Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Chapelle Pointue

To me what is most striking about the Chapelle Pointue (Pointed Chapel) is not its pointed spire, but its round, rotunda shape. Located in an area of Reunion known as St Gilles Les Hauts this chapel is the burial place for Mme Ombline Desbassayns, a wealthy 19th century landowner whose fortune came from sugar and coffee. Born to a rich family in 1755, she married wealthy settler Henri Paulin Panon Debassayns when she was 14 and he was 38. They had 13 children (though 4 died young) and her husband died aged 68, leaving her, aged 45, to run the family estates, which prospered, making her St Paul's richest landowner. 

Mme Desbassayns (source)

She died in 1846 and the jury is still out on whether she was a cruel woman whose ghost still inhabits the Piton de la Fournaise (where her screams can supposedly be heard from the hellish fires whenever the volcano is erupting), or whether she was - as her tombstone declares - the "second providence". Doubtless the truth probably lies somewhere between these two extremes. 

Chapelle Pointue

In order to give her slaves religious instruction and to offer a place of worship to those living in Reunion's highlands Mme Desbassayns established a chapel in the 1830s in one of her houses, at a place called l'Ermitage. Until then you had to go to the church in St Paul. Then a new rotunda-shaped chapel was built to the east of the main house (the Musée de Villèle today) on land overlooking St Gilles ravine. The first stone was laid on November 17th 1841 in the presence of the Governor Rear Admiral de Hell (who gave his name to Hellbourg), and the construction lasted 21 months. It was inaugurated on August 16th 1843 by Bishop Poncelet.

This stone commemorates the chapel's
inauguration and reads: "Dedicated to the piety 
of the faithful at the initiative of B. Ombeline M. 
Montbrun widow Panon Desbassayns, this 
cornerstone was erected in the year of our Lord 
1841 in the presence and with the blessing of 
the Apostolic Vicar Bishop Dalmont 
and Rear Admiral de Hell".

In 1856 a new, larger parish church was built in Saint Gilles les Hauts and the Chapelle Pointue essentially became a family chapel. In 1866, twenty years after her death, Mme Desbassayns' ashes were transferred from the Marine Cemetery of St Paul to the chapel. 

Mme Desbassyns' tombstone in the chapel,
 which refers to her as the "Second Providence".

During the second half of the 19th century a Jesuit missionary undertook to decorate the chapel's interior. The building was almost completely destroyed on February 4th 1932 (the anniversary of Mme Desbassayns' death) by a violent cyclone, and was reconstructed the following year with a few changes, notably the opening of four doors in the rotunda wall. In 1934 the rebuilt chapel was re-inaugurated by Bishop de Beaumont, whose motto 'With Bravery to Martyrdom' (Avec courage jusqu'au martyr) is inscribed on the coat of arms above the entrance porch.

the chapel in the 1930s (source)

In 1970 the building was classed as a heritage site, and in 1978 it came under the ownership of Reunion's General Council, who signed a 99-year lease with the Diocese Association. The General Council worked hand-in-hand with the Regional Office of Cultural Affairs to fully renovate the chapel between 2001-2003.

inside the chapel

The white marble altar was carved in Nantes in 1845 by the sculptor Vital Bousquet.

inside the chapel, showing the white marble altar 


The architecture of the building is composite, combining neo-Gothic style (ogival archways) with Asian influences (a roof reminiscent of a Chinese pagoda). 

makeshift shrines outside the chapel

The chapel is dedicated to the Virgin Mary and Sainte Ombeline.

a statue of St George in the chapel

 The chapel is indicated by signs, and is free to visit.


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