Basilica of sacred heart of Paris fondly referred to as the Sacre Coeur is a Roman Catholic Church that’s dedicated to Jesus. Picturesquely located at the summit of Montmartre at the most elevated point of Paris; this is a monument with strong political as well as religious connotations. Pristine and pure white; the Sacre Coeur was designed by Paul Abadie.
If it’s a Sunday you can probably make out the mighty Savoy bell in the Basilica ringing at 11 a.m. and as you fly into Paris from the Roissy/ Orly airports or enter through its railway stations; you can see the Basilica dome quite clearly.
Each year 1bout 1.5 million people visit the basilica but most are clueless about its relevance. Knowing about its spiritual and political history will make a visit more meaningful.
It all started in July 28th 1874 post the French government session in which a resolution was passed that there should be the construction of a church on the Montmartre hill. This was a result of the military defeat in 1870 at the hands of the Prussians after which two men “Alexandre Legentil” and “Hubert Rohault” resolved with the accordance of eminent clergymen of those times that a church should be consecrated to Jesus as a sign of penitence, renewed hope and spiritual revival.
78 designs were submitted and exhibited at Industry Palace on Champs Elysees and the architect Paul Abadie won the contest for best design. Members of the public and government contributed to the funding of the project. The construction of Sacre Coeur uses travertine stone (similar type is used in Arc de Triomphe) and that’s sourced from the same quarry i.e. Souppes sur Loing quarry in Seine.
The pure white quality of the stone reflects the spiritual glory of the Basilica. There were quarries beneath the ground under the Basilica site and so 83 pillars (33 m depth each) were built underneath till a solid rock floor was reached. Creating the Basilica took 40 years and there were many delays including the 1st world war and finally the Papal Legate consecrated the Basilica on 16th October 1919.
Incidentally the bishop Saint Denis, saint Eleutherius and the first Christians of Paris were martyred at this very spot in the 3rd century. This gave the hill the name “mount of martyrs” or Montmartre. Since then the hill always had strong spiritual connotations and the presence of a large Benedictine abbey here since the last 700 years preceding the French revolution shows its sanctity. Some important historical figures who came to Montmartre to pray are St Vincent Paul, Joan of Arc, Ignatius Loyola, Francois Xavier, and St Therese of Lisieux.
Blessed Pope John Paul II visited the Montmartre basilica after the Parc des Princes vigil on 1st June 1980 and he took part in the uninterrupted silent adoration there. The speech he delivered after his prayer session is inscribed on a plaque inside the Basilica.
Incidentally long before the Sacre Coeur was even built, the site was used as a pagan worship place and Gallic temples used to exist here. The elevation of the site made it “closer to God” and thus suitable for religious purposes.
Structure and Notable Areas
As mentioned the exteriors are made using Chateau Landon stone from the souppes quarry and this is a very hard variant that oozes calcite when it comes in contact with moisture (the reason behind the whiteness of the Basilica). The design of the Basilica is Roman Byzantine like the Notre Dame and other middle age churches.
The Basilica front has the central niche in which there is a figure of Jesus Christ who is in a welcoming posture with his left hand pointing towards his heart and right hand blessing the city of Paris.
Interiors are also done up in the roman Byzantine style with the apse being the principal focus. The beautiful mosaic dates back to 1900 while the stained glass windows date back to 1903 (these were destroyed by 1944 bombings and then replaced in 1946).
There is a lot of religious symbolism inside right from angel musicians, guardian angels, archangel Gabriel, angels of adoration, angels of the passion, angels of resurrection, demons, devils, archangel Michael, phoenix, lamb, dove, fish etc. The Basilica Official Website comprehensively explains the relevance of all the symbolism.
Look out for the apse mosaic; at 475 sq. meters it’s one of the biggest mosaics of the world. There is a beautiful representation of Jesus with extended arms beneath it and an inscription stating the vow “to the sacred heart of Jesus; France fervent and grateful”….the creation of the mosaic is attributed to Olivier Merson, H M Magne and R Martin.
There are representations of different saints including Virgin Mary, Joan of Arc, Saint Michael etc. and a figure of France offering her “crown” while Pope Leo offers “the world”. On the two sides of the mosaic notice the representation of numerous historical events like the plague of 1720 and vow of Marseilles, vow of Louis XVI and royal family and vows of the Cardinals etc.
