Nearly four hundred years ago, between the years 1619 - 1623, the Recollet monks built a small convent and chapel in the ancient French town of Le Blanc.
A reformed branch of the Franciscan order, the Recollet monks established themselves in the sixteenth century. The first of their convents was built in Tarn, France in 1583. It wasn’t until the first half of the 17th-century that they started expanding and grew to 11 ecclesiastical provinces that continued until the French Revolution.
Clothed in their traditional dark brown robes and pointed hoods, the Recollets were characterized by a desire to live in extreme poverty, humility, denial of the physical body and penitence. With their emphasis on "recollection", they dedicated 2-1/2 hours of mental prayer and reflection each day. Preaching and evangelism were also essential parts of their daily lives. They preached a religion based on the love of God rather than the fear of hell. In the early 17th century, a few Recollet monks even traveled with their message of God’s love across the Atlantic Ocean all the way to Canada.
The Recollets’ compassion to the suffering of the world was evident in their dedication to feed the sick and the dying during epidemics of plague. They were beloved because of this.
In 1619, the Recollet monks of Le Blanc chose where to build their convent and chapel very carefully. The site they chose was the highest part of the terrain with a 360 degree view of the countryside, the town and river below. It was next to the major trading routes dating from the gallo-roman times. These roads still exist today. It was located at the periphery of the town so they would be able to evangelize to passers-by and the massiveness of the building and grounds would be easily found to anyone needing assistance.
Their desire to promote a sense of security and their support for armies was also a good indicator as to why the Recollets of Le Blanc chose to build their convent and chapel where they did. It sits directly on top of an ancient gallo-roman garrison! A chateau that was destroyed in the 14th-century during the hundred year war also had built on this same strategic site. The ruins of foundations and building stones from these previous periods most likely provided the monks some of their construction materials.
For over 160 years, the Recollets peacefully existed in their convent and gardens on top of the hill…until 1789, the beginning of the French Revolution.
During French Revolution the monks were expelled. We have no records of exactly what happened to them, and because of all the architectural changes throughout the centuries, we have little evidence of what happened to the building during that time. This was when the convent started undergoing its many changes. During the war, there are records that the convent became a central meeting place for revolutionaries. It also served as a facility that detained over one hundred Polish prisoners of war, again we do not know exactly where they were held, but they were held here for about one year.
In 1792, the old convent and grounds were purchased by a wealthy bourgeois family. The adjoining chapel remained public property. The family repaired the damages from the war and made major modifications. The 5-acre grounds were completely enclosed with a 9-12 foot high stone wall. 17 fireplaces, formal gardens, tree-lined allees, grand stairways in oak and stone, a horse barn that would make any horse whinny with delight, wells, a creek and prayer chapel all were part of the chateau-like upgrades.
Since this first private owner, it remained a residence to a few other families, enduring good and not so good makeovers, until the last 40 years when it fell into complete neglect. The property, considered a vital piece of France's history even in its decrepit state, went up for sale in 2009.
In 2010, Patrice and I became its new proud owners. We were thrilled that after centuries of alterations, use and abuse, the soul of the old French convent was still intact! Immediately we started the delicate process of restoration and conservation - but to what? Do we protect and restore the changes from the18th-century or do we demolish and try to recreate the 17th-century convent? Do we dig and research architecture and relics from the 14th-century chateau, or even a millennium further back to the gallo-roman times?
We spent years studying, planning, demolishing and removing countless tons of debris of centuries-old “bad additions”. We made discoveries and solved some mysteries. After a few false moves of our own, we concluded that restoring the convent back to its original state would be impossible. The changes through the centuries, mostly the changes from the first private owner from the 18th century were too intertwined, and those changes also play a vital part in its history.
Proceeding with as much historical correctness as possible, with integrity, honesty of materials and methods and making sure to verify and confer with historians of the region, we are selecting the most historically significant elements to be saved and featured.
We understand that our work, being good or bad, will endure for centuries to come. We need to be mindful every step of the way and know that in order to do this restoration right, it will take years.
The 17th-century church of the Recollets, now Eglise Saint Etienne
Read about the Region of Le Blanc, France.
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