French Abbey of Notre-Dame d’Annonciation Flourishes with “Latin Mass” Nuns

Imagine for a moment the most idyllic setting imaginable for a convent. A traditional monastery of nuns in the south of France amid the vineyards, wineries, olive groves and lavender fields of the coveted Provence-Alpes-Côte region. Where the nuns can still be heard singing in unison the Divine Office and sung Mass in Gregorian Chant. Where the nuns still enjoy the secret recipe for success, wearing the elegant old Benedictine habit of past centuries with a life of joyful oblation. The scene resembles a perfect movie set. On the nearby horizon is a picturesque old castle that dominates the landscape for miles, rising above the craggy rocks of the village of Le Barroux.

This is the Abbaye Notre-Dame de l’Annonciation, located on the edge of the quiet hamlet of Le Barroux. This other-worldly place is completely surrounded by wine and olive groves amid the Mediterranean sunshine. The fresh community is relatively new, having started in 1979. Today it is flourishing with young French-speaking vocations. The founding sister, Mother Elisabeth, was a Benedictine nun who heard a clear call to start a new community. She responded generously under spiritual direction. The original group of sisters began small, with four young ladies who joined as postulants. Their first home was an old castle-fort that had once belonged to the Knights of Malta. The nuns came under the paternal care of Don Gerard Calvet, a respected monk with years of experience in dealing with discernment. The seasoned monk had plans of his own - he had started his own community of “traditional” monks in 1970. In those early years many came to him asking if there was a similar option for females.  With paternal solicitude he took the nuns under his spiritual care and assigned them chaplains from his own community to minister to the nuns in their temporary home in the nearby town of Uzies.

Providentially, the sisters were finally able to purchase their own property in 1983. The farmland they acquired was about two kilometres from the nearby monastery of the men. Thanks to the generosity of many friends and family, the nuns began to build. The first phase of construction began in 1986. In 1987 the sisters were able to move in at long last. Gradually over the years other buildings were built. The architect of the entire project was Jean-Louis Pages, a French architect born in 1933 in Morocco.  For 22 years he helped the monks and nuns of Le Barroux build their monasteries.  The crowning moment came in 2005 when the convent chapel was completed. Although all the buildings look from the outside Medieval, they are actually built according to the most modern of building specifications with all the necessary comforts and necessities for well-planned monastic living, including guest quarters for individual women who visit while discerning a possible call to join.

By 1989 the sisters had grown into a burgeoning Benedictine community of nearly forty nuns. While other convents around them, venerable in age, were dying out, these nuns were thriving and urgently needed more space. This helped prompt the Holy See to grant them the temporary status of a conventual priory.  Meanwhile the sisters awaited the completion of their buildings which included two cloisters and a chapel, yet to be completed. Construction plans included an enclosure that would one day enable the priory to be set up as a proper Abbey.

In 1992 the monastery was elevated to the rank of Abbey, with the decree signed in Rome and the first Abbess Mother Elisabeth, the founding nun. In 2001, a new abbess was elected to succeeded the original. The newly elected and current abbess is Mother Placide, sister of Fr. Arnaud Devillers, FSSP, at one time the Superior General of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter.

In 2005 the new Abbey church with bell tower and organ was finally completed and dedicated. For the auspicious occasion a prelate came from the Vatican, Jorge Cardinal Medina Estivez, who was special envoy of Pope Benedict XVI. Pope Benedict was fond of the monastery, where he once visited as Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger in 1995.

The sisters take as their inspiration both St. Benedict, the founder of Western monasticism, and his twin sister St. Scholastica, who founded with him the same monastic option for women. Another inspiration was Mother Marie Cornier (1857-1937), who in the 1890’s founded her own new Benedictine community at Dourgne. Generations later the spiritual daughters of Mother Marie continue with this new monastic establishment, specially fit for the temperaments of the day. A rare place where enthusiastic young nuns dressed in full habit can breathe in the plenitude of their soul the perfume of sanctity of the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite. When Mother died in 1937, her last words to her fervent followers were more than just a testament, “Prayer, prayer, prayer!”

