Le Chêne Chapelle (The Chapel Oak)
Two small chapels housed inside an ancient tree.
Like something out of a fairy tale (or Keebler elves commercial) this ancient oak tree’s hollowed out trunk is is home to two small chapels, reached by a spiral staircase surrounding the trunk. This, the oldest known tree in France, has lived through Louis XIV, the French Revolution, Napoleon, Sarkozy, and amazingly, is still standing.
Located in the small French farming village of Allouville-Bellefosse, France, according to local lore, the tree has grown in pace with the development of the French country itself. Said to have begun growing 1000 years ago (which would make it one of the oldest trees in the world) during the reign of Charlemagne, and in 1035, William the Conqueror is supposed to have knelt at its base. While scientists say the tree is only around 800 years old – too young to have been around in the age of Charlemagne – it is nonetheless, by far, the oldest known tree in France.
In the 1600s, disaster struck. The then middle aged (roughly 470-year-old) oak tree, was struck by lightning, burning right through its center and hollowing out the trunk. However, not only did the tree survive this fate, but the newly hollowed tree came to the attention of the local Abbot Du Détroit and father Du Cerceau. Deciding they wanted to build a different kind of sanctuary they began building a shrine to the Virgin Mary directly into the hollow of the tree. Later another small chapel and a stair case climbing the outside of the tree was added.
Things almost took a very bad turn for the tree during the French revolution. A crowd inspired by the revolution came to burn the tree as it was a symbol of the old way and the abhorred church. A quick thinking local quickly renamed the oak the “temple of reason” sparing it a fiery fate.
Today the common oak is showing signs of age and stress. Now held up by poles, part of the 33-foot trunk has died and the majority of the tree has been covered over with wooden shingles where the bark has fallen away. Although Chene Chappelle’s host tree has begun to wane, its congregation still gathers twice a year for Mass and the tree is still the destination of annual pilgrimage on August 15, the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin.
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