Visitors to Lorgues cannot help noticing the church of Saint Martin, dominating the tightly packed houses around it. It has been part of the urban landscape for more than two and a half centuries, made from the same local materials as the houses.
At the beginning of the 18th century the old parish church of Saint Martin in the old town and the chapel of Notre-Dame de Beauvoir had become too cramped and too damaged to accommodate the growing population of Lorgues. As an expression of civic pride, the community of Lorgues decided to build a bigger church on the site of Notre-Dame de Beauvoir, to the south-east of the town and transfer to it the chapter (or “college”) of canons established since 1421 in the old church of Saint Martin.
Monseigneur de Fleury, bishop of Fréjus and future minister of Louis XV, laid the first stone in 1704, but the building was not completed until 1729. The work suffered from financial difficulties and a change of architect as well as various calamities of the time (an Austrian invasion in 1707, a very severe winter in 1709, the plague in 1720). However this relative speed (for a building of this size at that time) favoured a unity of style, despite the change of architects. Nevertheless, it soon became clear that the architectural options and materials chosen, in the interests of economy, would lead to structural weaknesses in the monument and thus to numerous repairs.
The interior still had to be decorated, which was not completed until 1788. But the revolutionary period destroyed almost the entire interior, with the notable exception of the high altar, which had previously been bought from the Observantins in Marseille. Precious cult objects, paintings and sculptures were destroyed or disappeared, the building was repainted in grey and became a stable and warehouse, erasing any religious vocation to the building. The church was spared from more destruction by by being transformed into a temple décadaire, or “Ten-Day Cult temple” : the civil religion of the Revolution which attempted to replace Christianity. It was then sold as a “national asset” and is now the property of the Lorgues town hall. Napoleon Bonaparte returned the church to its religious purpose in 1801. The whole of the 19th century was devoted to restoring its former interior splendour. The Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament (Corpus Domini) in particular, took on this heavy task. Most of the 12 altars and altarpieces belong to this period, marked by neo-classicism.
The church was listed as a historical monument in 1911 and has undergone various periods of restoration (for example the roof in the 1970s). The wear and tear of time, uneven maintenance, original weaknesses, the settling of masonry, and other reasons caused major architectural disorders. A total restoration of the collegiate church, both inside and out, was undertaken from January 2014 to December 2018.
The church is open on Sundays for services and on other days, usually 9h30 to 12h and 14h to 17h, thanks to volunteers. An illustrated guide to St Martin has been produced by the ASFVL, although only in French, and is available from the Tourist Office.
The main façade is in classical form with three doors. The site did not permit the church to be oriented east-west, so the main entrance is on the north side.
The statues on the main façade are, above the main door, the Virgin Mary (1884); to the east, that of Saint Ferréol, patron saint of the town, and to the west, that of Saint Martin (both erected in 1888 on the occasion of the first centenary of the consecration of the building).
The most striking thing about the Collegiale Church is probably its size (length: 56.5 m / width: 31.0 m / height central nave: 22.5 m / height side aisles: 14.0 m). This makes it the second most important building in the Var, after the Basilica of Saint-Maximin. Unlike many other churches of the period in the Var, it is not overly decorated in the Baroque style but quite plain. The style in fact owes more to previous ‘romanesque’ buildings.
The main nave is separated from the side aisles by powerful cruciform pillars whose pilasters end in double arches, each forming a ‘bay’ in which a side altar has been installed. Other notable features are the impressive main altar and the oak pulpit, which is ornamented with statues of Saint Ferréol and Saint Martin at the foot and the three theological virtues of Faith, Hope and Love at the top. The fine organ (1887) has been repaired many times and presently (2020) is still awaiting another restoration.