Abbaye de Notre-Dame de Fontgombault

View of Fontgombault Abbey chapel apse, with chevet chapels

My favorite place to visit in France is the Abbey of Our Lady of Fontgombault (Fontgombault Abbey).  I wish everyone could visit here on retreat in the summer months, especially priests.  This is a Benedictine monastery of the Solesmes Congregation, located down the road from the rural hamlet of Fontgombault in the province of Berry, on the confines of four provinces.  The monks here are heirs to a monastic tradition that traces back nearly a thousand years.  

Latin and Gregorian Chant

Fontgombault is an abbey of the Congregation of Solesmes.  Here monks endeavor to live according to the Rule of St. Benedict as it was understood and explained by Dom Guéranger, the 19th century restorer of Benedictine life in France from the Abbey of Solesmes and founder of the Congregation which caries the abbey's name.

His second successor, Dom Paul Delatte, perfectly expressed the monastic ideal of Solesmes which Fontgombault inherited: 
"The proper and distinctive work of the Benedictine, his lot and his mission, is the liturgy.  All other monastic occupations depend on this; the liturgy fixes our whole schedule; it claims nearly all the hours of our day, and those the best hours."  
As Benedictines of the Solesmes Congregation, Gregorian chant is at the heart of the community's liturgical practice, with the Mass and Office sung in the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite.  These liturgical forms, enriched by the centuries and preserved at Fontgombault make it a one-of-a-kind place preserved from the injuries of time.  

On Gregorian chant, Dom Gajard, the great choir-master of Solesmes had this to say: 
"By its supernatural inspiration and its perfumed holiness, so gracious and agreeable, unforgettable to those who have had serious contact with it, Gregorian chant excels at capturing souls and introducing them to the blessed region where God awaits them.  In every respect, it is a sovereignly efficacious procedure of moral and supernatural formation."  
Torrents have come, winds of change have blown against this house and it has not fallen because it is a house founded on a rock.   Fontgombault is thus a place of reconciliation between the past and the present, by the witness it brings of a living tradition rooted in Christ and the tradition of the Church.  

Thanks to the patient labors of the monks of Fontgomabult, the Latin Mass in the EF and Office with their Gregorian melodies have been re-discovered and esteemed again by all who visit, charmed by the nobility and sobriety of Gregorian chant that naturally carries the soul to another world.   

And what is a monk? 
"A monk is he who directs his gaze towards God alone, who is attached to God alone, who is determined to serve God alone, and who, in possession of peace with God, becomes also cause of peace for others."  -St. Theodore Studite, 8th century monk  


Today the monastery counts within its walls nearly 80 monks from 10 different nationalities.  The average age is 40.  The youngest is 20.  The eldest is 85.  Fontgombault has grown so much that it has given birth to four foundations, making it the most populous of the Solesmes foundations.

With the foundations, Fontgombault has over a total of over 100 monks.  The 3 foundations in France are the following: Randol Abbey (founded in 1971), Triors Abbey (founded in 1984), and Gaussan Priory (founded in 1994).  The foundation in the United States is Clear Creek Abbey (founded in 1999).  Further, in 2013 13 brothers from Fontgombault transferred to the Abbey of Saint-Paul de Wisques in order to repopulate its declining community.

Marian Devotion 

Fons Amoris ("Fountain of Love") is the motto of the abbey.  The expression is fully applied to Our Lady, venerated at Fontgombault under the title of Notre-Dame du Bien-Mourir, or Our Lady of a Holy Death, venerated as such since the Revolution.   The ever discreet, totally pure, humble servant of the Lord, of whom she is the mother, is the Queen and model of monks.  Her 12th century stone statue under this title is seen in the abbey church in the south aisle, on the right side of the nave (Epistle side), where pilgrims and visitors light candles and pray for her holy intercession.  

The abbey is placed under her protection.  The monk, as every child of God, has received her as mother.  He is carried within her on this earth.  With the divine life of which she is filled, she nourishes him as a mother nourishes the child she carries in her womb.  She accompanies him in his slow dying to himself, do giving him birth in another life, the life of God in him, until his life in God the day of his death, his true and definitive birth into new life.  


It was in the 10th or 11th century that a hermit by the name of Gombaud came to dwell in a cave on the bank of the River Creuse, across the river from the present Fontgombault Abbey.  This location was very rural, covered by a thick forest, near a fountain thereafter called "Font-Gombaud."  Toward the end of the 11th century the hermitage had expanded into a community under the direction of Dom Pierre de l'Etoile who, in 1091, set out to establish a Benedictine monastery on the other bank of the river along a flat plane suitable for building.  