Submitting to the Rule of St. Benedict and having no apostolic work outside the convent, the sisters are able to devote themselves exclusively to a contemplative life of prayer, study, labor. Each day they sing their hearts out. The sisters work hard. Twice a day they participate in manual labor. Each sister is assigned her own duties. The sisters also work in the fields, producing their own olive oil products, soaps, homemade fruit jams, and wines, available for purchase in their gift shop

The wine groves and grape vines in the region are part of the oldest papal vineyard, planted around 1309 by Pope Clement V, vineyards that belonged to the popes until they were forcibly taken from the Papal States at the time of the disastrous French Revolution.  In 2010 the sisters released a best-selling recording of some of their most beautiful Latin hymns, sung by the nuns in their chapel, with over an hour of angelic music. The CD, entitled IN PARADISUM is available in their gift shop for 18 EUR.

A typical day includes the singing of the seven canonical hours in the chapel, including the night office of Vigils (Matins) and Holy Mass. The one-week psalter is sung from the famous Liber Usualis, the monastic choir book, containing the prayers of the sung Mass and Office. The hours of the day are ordered by the ringing of the bells from the bell tower where the sound of the bells rings a language of its own, summoning the nuns to their daily activities while musically alerting them to the hours of prayer.

The sisters are strict and generally do not speak, communicating with hand gestures. Their daily schedule is busy and structured in the ancient Benedictine tradition.  The choral Office and Mass are at the heart of the spiritual life in the abbey church.  The monastic Office consists mainly of Psalms, inspired canticles from the Old Testament, timeless poetic language written by King David.  They were sung by Christ Himself during His own lifetime. At the same time the daily life and existence of the nuns radiates from the focal point of daily Mass.  The arrangement of the Office is exactly the same as St. Benedict laid it out in his Rule: all 150 Psalms spread out over a single week, with some repeated several times, divided between the seven hours of the day, with the office of Matins said during the night.

The sisters awake to pray Matins in the chapel at 5:05 am. Lauds is at 7:25 am. At 8:30 am they pray Prime, Chapter, with Lectio Divina, followed by private and quiet study in their cells.  At 10:00 am is Terce and the community Mass. After is manual labor at 11:00 am. Sext, Lunch and rest is at 12:30 pm. None is at 2:00 pm. Classes are at 3:00 pm. The sisters meet once again for manual labor at 3:45 pm. Vespers and prayer is at 5:30 pm. Supper is taken at 6:30 pm. 7:25 pm is Chapter and 8:00 pm is Compline.

Lastly, the sisters have a missionary influence. While the nuns have left the world in pursuit of God and silence, far away from home, the world which they have bidden farewell at times rushes to the doors of their convent enclosure. The joyful life of the nuns, wholly turned towards heaven, exerts a mysterious attraction on visitors, believers and non-believers alike.  Visitors usually come for Sunday Mass and/or a visit the gift shop.  A nearby stone farmhouse just a few minutes walk down the road has been converted into a guest house for female groups who wish to visit on quiet retreat. This allows women visitors, some of whom may be discerning, a chance to take full advantage of the opportunity to experience the life of prayer of the nuns, with frequent visits to the convent chapel several times a day for prayer times that open to the public. The nuns are seen behind the protective cloistered grill of their enclosure.

Today the nuns are the de facto female branch of the nearby male monastery of Sainte-Madeleine du Barroux (the Benedictine Abbey founded in 1970 by Abbot Don Gerard  Calvet, OSB). With great courage and trust in God the nuns founded their monastery during a very trying time for monasticism, creating a community with a fresh start that would continue to preserve the flame: chanting the Mass and Office in Gregorian melody in the classical rite during a time when most if not all monasteries, in a fit of modernization, abandoned with such imprudent haste the time-tested ways in favour of new ones. The nuns’ convent is a short, scenic walk down a windy country road from the Abbey of male monks, seen in the distance rising from the tree line. It is good for visitors to come and see what the great Catholic monastic liturgy is, knowing that with the liturgy on earth we receive a foretaste of the heavenly liturgy which is to come.

Monasteries are the obvious and uncompromising reminder that another world exists of which the present world is only the indication or the foreshadowing. Monasteries are not only houses of constant joy, prayer and penance, but also schools of learning and centres of civilization. Monastic life guides the eye to eternal things. The nun positions her being towards a reality that never dies. Monasteries are a silent sign that point to heaven. In truth, the heart and soul and summit of monastic life is the service, the company and the pure enjoyment of God through the Church’s ancient plan for this noble vocation. It has been said the monasteries built Europe. But this was not intentional. The monastic lifestyle is first an inner journey whose motive is a natural thirst. The thirst is for the transcendent, for the absolute. This thirst is still felt today. A thirst for another world, especially kindled by the vast desert known today as modern society.

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