebrated life events as the focus of Catholic religious life returned to parish churches once again.