The foot of the basilica in front of the exit door contains a huge figure with a large ear…symbolizing the fact that prayers are always heard here. The apse mosaic above high altar is surrounded by ciborium that has a big white host symbolizing the eternal unwavering presence of Christ amongst people.
Since 1885 faithful disciples have engaged in silent prayers of adoration in the nave….turn by turn. The uninterrupted adoration practice is one of the noteworthy features of the Basilica; visitors from all over the world travel to the Sacre Coeur to take part in night/ day adorations and some even stay in the guesthouse for this express purpose. The chain of prayers is punctuated by psalm recitations by the Benedictine sisters in the daytime and the mass.
Grand pipe Organ of this Basilica is considered to be one of the most remarkable instruments of the world; it was created in 1898 ….the last instrument crafted by famous instrument maker Aristide Cavaille Coll. History says that the organ was commissioned by Baron Albert for his Biarritz chateau but the Basilica acquired it in 1919.
The huge organ has 4 keyboards and 78 stops and has been classified as a “national monument” since 1981. Unfortunately the grand organ is under a state of decay though it’s still played periodically. The Basilica actively seeks donations for its restoration….cash donations for this purpose can be left at the reception desk.
The Pieta Chapel contains the tombs of cardinals and a memorial monument to Amette Cardinal. There is an urn that contains the ashes of the heart of the national vow initiator Alexandre Legentil. Other relics of the martyrs of the war and monument testifying to the loss of lives of priest, nuns and seminarists in the world wars is also present. The Saint Peter altar has a divine statue of the sacred heart with outstretched hands as depicted in the Beni Abbes chapel in Algeria.
There is a treasury inside that contains beautiful ornaments offered to Basilica including a gold chasuble cloth and the very stole offered by Leo XIII along with other artefacts.
Dome and Bell
You need to climb 300 steps to reach the dome that’s at a height of 83 meters after which you can see the Bell Tower. Inside this is the Savoyarde bell (the biggest bell in the world) with a weight of 19 tonnes… this was donated by Savoie (company located in the French Alps) in 1895. On Sundays and other celebratory days the huge Savoy bell is rung at 11am and 4pm
The inner dome is 55 meters high and from the dome one can see Parisian countryside for 50 km. Incidentally this is the highest point in Paris right after the Eiffel. The Basilica lantern at the top of the dome is lit every night showing the presence of someone praying inside the chapel at all times. The symbolism is meant to inspire hope, peace and faith in the divine. On these special days you can hear the last instrument “grand organ” (built in 1898 by Aristide Cavaille) play.
The Sacre Coeur has its own guesthouse called “Ephrem” and it’s a good choice for those interested in a spiritual retreat/ liturgical celebrations. There are 52 bedrooms and a dormitory containing 180 beds here along with dining and meeting rooms. Guests/ visitors are offered choices between one night adoration/ daytime retreat and 2 day retreats. You can call +33 1 53 41 89 09 or email [email protected] for making group/ individual bookings.
Bookshop and Gift Shop
There is a small bookshop and religious gift shop right inside the premises. Browse through the big selection of catechisms, theological works, spiritual books and other holy stuff in the bookstore. The religious items in the gift shop comprise of medals, postcards writing paper, rosary beads etc.; they don’t sell or ship online.
Audio tour (free) of the Sacre Coeur is available in the app Tupuy. You can download it from the Apple store or Google Play
Filming isn’t allowed inside the Basilica but you can film outside the building with prior permission from the police Paris prefecture. Photography isn’t allowed either but journalists can obtain a prior permit from the Communication Service by emailing to [email protected]
The Basilica sells excellent quality photographs for visitors who wish to purchase memories. All this is official information though; most visitors and locals who visit the Basilica do what they like inside and there is a general air of lawlessness.
Open Hours, Tours & Tickets
The Sacre Coeur is open on all days including public holidays. On Christmas and Easter there are special celebrations and prayers.
Timings: 6 a.m. to 10.30 p.m. Post 11 p.m. people registered for night adoration can remain in the Basilica.
