The town of Cassel near Dunkirk in the French Flanders, traces its roots to the Gallo-Roman fortified city of Castellum Menapiorum. Its strategic situation on top of a hill with unbroken view over the surrounding plains made it a disputed location throughout history. The countless battles that were fought for the privilege of this high ground are thankfully now history and have been replaced by the more leisurely objectives of a nice view and a good meal in the town’s estaminets.
In 1842, a boarding school for young girls was established in Cassel by the Dames de Saint Maur, an institute of the Catholic Church dedicated to teaching. Shortly thereafter, a Neogothic brick chapel was built for the pensionnat, and inaugurated on August 2nd, 1879. Contemporary photographs show that the chapel was then likely coated in lime wash, as was the local custom. The school closed in 1906 and was bought by wealthy philanthropist Louis Lesaffre Behagel de Renescure who converted it into a retirement home. The establishment was named Maison St. Louis in honour of this patronage, and opened in 1909. Medical care was provided to the pensioners by religious orders, first the Sisters of St Martha, then of St Augustine, who used the chapel for daily prayer while its lower level was used as a refectory. In 1940, during the bombing of Cassel by the German army, Maison St. Louis suffered important damage. Its director Chanoine Decherf was mortally wounded by the blast, and the chapel’s stained glass windows were demolished. Pensioners were moved to Lille for safety soon after.
After the war, the operation of the retirement home resumed and continues to this day. In 1992, its management was transferred from the city to the region, and the chapel was closed. In 2006-7, the municipality of Cassel mandated Scénario-ARA Architectes to transform the chapel into a library. The intervention stabilized the original brick walls and roof, but kept the impact to the original structure minimal, retaining the stained glass windows (installed in 1954 to replace those lost in the war) as well as maintaining the entrance at its original location.
A discreet, single-storey glass and steel structure was added to the east to extend the usable surface. Now occupied by the children and young adult collections, it offers a wonderfully bright location for reading and enjoying views over the surrounding countryside. The circulation desk and bookshelves are installed in the former nave of the chapel, while the lower floor is used as an activity room, accessed by a spiral staircase. This attentive renovation and conversion project earned the 2008 Ruban du Patrimoine prize.
If you plan to visit this library, be aware of its limited opening hours. Also, while Cassel has a train station with frequent service, be aware that it is quite removed from the village proper. There used to be a tramway linking the two, but it was discontinued in 1934. Buses are very infrequent and there’s no taxi service. The 40 minute walk to Cassel is quite pleasant however, and a perfect excuse to treat yourself to a nice helping of potée at the estaminet once you reach the top of the hill (I recommend T’Kasteelhof)!
The images presented here date from my visit in October 2021.
- Transformation et extension de la chapelle de l’ancienne maison de retraite en médiathèque, Cassel (59). (2008) CAUE du Nord / S-PASS Territoires. Retrieved November 23, 2022
- Les rubans du Patrimoine: Palmarès 2008—Un héritage à transmettre aux générations futures. (2008). Bâtiment Actualité, 21 (Supplément), p.6.
- Library posters on the building’s history.
Library detail pages are primarily a place for me to collect information I gather on the libraries I visit, and are frequently updated. None of this should be considered authoritative, I am not an architect, nor a historian. If you notice something incorrect, please let me know!