The millennium celebration of St. Nicholas Abbey

The Good Shepherd Congregation has a twofold reason to celebrate.  This year is the 165th anniversary of St. Mary Euphrasia’s purchase of St. Nicholas Abbey.  We are also in the midst of preparing for the millennium celebration of the Abbey.  The remembrance of these two historic events invites us to revisit the beautiful pages of the congregation’s history and to have a foretaste of the coming celebration in August 2020.

 

St. Nicholas Abbey, founded in 1020 by Foulques III or Foulques Nerra, Count of Anjou, housed a monastery of Benedictine monks until the French Revolution.  The monks were expelled in 1791 when the national government seized the abbey.  Having been declared the property of the department, the abbey served different purposes:  military hospital, barracks, jail, etc.  The abbey was abandoned in the early 1850s and the owners of Royal Manufacturers of Sailcloth of Angers, Mr. Joubert and Mr. Bonnaire, attempted to buy it.  The department finally decided to sell the abbey and put it up for auction on August 21, 1854 for one hundred thousand francs.  Subsequently, the Congregation of our Lady of Charity of the Good Shepherd of Angers acquired the abbey on November 30, 1854 for one hundred six thousand francs.

 

Nazareth, a farm located two kilometers from the Mother House, was transformed into an agricultural colony in 1852 to accommodate young prisoners from various French prisons.  An increasing number of young girls came and Nazareth quickly became insufficient to welcome them.  It is said that St. Mary Euphrasia saw St. Nicholas Abbey from her office window and knew the property was up for sale.  She was hesitant to purchase the abbey because of its deplorable condition and the prohibitive cost.  Mr. Vallon, Prefect of Maine-et-Loire, encouraged and reassured her, saying, “Buy, Madam!  God will pay!” 

 

In spite of the expenditure of the earlier acquisition of Nazareth in 1846, significant endowments and the unfailing support of benefactors made possible the purchase of St. Nicholas Abbey.  Furthermore, the dowries of Sister Marie of St. Therese de Jacoby (Dutch) and Sister Marie of St. Peter de Coudenhove (Austrian) contributed greatly to the acquisition of the abbey.

 

The Mother House was filled with tension on November 30, 1854.  The Annals tell us:  "In the choir of the nuns, on all the altars within the cloisters and in front of all the statues of the saints, our venerated Mother Mary of St. Euphrasia had candles placed and lit. The community observed the silence of a retreat day.  All our sisters prayed as they went about their work because the city of Angers was selling the Abbey of St. Nicholas on that day and our worthy Mother so desired to buy it…. What joy we felt when we were told in the evening, “St. Nicholas is ours!”

Cover page of the specifications for the sale of the abbey by the department

 

After the joy of the acquisition, the sisters quickly set to work to make the house habitable. That required an enormous amount of labor!  The foundress expressed it in her February 20, 1855 letter to Sister Marie of the Divine Heart Lionet, then superior of Avignon:  "Today this beautiful abbey is covered with ice, crosses, and tears; it swims in a sea of abandonment.  It is not a silver cross.  Our kind prefect said, "Buy, oh, buy, God will pay for it.”  Already we see the truth of this promise.  But these crosses, these pursuits, these persecutions consume lives!  Finally, God will resurrect this beautiful work.” 

 

The photo reveals the state of the abbey in the winter of 1854:

 

 

 

"When we took possession of St. Nicholas Abbey, it was in a state of neglect so difficult to describe. The stained glass windows were broken, the slabs and  the tiles had disappeared entirely under a layer of dirt, dust slept on the sculptures; the gardens produced only brambles and were the lair of snakes, the vast courtyards were filled with stones and rubble. In short, there was an air of desolation. The coat of arms on the pediment of the main building became visible when the Good Shepherd had the façade restored in 1869.  It was necessary to use the city archives to decipher these coats of arms” (Annals of the Mother House, Volume 4, p. 450).  A few lay sisters began the extensive clearing project with twelve novices helping them every day for more than six months.

 

 

 

"We courageously set to work all winter long.  Some of our sisters, equipped with provisions to last until the evening, would go out in the morning before it became broad daylight (the tunnel did not yet exist) to clear the land and repair the interior of the building.  The laborers were responsible for major repairs only.  The work was immense, frightening!  No matter what, our tireless sisters continued their work with admirable dedication under the impetus given to them by our beloved Mother Foundress.  How happy they were to return every evening to tell her about their successes of the day, and how this good Mother enjoyed and encouraged them!  She often went to the abbey to examine the work for which she was in charge” (Annals of the Mother House, Volume 4, p. 451).

