Cartes postales du bagne

Site visit #17. The little church at Païta

30 July 2018

In contrast to the foreboding Cathédrale Saint Joseph in the centre of Nouméa which closely resembles Notre Dame in Paris, the little church, Sacre-Cœur, in Païta is another example of a building project overseen by the Administration Pénitentiaire during the 1880s. It is a light and airy, welcoming building. Most striking perhaps are the stain windows which seem to embody an art deco style. Composed of fragmented coloured glass arranged mosaic style they perhaps also embody a discourse of rehabilitation occurring through the collective work of a series of broken lives. This may of course be reading too much into the design but the contrast with Saint Joseph forces a comparison. This also seems much more DIY perhaps partly due to problems with costs and other delays to the original completion of the building.

Today the church sits on the edge of the neat little town centre just behind the school. Opposite there are small memorials to both world wars. Although there is no signage recounting the history of the church either inside or out, a guide to the ‘traces du passé’ published in 1991 indicates that the font was carved by a bagnard using a single block of marble.

The construction of churches along with their decoration often suggests a neat synthesis between religious instruction and creative labour, together producing rehabilitative, redemptive effect on the bagnard. This is the story told about Bagnard Huguet who painted the murals in the church at Iracoubo in French Guiana. Francis Lagrange’s murals on Ile Royale which despite multiple attempts at restoration and preservation have not stood the test of time and climate, seem to offer in their present ruined form a riposte to this narrative. Lagrange’s own autobiography is far from a tale of rehabilitation but rather one of ongoing opportunism.

Moreover there is a certain irony that the main remnant of the administration pénitentiaire in Païta is its church. According to the curate of Païta, in 1892 the town represented an outpost of Noumea that attracted the worst forms of depravity and criminal activity. The account refers to ‘scandaleuses orgies‘ and ‘professions inavouables’ but leaves the reader to speculate on what these might consist of. What it does indicate is the way in which the penal colony extended across the territory but in ways that were irregular and complicated. The exil of the libérés from the centre of Nouméa also reminds us of the horrors of the doublage system as it produced above all a subclass of individuals who were no longer supported by the A.P. The opportunities for employment or the receipt of a concession were the exceptions that worked to simultaneously affirm both the potential of the bagne as successful form of colonial development and the myth of the irredeemable criminal (the fort tête) unable to seize the opportunity to improve his conditions of existence, demonstrating a disloyalty to France in his failure to contribute towards the building of its Empire.

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