Here at this site, the present Fontgombault Abbey, Dom Pierre de l'Etoile laid the foundations of his monastery placed under the Rule of St. Benedict.  He remained the Abbot until his death in the year 1114.  At the beginning of the 13th century the abbey church was completed with the aid of ecclesiastical authorities and protection and donations from local lords.  The initial impulse the abbey received from this new construction was enough to carry it through four centuries of fervor and prosperity.    Alternately decadence followed fervor, a common cycle in life, with fervor restored more than once. 

The Hundred Years' War 

War came and the province of Berry was one of its theatres of operations.  The abbey therefore enclosed itself with walls and a moat.  The west end of the church was transformed with the addition of fortifications, visible today with a crenelated tower on the front facade.  The first building of the present church dates from this period.  Toward the close of the 14th century monastic life at Fontgombault had lost some of its early purity through a process of moral decay and corruption - the claustral offices became benefices, contrary to the Benedictine ideal.

The Abuse of the Commendam
The "commendam" came in the 16th century and brought down new problems for the community of monks.  With this policy, a commendam was a form of transferring an ecclesiastical benefice in trust to the custody of a patron.  For example, commendatary abbots were chosen, not by the monks themselves, but by the king.  The problem with this government overreach was that more concern was shown for the collection of abbey revenues than for the spiritual welfare of the monastic community.  

Ensuing competition over the abbatial see proved to be disastrous.  This led to an episode in 1500 when the supporters of one candidate sacked the monastery and tortured the monks.  The last commendatary abbot was Francois-Regis de Rech de Saint-Amans, perhaps the worst, who acquired the authorization to destroy the abbey. 

 The Protestant Upheaval

Tragically in August of 1569 the abbey fell into the hands of the Protestant Calvinists.  The conventual buildings were put to the torch along with the church, the bell-tower and nave ruined and the archives destroyed.  The ruined church was beyond use.  The few remaining monks making up the community celebrated their liturgy in a chapel in the transept.  

Fortunately, during the priorate of Dom Nicolas Andrieu in the 17th century, the abbey underwent a restoration.  The choir, dormitory, refectory, and cloister were rebuilt.  At this death in 1705, the community had gained in fervor and with this came steady recruitment.  

The French Revolution 

After the leadership of Dom Andrieu, stability and regularity was maintained for some time, but soon vocations dwindled.  The monks withdrew leaving the monastery to a group of Lazarists, then to a group of Suplicians.  The 1700s was a difficult period.  Then came the French Revolution to seal the monastery's fate - it was closed and sold as national property.  The abbey grounds thus became a stone quarry and fell to ruin.

The Restoration 

In 1850 a priest of the diocese of Bourges, Fr. Lenoir, discovered the ruins of the abbey.  Struck by the beauty of the whole setting, he dedicated his remaining days to give it life again.  On his initiative some Trappists of Bellefontaine Abbey (1849) came and then a group from Melleraye Abbey (1853) to take up residence in the ruined monastery whose restoration Fr. Lenoir was to guide and inspire for 40 years.  Fr. Lenoir was a godsend, was a man of innovation and creative genius, brining in architects and engineers to rebuilt the monastery.  He first repaired the apse and transept (1849-1857) and the nave (1889-1899).  The church's consecration that was planned for October 5, 1899 was at the last moment cancelled by order of a sectarian public ministry of the government.  

Having become a spiritual center in the region, Fontgombault suffered the attacks of the virulent anti-clericalism of the beginning of the twentieth century.  The Trappists later were obliged to disperse in 1903, emigrating to the United States.  The abbey was thus vacated yet once again.  During World War I from 1914-1918 the abbey served as a hospital for sounded soldiers in the Belgian army.  In 1919 some of the buildings opened as St. Martin's minor seminary, appurtenant to the diocese of Bourges.  

Monastic life at the abbey was not fully restored until after World War II when in 1948 a group of monks came from Solesmes to create a foundation.  Fontgombault thus became the 15th monastery to expand from the Solesmes Congregation, a movement that was founded in 1837 by the great Abbot Dom Prosper Guéranger.   This re-linking Fontgombault with its monastic past brought the monastery back to its original vocation.  

