La Garde Traditional Benedictine Monastery in France is Growing

Photos by OC-Travel
One of the most delightful traditional monasteries I have visited in Europe is the Monastery of Sainte-Marie de la Garde.  This little-known EF monastery should be on the radar for all traditional Catholics who visit France.  It is located in the beautiful French countryside just outside of Toulouse, the city where St. Thomas Aquinas is buried.  The monastery is located in a rural area surrounded by cropland in the farming province of Guyenne.  The monastery is little-known to many for the simple reason that it is so new.  It is a foundation of the famous "Latin Mass" Abbey of Le Barroux that was founded in 1970 by Dom Gérard Calvet, O.S.B. (1927-2008), seen below on the day of his ordination in 1956.  

The Le Barroux monastery was built from scratch mostly in the 1980's to house a community of sixty monks.  Due to its rapid growth, plans were in the works for some years for a new foundation.  This came to fruition in 2001 when the forward-thinking Bishop of Agen graciously invited the monks to his diocese.  On March 13, 2001 the La Garde property was acquired, a former country estate and working farm (part of an old medieval fort).  It is located on 30 majestic hectares (roughly 74 acres) with woods and cropland, including a walnut orchard.  On November 21, 2002, the feast of the Presentation of Our Lady, eight monks set off from Le Barroux to found the new community, welcomed by the Bishop.  The original buildings have been carefully preserved, including an old farmhouse or maison, the oldest part dating to the 15th century.  On May 20, 2006 the new chapel was blessed, a former stone sheepfold that was repurposed as a temporary chapel until a proper chapel can one day be built once funds are raised.  In October 2007 an architectural competition was held for submissions for the future monastery. Of three submissions, the best was chosen.  On April 11, 2010 the first stone of the new buildings was blessed, seen below.  Carved on the stone are the words: Haec est prima petra ("This is the first stone") with the community's new coat-of-arms and the historic date depicted below.  On July 5th of the same year work commenced on the first phase of construction.  The style of construction and materials are intended to be in harmony with monastic life and the host region.  The end goal is for the monastery to house 40 monks, in accordance with the wishes of St. Benedict, author of the Benedictine Rule.    

The chapel is named after Sainte-Foy (in English, St. Faith), a local saint who died in 303 AD.  This virgin and martyr was a young girl who was tortured and martyred during Roman times under the horrific persecution of Diocletian.  The chapel is small with limited seating.  Above the side entrance porch is an image of the saint carved in stone, seen below.

At La Garde, great care is taken to preserve and foster the immemorial monastic tradition of the West, with the Mass and Office sung in Latin in the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite.  Visitors will notice the rubrics and ceremony have some variation due to certain prerogatives (customs and privileges) in the Benedictine tradition in France (in some ways resembling some Anglo-Catholic customs, such as the prayers from the sedilia).  The motto of the community is: 

Respice Stellam (from "Respice stellam, voca Mariam" or "Look to the star, call upon Mary").  

By God's grace I had the privilege to visit La Garde with a pilgrimage group last year and the experience was phenomenal.  I highly recommend that traditional Catholics pay a visit here and stay a few days on silent retreat.  The easiest way to arrive is by rental car.  Our group came by bus.  For all who visit it is a great joy to hear the Gregorian melodies of the chant and to experience the rhythm of monastic life and the ancient Benedictine spirituality.  

The monks are pious in prayer and devoted in their total commitment to the traditional monastic life.  Everyone in the community works hard and prays hard.  In the Benedictine tradition, hospitality is shown to guests.  All are welcome to visit the cozy little chapel, open for certain hours of the day, to pray with the monks.  The exterior view of the chapel is seen below.  

The entire property is impeccable from top to bottom: clean and newly restored and looking terrific.  The country breeze carries the scent of wild lavender.  Climbing roses and flowers can be seen everywhere.  The older buildings on the property have been restored with great care and attention.  The silence and freshness of the country air and rolling hills speaks to the soul.  The monks are recognizable by their traditional habit and monastic tonsure, a famous combination and mark of Western monastic asceticism that is said to have been influenced from their founder, St. Benedict, seen below.  

The  medieval haircut, or tonsure, is in the shape of a halo, reminiscent of a tradition that the Blessed Apostle Peter was bald.  The monks gather several times a day together in the chapel.  There they sing daily a Conventual Mass in addition to singing together the public hours of the Divine Office.  The monks also do something that is not seen at every other monastery - they awake during the night to gather in the chapel to sing together the office of Matins.      

