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'You have to get off your sofa' - Young French Catholics restore wayside crucifixes

It’s clear by now that something interesting is stirring in France, the country once known as “the eldest daughter of the Church.” 

Members of SOS Calvaires erect a cross. Photo courtesy of SOS Calvaires.

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At this year’s Easter Vigil there was a 30% rise in the number of adult baptisms, with more than 7,000 people receiving the sacrament — the highest figure since the French bishops’ conference began tabulating the data more than 20 years ago.

This week, the organizers of the annual Pentecost pilgrimage to Chartres closed registration for its adult “chapters” more than a month before the event, which is expected to set a new attendance record in 2024.

And this December, the world’s eyes will turn to Paris for the reopening for worship of Notre-Dame Cathedral, five years after it was almost destroyed by fire  — a fitting image, perhaps, of a new French Catholic revival.

There are other signs of renewal, too. One is the growth of SOS Calvaires, an organization bringing together volunteers across the country to restore wayside crucifixes (known in France as “calvaires”).

The association’s director general is the youthful, mustachioed, and eloquent Alexandre Caillé. In an email interview with The Pillar, he explained why young people are drawn to SOS Calvaires, what it’s like to restore roadside crosses, and the group’s intriguing projects outside of France. 

Alexandre Caillé, director general of SOS Calvaires, at work. Photo courtesy of SOS Calvaires.


For those who live in Catholic-majority countries, wayside crosses are a part of everyday life. But could you explain what they are for people who are not familiar with the tradition?

A calvary is a cross found on the side of a road, at a crossroads, or near a field. Each cross has a meaning. A cross can be placed to pray, to give thanks for a cure, or for a soldier who has returned alive from war, to ask for protection over a village or a good harvest in the fields... 

There is always a reason for the presence of a cross (or a statue or an oratory) in our countryside.

Most of the calvaries we see in France date from the 19th century. But some are much older, even if many were destroyed during the French Revolution.

Photo courtesy of SOS Calvaires.

What was the inspiration for the creation of SOS Calvaires and how is it funded?

The association was founded in 1987 by a gentleman who wanted to restore a small abandoned chapel with some friends. Once the renovation was complete, they didn’t want to leave it there. Seeing all this Christian heritage falling into ruins, they founded the association to restore the crosses, statues, and oratories that were falling into disrepair.

The restoration work is made possible by donations from private individuals. 

Photo courtesy of SOS Calvaires.

SOS Calvaires now has 300 members in 65 branches across France. How has it achieved this growth when so many organizations are shrinking? And why does it attract so many young members?

I think the association attracts quite a few young members because, first of all, the association office is run by a young, dynamic, and committed team. 

We also owe the development of our association to the people who have taken on the role of branch manager and who are a real link for us. 

Finally, I think that in today’s society, young people are looking for a sense of meaning, a sense of being rooted and anchored in our territories. In fact, we now have 85 branches throughout France and almost 4,000 volunteers working to restore this unique heritage.

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What does it feel like to be part of a team restoring a wayside cross? Is it a spiritual experience, or is it just hard physical work?

Young people today are demanding this kind of effort. It’s what they expect, despite what you might think. They need an ideal, strong values, challenges.

Restoring a calvary is an adventure. First of all, you have to get up from your sofa, go out into the cold and rain to rub stones, pull out brambles, and bring a part of your history back to life. Not everyone does it.

This work can be difficult and physically demanding. For some, it can also be a truly spiritual experience, a discovery or rediscovery of the history of the Cross and the Christian religion associated with this powerful symbol. For others, it’s a prayer. An act of charity, a gift of self for the common good, but above all for God.

Photo courtesy of SOS Calvaires.

SOS Calvaires has attracted a lot of media attention in France. It’s also received support from perhaps unexpected people, such as the YouTuber Baptiste Marchais. Why do you think it has captured people’s imaginations?

Restoring our heritage is increasingly popular. It’s something unusual, something out of the ordinary, something that requires effort. It’s appealing. 

In fact, we were contacted by this YouTuber a few years ago now. We were happy to share this unique experience of straightening a large cross between two roads. We knew that this YouTuber was going to generate publicity and show a lot of people the work of the association. 

His video played a big part in the sudden growth of our association, with requests to set up new branches, and so on.

Photo courtesy of SOS Calvaires.

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In 2023, SOS Calvaires teams erected five Celtic crosses at five major Irish Christian sites. Will there be further initiatives outside France?

The installation of five Celtic crosses in Ireland was an exceptional event. A year earlier, we had also erected a khatchkar [cross-stone] in Armenia. These small missions abroad were special occasions. 

In the future, we’d like to set up international branches, for example in Luxembourg or Spain. But for the moment, we’re concentrating on France. There will certainly be other special projects abroad.

Photo courtesy of SOS Calvaires.

Why is it important that SOS Calvaires is an apolitical association, not linked to any Catholic movement?

The mission of our association is to bring together as many people as possible around the cross, whatever their age, social level, religious beliefs, or political ideas. It’s a heritage that belongs to everyone and is part of our daily lives. 

Obviously, heritage is not part of politics per se. It is an inheritance from our ancestors that we must preserve, honor, and pass on to future generations. 

It is also important that our association is not attached to any particular Catholic movement, because our aim is to restore and safeguard this unique Christian heritage, with as many people as possible and for as many people as possible, without separating different religious movements.

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