The main works were carried out in the courtyard of the former cloister.  It was filled several meters high with stones and rubble from what remained of the abbey church in 1793.  The sisters uncovered large stone steps as well as the access door to the former refectory (the current chapel). Human remains were later discovered.

 

"Then we discovered the gothic  windows all around the cloister and in the courtyard as well as the glazed 13th century tiles which paved the cloister. These tiles are in the museum of our Mother House; there are also some in the Angers museum.” (Annals of the Mother House, volume 4, p. 451).

 

 

The tiles that were in the Mother House have been lost, but some remain in the collections of the Angers museums.  The work carried out on the site of the church made it possible to find some tombs and liturgical objects used by the monks.

 

 

"Excavations along the western wall of the church revealed a tufa or tuff (a variety of limestone) vault in which were two superposed bodies.  At the top of the large nave and near the south wall there was a remarkable ornate ring and below it was a crozier. These two medieval copper objects  were placed in the museum of our Mother House. Many bodies were found in the excavations indicated on the location of the large nave”  (Annals of the Mother House, Volume 4, p. 452).

 

"Towards the end of the walkway and the adjoining chapel, two tombs were discovered. One of them was a double-width vault made of tuff and painted yellow. The body was found with its ornaments whose colors were still shining in the sun's rays.  However, everything crumbled and turned to dust when touched.  One of the skeletons that were discovered still had a priest's cape.  When the tombs were excavated, our pious Mother Foundress had Masses offered for the repose of the souls of those good religious.

 

Our sisters also found in the excavations a pair of clay cruets, very old medals, coins or medals representing a boat with characters that had become unreadable.  Subsequently, the community gathered all the bones that had been discovered and placed them in a single tomb towards the wall.  They installed fencing around the ancient tombs and mounted an iron cross in the middle of the small cemetery.  They also placed a statue of St. Benedict in a niche” (Annals of the Mother House, volume 4, p. 452).

 

One can imagine the delight of the sisters at the sight of these precious objects.  Unfortunately, they have disappeared.  The small cemetery still exists; it remains well maintained, covered with lilies of the valley.  The work continued for many months, thanks to the hard work of the sisters.

 

 

"Usefulness of the acquisition of St. Nicholas - Continuation of the work

The property of St. Nicholas was a great help for the Mother House.  Several essential works were carried on there and the number of staff increased.  At the end of the year, forty nuns were sleeping in the abbey.  Our dedicated sisters continued the work of clearing the land, with the help of several women prisoners.  We repeat: the work was unbelievable!  Those who come after us will never know what dedication it took to put everything in order so that the fields could produce a good yield”  (Annals of the Mother House, Volume 5, p. 27).

 

Once these first works had been undertaken, the abbey was now in a position to accommodate the work for which it had been purchased.  The first four women prisoners arrived at the abbey on May 9, 1855.  There were fourteen in July, forty in October, and sixty-five in December.  However, there was no way to connect the Mother House and the abbey.  This posed a problem for life in the monastic enclosure.  An intuition of Mother Mary of St. Euphrasia Pelletier was key to establishing a connection by digging a tunnel.  An architect came up with a suitable design by proposing a route under the Imperial Road Number 23, known today as Rue St. Jacques.

 

 

We read in the Annals of the Mother House, Volume 5, p. 21:

"But the good Lord was on our side; our good Mother Mary of St. Euphrasia was truly beneficent.  The respect and appreciation of the  civil authorities (the Mayor of Angers and Mr. Vallon, Prefect of the Department) won for her what they would have refused to do for anyone else.  The authorizations were obtained in April-May 1855.”  The annals continue: "The workers set to work at the end of May. They dug under the Imperial Road, creating an opening through the rock.  The work progressed quickly.”

 

 

On August 25, the tunnel was clear enough to allow passage.  This entry described the significant event:

 

 

"At noon on Sunday, August 26, 1855, all the staff of the Mother House, professed sisters, novices, and postulants moved towards the tunnel. The sky was blue and the sun burned brightly.  Soon we entered the underground vault.  Lanterns  lighted our way and we walked carefully because the ground was uneven.  Exiting the tunnel, we climbed up the hill between its two formidable ramparts, through piles of stones and a clutter of materials. We were still climbing, and for the first time the beautiful façade of St. Nicholas came into view!”  (Annals of the Mother House, Volume 5, p. 21-22).