Mass timings are from 7 a.m., 11.15 a.m., 3 p.m., 6.30 p.m. and 10 p.m. (Mon to Fri) and 7 a.m., 11 am, 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. on Saturday/ Sunday. The 7 a.m. mass is held in the Virgin Mary Chapel that’s at the extreme end of the Basilica while the other masses are held in the choir. The Sunday and feast day services are specially nice with readings, hymns and mass sheets in English/ Italian/ Spanish (apart from French) distributed to attendees.
You can book tours online through this Viator site.
Benedictine sisters are always available at the reception desk for obtaining any kind of information or confiding intentions for prayers or other spiritual requests. The Official Website contains free virtual 3D tour of the basilica along with explanations of its relevance and architecture.
There is no entry fee to see the basilica but visitors have to pass a security check. To go up to the tower/ light a candle, there is a small fee. To access the Dome (splendid views are on offer) use the entrance outside the Basilica on the left side; the Dome access is open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily (from May to September) and 9.00 a.m. to 5.00 p.m. (October to April).
The Sacre Coeur interiors are mostly friendly to people with reduced mobility and the ramp and elevator at the back of the building (rue Chevalier) may be used from 9.30 a.m. to 5.30 p.m. To know more about accessibility entry you can call +33 (0)1 53 73 78 65
Location & How To Reach
The Basilica Sacre Coeur stands on Seine right bank at the top of Montmartre hill. The exact location can be defined as central north Paris in the center of Montmartre in the 18th arrondissement.
To reach the monument parvis visitors need to climb a number of steps (depends on which stair path you take) and earn a magnificent view of the city along with glimpses of all its famous landmarks like the Notre Dame, Pantheon, Opera House, Pompidou center etc. Climb more steps and reach the dome which has views of the Eiffel and Arc de Triomphe.
If you are in no rush approach the Sacre Coeur through Square Louise Michel from Place Saint Pierre….go up the hill while admiring the flowers and shrubbery while staring at miles of Parisian roofs. To the left of square Louise Michel is the rue Foyatier with 222 steps and to the right us rue Ronsard-rue Paul albert; both are routes leading to the Basilica.
The nearest subway stop are the Jules Joffrin (take Montmartrobus to Place du Tertre) and the Pigalle (take Montmartrobus to Norvins). You can take the cable car from Anvers subway station and Abbesses to reach the Sacre Coeur/ alternatively take the steps.
The funicular at Montmartre takes visitors from the hill bottom to Sacre Coeur in 1.5 minutes… it has been running since 1900 and is managed by RATP. The funicular is available from 6 a.m. to 12.45 a.m. and the ticket price is similar to a metro ticket. You can access the Butte Montmartre funicular from the Anvers subway station. In case you have the Passe Navigo/ Paris Visite pass then the ticket price will be included in the pass. If you aren’t in a mood to tackle the 197 steps….take the funicular.
There are several bus stops at the base of the Montmartre and you can take bus lines 30/31/80/85 to reach them. The Le Petit Train de Montmartre (run by Promotrain) departs from Place Blanche subway station line 2. You need to check train schedules on the official promotrain website or call (033 1 42 62 24 00).
Right near the Basilica there is a small vineyard known as “abbey”. This is all that remains of the large Benedictine Abbey that existed here…a large annual wine harvest “vendanges de Montmartre” is celebrated here. Explore the Place du Tertre that’s a famous square occupied by landscape artists now, and also the Espace Dali Museum, Montmartre Cemetery (graves of celebrities like painter Edgar Degas lie here). Right behind the Basilica there is Parc de la Turlure public park offering good views of the north and east suburbs of Paris.
Don’t forget to peek into Le Moulin de la Galette (this is a famous French restaurant housed in an actual windmill) on rue Lepic. There are plenty of restaurants around to enjoy some nice meals like the Le Cabanon de la Butte, Le Lamarck, Grenouilles Paris and The Hardware Societe.
Montmartre with its village vibe is full of interesting places to see and explore with dozens of tempting restaurants, cafes and shops spilling over to its sidewalks. But the Basilica area is known for pickpocketing incidents and other scams intended to loot money. Don’t flaunt jewelry/ designer wear and keep money safely stashed away in an inside zip concealed in clothes.
35 Rue Du Chevalier De La Barre (Rear of the Basilica), 75018
Phone: 015341 8900; Email: [email protected], Official Website
The main esplanade entrance of the Basilica can only be used from 6 a.m. to 10.30 p.m.