The Orthodox Christian community in the French city of Nice has been anxiously awaiting a savior for their local chapel which, having served as a place of worship since the 1960s, was put on the market, a plight that has grabbed the attention of world-famous Serbian tennis player Novak Djokovic.
The World No 1, who lives in neighboring Monaco, is also a member of the Orthodox Christian faith.
The place of worship, located in the basement of an old building on the French Riviera, has been under Serbia’s patriarchy for the last 12 years.
However, a major problem facing the chapel's attendees is that the building housing the place of worship is rented. The building's owner died a few months ago and the relatives have put the site up for sale.
“For an exorbitant price,” the spokesperson for Paris’ Serbian patriarchy Novak Bilic told Efe, who fears the tennis player’s involvement could prompt the new owners to hike the price.
Djokovic does not frequent the chapel often, but every now and then he does attend some of its services, offered twice on weekends, one of them in French and the other in Serbian.
He has even posted some images of his visits to the chapel to his social media accounts.
His uncle Goran is more committed and often goes to the chapel, the president of Nice’s Orthodox community Bertrand Bouisson told Efe.
“They let us know that they want to help us. How? It is too early to know, but they have a real religious interest,” Bouisson said, adding that he knows Goran, who also lives in Monaco, where he serves as honorary consul of Serbia.
For now, Nice’s Orthodox population is unsure what the future holds. The new owners have taken the chapel to court in a bid to reclaim the space and move the community out of the building.
The rental contract, which expired on Aug. 31, includes symbolic rent of 115 euros ($129.16) per month.
“They only want to buy it for a small price,” one of the heirs of the building said, as cited by French newspaper the Le Figaro, who confirmed they had received offers of at least 265,000 euros ($297,640).
The church declined to talk about the figures. “We are negotiating,” its representatives said.
Bouisson gave two reasons against going somewhere else to continue Orthodox worship.
Firstly, the community has been praying in the chapel for years and has become accustomed to it, and secondly, the chapel is decorated with frescoes of high artistic value.
The frescoes were painted by Eugraph Kovalevsky, the son of Russian immigrants who lived in the French Riviera and was named a bishop in 1964.
“It would be unforgivable to lose this treasure,” Bouisson said, confirming that the paintings recreate scenes of the Virgin’s life alongside the 12 apostles, with each one of them associated with a local saint.
There is another reason to consider Djokovic’s help a blessing. The tennis player, who has earned nearly $130 million since he turned pro in 2003, has been known for offering assistance to places of worship, according to Bouisson.
Djokovic helped towards the reconstruction of the Gracanica Monastery and the Monastery of the Holy Archangels, both in Kosovo, as well as the Hilandar Monastery in Greece.
In 2011, he received the Order of St. Sava of Serbia’s Orthodox Church for his generosity.