 

 

Exit of the tunnel on the abbey side (postcard)

 

Saint Mary Euphrasia had a great desire to revive the abbey as a place of worship. The former monks' refectory was a natural choice for a chapel. It must be said that during the Revolution, it was already used for clandestine religious ceremonies. A report by citizen Morry, government commissioner, to General Girarfon, commander of the department on February 20, 1800 states: "In eight private houses, ministers of the Catholic faith celebrate their mysteries... There are more or less numerous gatherings. The one that takes place in the refectory of St. Nicholas is considerable.  Nevertheless, public tranquility is in no way disturbed.”

 

Thus, two days after the blessing of the property, the lamp of the Blessed Sacrament was rekindled:

 

 

 

 

"For our Mother, it was another day of even greater consolation. She wanted to rekindle the lamp of the Blessed Sacrament in the Abbey of St. Nicholas.  To do so, she converted the monks' refectory into a chapel. The ecclesiastical authorization was granted to her and, on August 28, feast of Saint Augustine, Father Joubert, vicar general, blessed the new chapel.  A small wooden altar was the only ornament.

According to the intention of our pious Foundress, it was placed under the patronage of the Immaculate Conception. This ceremony took place in the presence of our venerable Mother General and the entire community who had come back to the Abbey of St. Nicholas.

 

After this first ceremony, the honorable Father Joubert went to bless the tunnel, preceded by the cross and candles carried by the altar boys.  The next day, August 29, 1855, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass was offered for the first time in the chapel of the Abbey of St. Nicholas.  Father Alexandre Leroyer, honorary canon of the Angers Cathedral, celebrated this first Mass” (The Annals of the Mother House, Volume 5, p. 23).

 

A few words about the Empire style altar donated by Monsieur de Neuville need to be said.  Saint Mary Euphrasia had it taken to Saint Nicholas on April 27, 1857 before the repair of the Mother House's outer chapel started.  The Romanesque design of the interior of the Mother House chapel could not be harmonized with the Empire style altar which had occupied the center of the choir since 1833.  The foundress said, "When the altar is removed, I will leave; it would be too painful for me to think that it was Monsieur de Neuville who gave it!....  That remembrance tortures me.”

 

 

 

The chapel of St. Nicholas — formerly, the monks' refectory (glass plate, c. 1910)

Since then, many Masses have been celebrated at the abbey during ordinary time as well as for special occasions, such as Corpus Christi processions, the feast of St. Nicholas, ceremonies for the centenary of the foundation in 1954, and many others.

 

 

Procession from the Mother House to the tunnel exit (photo, undated)

 

Those who lived there bear witness that despite the material difficulties, there was a beautiful community life, a great spirit of unity and sisterly affection.  Many sisters and young girls were welcomed and passed through the abbey, in the sections of St. Euphrasia or St. Germaine.  This beautiful building, classified as a historic monument in 1955, was not easy to adapt for educational work.  Nevertheless we did our best to enhance the environment and designed cubicles for the dormitories.  The nearby Parc de la Garenne provided a pleasant place for recreation and games.

 

In 1970, the educational sections of St. Nicholas were closed and the last sisters of the community left during September and October 1971. Between October 1973 and 1999, the Association of Our Lady of Lourdes, a social center for youth, occupied the western wing known as “The Park,” formerly, St. Euphrasia section.  The other part was completely restored in 1975 to accommodate the religious staff of the newly closed House of Orleans.  

 

In August 1976, the “elders,” fifty-two sisters and seven elderly residents settled at the abbey. It was then decided that the first Mass would be celebrated on August 29.  The sisters realized that the lamp of the Blessed Sacrament would be rekindled 121 years to the day after the ceremony presided over by Saint Mary Euphrasia.  What a happy coincidence!  After the departure of the community in 2008, the lamp in the sanctuary was lit again in 2010 for the association, Mission Langues, a place of welcome for missionaries from all over the world who come to learn French.

 

St. Nicholas Abbey still shines in 2019, witnessing to the history and faith of past centuries!