The Politics of the Deal: Why Was the Medieval Abbey of Pontigny Sold to a Non-Catholic Businessman Rather than to the FSSP?

The ancient Pontigny Abbey, the greatest Cistercian building in existence, is being sold to a foundation that plans to make it a luxury hotel and a contemporary art gallery — even though the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter had made a higher offer to establish a seminary here.

Abbey of Pontigny in the Bourgogne-Franche-Comté region of eastern France
Abbey of Pontigny in the Bourgogne-Franche-Comté region of eastern France (photo: Public Domain)

The Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter (FSSP) is once again in the middle of a public argument in France: As the upcoming expulsion of one of its communities from the diocese of Dijon is still arousing tensions within the Catholic Church in France and beyond, another controversy involving an important Catholic monument — the Abbey of Pontigny in the Bourgogne-Franche-Comté region of eastern France — has taken a more political dimension.  

The domain of this magnificent 12th-century abbey (the world’s greatest Cistercian building still intact today) was offered for sale by the leadership of the regional council of Bourgogne-Franche-Comté in 2019, and recently sold to French businessman François Schneider and his foundation for the sum of 1.8 million euros (around $2.1 million dollars). Schneider’s foundation plans on turning the domain into a luxury resort intended to become a hub for ecology, and that would include a contemporary art gallery dedicated to the environmental element. The draft project seen by the Register claims that the ultimate ambition of the foundation is to “make Pontigny for the earth what Davos is for the economy.”

The regional civic council’s decision therefore rejected the competing offer presented by the FSSP — which aimed to establish the first francophone section of its international seminary — even though its bid was 300,000 euros higher than Schneider’s. 

 

‘Lack of Openness’

The sale concerned exclusively the abbey structure, which belongs to the region of Bourgogne-Franche-Comté, and didn’t include the adjacent abbey church. That still belongs to the municipality and is run by the Territorial Prelature of Mission de France

However, both purchase projects implied at least partial access to the church. The FSSP, which aimed to make it the seminary’s church, planned to find a modus vivendi with Mission de France to share its use between the ordinary and extraordinary liturgical rites. Schneider, for his part, intends to partly privatize the church — as long as Mass is no longer celebrated there — to exhibit his contemporary artworks. 

In a plenary assembly of the region on Dec. 11, 2020, the socialist president of Bourgogne-Franche-Comté, Marie-Guite Dufay, announced the board’s preference for Schneider’s offer, claiming that “between these two projects, one was open to the population while the other one was much less so.” She said that the region’s initial project of tourist development only found “its full dimension” in Schneider’s project. 

Dufay also established a commission of elected officials to hear the two proposals, and a majority of them chose the foundation.  

 

Procedural Irregularities?

The draft project of the FSSP — titled “Putting the domain of a secular abbey back at the heart of local economy” and reviewed by the Register — included a restoration work plan of 10 million euros, and an opening of the abbey and its gardens to the public that was meant to increase the number of visitors by 40,000 to 60,000 people every year.

The regional council’s decision to turn down the FSSP’s offer (amounting to 2.1 million euros or around $2.5 million) came as a shock to its priests, who hoped to help maintain a strong religious presence in this high place of Christianity. 

 In an interview with the Register, Father Louis Le Morvan — the FSSP’s treasurer — denounced several procedural irregularities and mentioned a possible recourse to justice. He said the fraternity regrets in particular the fact that they found out about the existence of a competing offer only three weeks before the official presentation of their project, which did not give them enough time to confront their project with Schneider’s and match the region’s requirements. 

Under pressure from elected officials, who were also unhappy with the short time they were given to examine these competing projects, the region was forced to postpone the commission’s decision by a few weeks. Father Le Morvan contends that the region had always hinted that the FSSP was the only candidate to purchase the abbey. 

Moreover, during the deliberations of the regional council, Dufay wrongly stated that the establishment of a seminary would require a permission from Rome that would be “very difficult” to get. Such an argument is, indeed, contradicted by Canons 733 and 609 of the Code of Canon Law

“We are a society of pontifical right, which means that it is the superior of the fraternity that canonically erects the formation house, with the simple agreement of the bishop,” Father Le Morvan said, adding that the FSSP already drew attention to that fact in writing to Dufay, before the vote.

 

‘Masonic Solidarity’

Shortly after the vote, the region, which put the abbey up for sale because of the lack of financial resources to maintain the buildings, started a large restoration work of the roof costing around 650,000 euros, according Jacques Chanard, former mayor of the neighboring city of Chevannes and a supporter of the FSSP’s project.

A practicing Catholic, Chanard has been very involved in the sale process, striving to find a Catholic community to take over the abbey. In his view, this generous gesture from the local authorities further shows that Schneider was favored for political reasons, in a Bourgogne region that has long been marked by a strongly anticlerical mentality. Such historic hostility is, according to him, the fruit of a widely spread Masonic presence in this part of the country. 

“In this region, everything is decided in [Masonic] lodges, I’ve been witnessing that on a regular basis on the field, and the fact that I am a practicing Catholic has been an insurmountable handicap in my political career,” Chanard told the Register. 

His claim was corroborated by Father Le Morvan, who told the Register that a few elected officials suggested that the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, as a symbol of the Church, was regarded as a problem. 

“One of them called us one day to warn us, off the record, that during a working session about the abbey, a very important elected official in the region called for Masonic solidarity around Schneider’s project, as ours was not in the spirit of their founding texts.”

 

Silence of the Archbishop  

Another major pitfall in this whole process, according to Chanard, has been the lack of support from Archbishop Hervé Giraud of the Diocese of Sens-Auxerre and prelate of Mission de France, which holds authority over Pontigny Chanard, who has been regularly in touch with Archbishop Giraud since the abbey was put up for sale, often criticized him for not being clear whether he would let the FSSP celebrate the extraordinary form of the Mass in the abbey church. Such ambiguity —which might have resulted from advance knowledge of Pope Francis’ new motu proprio restricting the Traditional Latin Mass — is partly responsible for the failure of the project, according to Chanard.

The FSSP, for its part, claims that Archbishop Giraud refused all along to take a clear stand for their project in the face of Schneider’s. 

“Our Superior Father Benoît Paul-Joseph [Benoit] contacted him as early as October 2019 to seek his support, and he simply said that he would collaborate with the candidate that the region would choose,” he said, adding that the archbishop also refused to notify the region that he would authorize the creation of the seminary if the FSSP won the project.  

Contacted by the Register, Archbishop Giraud firmly denied having played any role in the region’s decision, that was, in his view, purely political. 

“The support of the Catholic hierarchy has unfortunately no weight in the secular and post-modern France of the 21st century,” he said, arguing that “the recent adoption of new societal measures, to which the Church was openly opposed, is sufficient to illustrate this.” 

 

What’s Next?

Although the Bourgogne region seems to have settled the argument for good, the final outcome of the sale is not yet definitive. Indeed, according to the various sources who spoke with the Register, it seems that the Fondation Schneider hasn’t yet been able to find a hotel operator for its planned five star-resort, which could possibly compromise the conclusion of the sale (at this point, only the promise to purchase has been signed). 

In that case, the abbey of Pontigny would be put up for sale again. Whether the Fraternity decides to lodge a legal remedy against the region or not, this outcome could represent for them a new window of opportunity.

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