Historic Abbey of Notre-Dame des Neiges, Where St. Charles de Foucauld Lived, Narrowly Escapes Closure and Welcomes Nuns
The Trappist brothers, who had announced the closure of the site after 172 years of prayer life on the site, hand over the abbey to the dynamic community from the Abbaye Sainte-Marie of Boulaur.
The news came as a blow to all the faithful attached to this important part of France’s Catholic heritage: A few months ago, on the eve of Christmas, the Cistercian monks of Notre-Dame des Neiges, in the Ardèche department (southeastern France), announced that after 172 years of community life, they would leave the abbey permanently in August 2022.
Reduced to less than a dozen after the deaths of two brothers in 2021, the aging community, whose members are struggling with more and more health issues, found themselves unable to continue to maintain the premises and ensure their livelihood through work.
Nestled in the heart of the forest at the top of the Cevennes mountain region, at an altitude of 3,600 feet, the abbey was founded in 1850 by Trappist monks from Aiguebelle Abbey. It has notably gained fame by hosting illustrious characters such as the Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson — who later gave his name to the local hiking trail — the founder of post-war Europe, French statesman Venerable Robert Schuman, and St. Charles de Foucauld, canonized in May 2022.
This decision to leave the abbey, the monks wrote on their website, came after a long period of discernment, “in an act of consenting faith, although with a wounded soul.”
Since the various monasteries they initially contacted to take over the management of the abbey did not follow up, the brothers had to come to terms with the idea of closing its doors as well as the guesthouse that welcomes pilgrims and walkers year round.
Providence soon reversed the inevitable.
At the end of January, a group of sisters from the Cistercian Abbey of St. Mary of Boulaur, in the southwest of France, requested a visit.
Transmitting a Spiritual Heritage
With its 30 or so members and an average age of 45, this community, made famous in the country and beyond for having resurrected a monastic grange circa medieval Europe, enjoys a dynamism that is uncommon in today’s Church. It can therefore discerned: The community could be easily split in two, with one group moving to Notre-Dame des Neiges.
“Our first visit at the monastery inspired many of us. We had an excellent contact with the friars, and that convinced us to proceed in our community discernment,” Sister Anne, future prioress of Notre-Dame des Neiges, told the Register. “The other sisters of the community then took turns visiting the site, resulting in hours of fruitful discussions with the community on site, and they unanimously opted to continue the project,” she said, adding that they were all particularly touched by the presence of St. Charles de Foucauld through his relics there, kept in an oratory arranged for their veneration in 2006.
It was indeed this abbey that a young Charles chose for his novitiate when he decided to embrace the religious life in 1890, under the name of brother Marie-Albéric. He stayed there for only seven months, at the end of which he was sent to the Trappist monastery of Akbes in Syria, but this abbey always held a special place in the heart of the future saint, as he confided later in his correspondence with the brothers. It was at this abbey that he celebrated his first Mass a decade later, in 1901, after his ordination to the priesthood in the neighboring city of Viviers.
The spiritual weight of this presence, added to the unique atmosphere built by the uninterrupted prayers of generations of monks, has thus played an essential part in the nuns’ decision. “This place is imbued with a peace, a palpable supernatural dimension, and such a token of the Lord’s presence inevitably made us want to settle in,” Sister Anne continued.
The news of the takeover of the abbey by eight sisters of Boulaur was announced to their relatives on the eve of Easter, but will only be definitive after the votes of the general chapters of the two respective orders in the fall. A few sisters will come to the site at the end of August to prepare the premises; the official start of the foundation is scheduled for Dec. 1, which will mark the first liturgical feast of St. Charles de Foucauld. Visitors will be welcomed back into the guesthouse in early January 2023.
And although it is not easy for her to move on from the abbey of Boulaur, after having been at the forefront of the development of the monastic grange project, Sister Anne leaves nevertheless, with the enthusiasm and the joy that characterizes her community.
“I feel a great joy at the idea of leaving for Notre-Dame des Neiges. It resonates in me as a way of life. Our mother abbess gave each one of us all the time necessary for a good discernment so that there would be a deeper commitment, bringing together monastic obedience and the deep desire of the heart,” she said.
The activities that the sisters will undertake on site outside of their life of prayer to ensure their income are not yet known and will be the subject of preliminary studies in order to adapt them as well as possible to the traditions of the place, as was the case at the Boulaur Abbey. “We are going to think hard about the deep meaning we want to give to all this, but we are all very motivated, and we will not resist the desire to do beautiful and great things in the years to come,” she continued, underlining the advantage that Notre-Dame des Neiges is well maintained and already operational.
Moreover, the privileged geographical position as well as the exceptional and preserved setting of the abbey, which is a stage on the Stevenson Trail, gives it a high missionary potential. “It is a very frequented hike; the abbey receives many walkers during the summer season. So many people to touch, by inviting them to participate in a service with us, to spend the evening at the monastery, while preserving our monastic life and cloister.”
Aware that the beginnings at Notre-Dame des Neiges may not be easy, since their subsistence will be assured by Boulaur at first, the eight sisters leave with the same vein of total abandonment to the will of God that was that of St. Charles de Foucauld in his time, ready to gather the innumerable fruits that Providence will grant them.
Sister Anne said:
“It is very clear in our minds that this is not a simple change of ownership, but a passing on of a spiritual heritage that we intend to keep alive for decades to come.”
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