On August 15, 1953, the monastery was elevated to the rank of abbey.  The abbey has therefore been placed under the patronage of Our Lady and the church ins consecrated to her in the mystery of her Assumption.  The patronal feast is therefore August 15.  And finally on October 5, 1954 the reconstructed chapel received its long-awaited consecration, another day that is remembered each year.  

The Abbey Church

Fontgombault abbey is a Romanesque structure that reflects the artistic trends that surrounded it over the centuries.  The present chapel was first completed in the early 13th century.  

Architects have molded all the work done here over the centuries with admirable harmony as to make it indeed a stunning creation.  The contrast is visible between the whiteness of the limestone used in the 19th century restoration set against the warmer hues of the ancient church.    

The ceiling is high.  The nave is 80 meters long, 17.60 meters in height and width.  The church body is one of the most spacious monastic churches in the province.  It is characterized by its side aisles, a transept opening upon two deep-set chapels, and an extended sanctuary with deambualtory and three outward-radiating chapels.  

Four buttresses mark off the front facade vertically, creating 3 sections that that correspond to the interior scheme of the church.  
In the facade's area directly beneath the top gable, the central portal opens nearly as side as it is high.  Above the main entrance is devoid of a decorated tympan, rare for such a monastery, but typical in the local province.  Instead there is a simple but beautiful archivolt formed of four arches enveloped in one great sculpted art, resting on 8 columns with decorated capitals, reposing on crouched lions.  

All that resembled the porch or canopy which once sheltered the front of the church are 3 stone corbels and a ridge of stones, still attached to the facade.  The axial window, gemeled by a mullion, opens and dates from the end of the 13th century.  The machicolated watchtower and crenels (used in defense for shooting and firing arrows) were added in the 14th century by way of fortification during the French and English wars.  

A final brilliant note on the architecture of the chapel.  The longitudinal axis of the nave is broken at four points, skewing from a south-east to east-south-east direction.  This deviation, common to a number of Romanesque churches, has not yet been explained with certitude.  Some monks believe it is to illustrate the view Christ had from the cross, with his head tilted to the side, the broken axis seen with unmistakably clarity from the altar looking back at the nave from where the priest stands in the middle.   

The Chevet of the Apse

A stunning work of architecture is the apse with its three-stage plan of chapels, deambulatory, and hemicycle of the sanctuary.  The 5 chapels fan out from the apse's center, in some ways reflecting the famous Basilica of St. Julien in Auvergne, with their semi-conic roofing resting against secondary gables.  The belfry is quadrilateral in form, rising above where the altar is in the center of the transept.  It once supported a tower that the fire of 1569 destroyed.  The massive cube that surmounts the lower cornice today was built toward the end of the 17th century so as to shelter the cupola.  It was covered in the 19th century with a pavilion roof and lantern.  

Visiting the Abbey

Visitors are welcome to visit.  It is best to arrive by a rental car.  Priests often go on retreat here.  Men and women are also allowed to go on retreat.  Reservations must be made ahead of time.  Males are allowed to stay in the guesthouse attached to the monastery.  One of the guest rooms on the priests' floor was occupied by Cardinal Ratzinger on his historic visit.  Females and families with children stay in the guest cottages on the property that are just a few minutes walk from the abbey church.  Male guests have the rare privilege to take their lunch in the cloister with the monks in their refectory.  In the cortile they are greeted by the abbot who washes their hands and welcomes the guests as Christ, an ancient custom according to the Rule of St. Benedict. 

Male and female guests are invited to pray in the chapel.  Men have special access to the chapel through a side door connected to the guesthouse.  
The chapel is open during the day.  It is closed for Compline, except to the male guests.  Each morning at 7:00 a.m. the chapel opens for the morning Masses of the monks who are priests, served by the brother monks.  Male guests can also volunteer to serve for visiting priests.  For much of the day a priest is available for confessions; the times are posted next to the confessional at the rear of the church.  Photographs are not permitted in the church to maintain an atmosphere of prayer and spiritual retreat.  

Both male and female guests participate in the daily time for manual labor.  After, the monks generally offer a light snack for the laborers of homemade lemonade and homemade chocolate.  There are no fixed prices to stay at the abbey as a guest.  Individual free-will offerings can be made in the porter's office in the gift shop.  There are three gift shops.  One sells books and other religious items.  Another sells pottery and another sells food made by various monasteries across France, including fresh bread, organic eggs, wine, soap, shampoo, and more.  

Join in the conversation on our Facebook page.