The monks welcome groups to visit and have a recently restored farmstead property called "Nazareth" lodge.  This beautiful old country estate, seen below, is just a 1.7 km walk from the monastery.  A perfect hostel for pilgrims, it is equipped with a large kitchen and 8 bedrooms where a small group can arrange ahead of time to stay, if available.  Our friend Fr. Isaac, O.S.B. is the wonderful guest master.  He is from French Canada and speaks perfect English.  Meanwhile, priests or men who visit alone on retreat or to discern have the chance to stay in the monastic guesthouse attached to the monastery and to eat lunch with the monks in their refectory.     

The monks also staff an exceptional gift shop not to be missed.  A great many who visit purchase leather sandals made by the monks in their cobbler shop.  The sandals are of exceptional quality and are available for men and women in multiple colors.  The monks wear these same sandals, sturdy and well made.  In fact, they are best selling items in the shop, seen below.  The monks also sell their own honey from their apiary and walnuts while other cottage industry items made by monks at other monasteries are also available for purchase.  

Today the monks of La Garde are asking for help to complete construction of their house of prayer for the 21st century.  From the time of the 5th century in France and Europe countless priories, monasteries and abbeys flourished.  Due in large part to the generosity of great benefactors, these foundations succeeded and proved an incalculable benefit to Western Christianity.  The tradition continues today with the flowering of monasteries that constitute a network of centers for prayer, music, science, art, culture, architecture, language, hospitality, fellowship, classical learning and more.  The monks of La Garde today number about 15, and with more space will grow.  The members of the community seek to perpetuate the history of Western monasticism, preserving the traditions and handing them on to the next generation.  They walk in the footsteps of thousands of monks who have come before them, thinking the highest thoughts, preserving culture and bringing the arts to the highest levels of excellence.  In prayer the monks are always in communion with the diocese and pray for the local and universal Church.  Through the example of the monks, the local Catholics in the diocese and visitors catch a rare glimpse of the contemplation of God we are all called to in this life.  The local bishop of Agen, Most Rev. Hubert Herbreteau, has given this endorsement to the monks in gratitude for the presence they bring to his local episcopal see: "The Benedictine monks of the Sainte-Marie de la Garde monastery give a beautiful testimony of contemplative life. This presence is a grace for our diocese. We express our gratitude to them. It is important to support them with our friendship but also with our donations for their expansion project that is in progress. May your generosity be great.  Our diocese needs the presence of Benedictine monks.  Let us help them in their projects."  The monks are building something great while at the same time writing a new page in Benedictine history. 

France is called the land of cathedrals and abbeys.  It is also the land of monasteries.  At La Garde monastic life is embodied in a framework of beautiful architecture.  The monasteries play a unique role and great care and the experience of centuries goes into their setting, construction and layout.  While monks devote their life to prayer, lay people can help by visiting the monasteries and helping spread the message.  They can also bring material contributions.  The monks, so that they can maintain as much as possible their busy schedule of uninterrupted contemplative life, are pushing forward to complete the building project.  The phases of building the monastery is a slow process, with the property being restored and built in two distinct phases.  The first phase has consisted in restoring the existing antique buildings for the monks to live in with new construction, combining beauty with functionality.  The second phase has been to see the construction of a proper monastery laid out with a cloister, refectory, industrial kitchen, library, chapter room, work space and abbey church.  Lay supporters and donors have a mission, to promote and protect the life of the monastic community.  In order to build beautiful architecture of a new monastery that speaks a language and employs a spirituality, an immense financial burden is taken on that a community cannot pay for itself.

The monastic adventure is first and foremost an internal experience of the soul.  Its principle motive is thirst for the infinite, a thirst for another world, a world of truth and beauty, which the liturgy stirs up to the point of directing the gaze exclusively towards eternal things.  The monk is a man who strives with all his being towards the reality that does not pass.  Besides being schools of learning at the crossroads of knowledge and civilization, monasteries are silent fingers raised towards the sky.  They are irreplaceable, obstinate, intractable reminders that there is another world, of which the monastery is only an image which announces and prefigures.  Let us pray for the success of La Garde.  May young French-speaking men be inspired to visit and to find their monastic vocations,  to help build this city of God on earth which is a Benedictine monastery.

The posted schedule, which can change, is seen above.  Below is the same schedule for those who visit:  

Matins: 3:30 a.m.  

Lauds: 6:00 a.m.  

Private Masses: 6:30 a.m. (6:40 a.m. on Sundays and Feasts)

Prime: 7:45 a.m. (8:00 a.m. on Sundays and Feasts)

Tierce and Community Mass: 9:30 a.m. (10:00 a.m. on Sundays and Feasts)

Sext: 12:00 p.m. (12:15 p.m.)

None: 2:00 p.m. (2:30 p.m.)

Vespers: 5:30 p.m. 

Compline: 7:45 p.m. 

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