Abbey habits that inspired an haute couture legend

Samantha David meets the French-speaking, trumpet-playing, Irish-American nun who watches over the now-uninhabited Corrèze abbey that inspired a young Coco Chanel

23 November 2016
By Samantha David

Such is the glamorous, fast-paced and chic image of designer Coco Chanel, it is probably surprising to learn that much of her creative inspiration came from the six years she spent in an austere orphanage in Aubazine, Corrèze, housed in a Cistercian Abbey run by nuns belonging to the Sacred Heart of Mary.

After her mother's death, when she was 12, Chanel's father left his three daughters at the orphanage, promising to return soon to collect them.  

Life at the orphanage was stark and frugal. There was no running water, no heating, and for Chanel it must have been heartbreaking, waiting for her adored father to reclaim her.

But he never came, and she never heard from him again. She and her two sisters were schooled and taught to sew, and must have been kindly-treated, because Coco Chanel returned to visit the Abbey many times throughout her life.

During her six years there, Chanel learned to love the austere beauty of the Abbey, and was inspired by the severe architectural details.

The design of the Chanel No 5 bottle, for example, is directly linked to the patterns on the stained glass windows at the Abbey.

"Why do you muffle women up in frills when sobriety is so beautiful?" she once asked Christian Dior. And perhaps she also absorbed the nuns' work ethic, herself later becoming known for her tenacity, persistence and ambition in business.

Today, the Abbey is uninhabited; the dormitories where the orphans slept were long ago remodelled into individual cells, and the only two remaining nuns live in a farmhouse in the grounds.

But the beauty of the buildings remains, as does the tranquillity and serenity of the 12th-century Abbey founded by St Etienne.

Up to four times a day, visitors are admitted for a tour guided by Sister Christophora, the sole caretaker of the Convent (the other resident sister is in her 80s). Her story is even more extraordinary than Coco Chanel's.

Her mother was Irish, her father German and she was born on a ship sailing to America. "Because we were closer to the States than to Europe, I was given American nationality," she explained, but in her heart she feels more Irish.

She grew up in Boston and joined a Catholic order of nuns at a young age. "I was sure," she said. "I knew it was what I wanted."

She spent 15 years in a cloistered order, and then heard about the Abbey of Aubazine, which was by that time occupied by an Eastern Rite order. "As soon as I arrived, I knew it was destiny," she says. "I was meant to be here."

At that time, in 1978, there were still 20 nuns living in the Abbey, but in 1985 they moved out to a farmhouse in the grounds. In 1989, Sister Christophora became Mother Superior, and in 1999 all but three of the sisters converted to the Greek Orthodox church and left.

"Young people don't want to become nuns any more because we're all so old," she said. "And education doesn't teach them to think independently. It would be funny if it wasn't so sad.

“My future is clear, I will spend the rest of my life here, looking after this Abbey alone."

The village of Aubazine is small, with a central square of sand. At one end is the cathedral which contains St Etienne's remains. At the other is the tourist office. Along one side is a tall grey stone wall. Once you step through a small wooden door, you arrive in the Abbey courtyard.

Here, no sound penetrates from the outside world and everything is symbolic. The courtyard garden in quartered, to represent the four elements, the fountain in the centre is the water of life.

Windows are supported by two pillars representing the choice of two paths in life - right and wrong. The architecture is austere, the stonework bare, the original 12th-century stained glass deliberately grey, so as not to distract the monks from their prayers. It's other-worldly, beautiful and tranquil.  

The Abbey belongs to an Eastern Rite Catholic church with its headquarters in Syria. "I'm supposed to ask them before I change anything, or spend anything," said Sister Christophora. "But they're just slightly occupied with other things right now, and it's hard to get touch with them, so I just get on with it."

She deals with everything; guided tours, tourist literature, the small souvenir shop, the sloping stairs, rotting doors, cobwebs and cleaning. She has the help of a part-time gardener, who cultivates an enchanting mix of flowers and vegetables in the central courtyard, but she does everything else herself.

Undaunted by what seems an impossible task, Sister Christophora strides around in the Abbey with huge amounts of energy and good humour, which she says comes from her Irish mother.

"I love this place, and I'm not homesick for the US, just perhaps a little people-sick. I'd love to see my friends and family again, but I don't suppose I ever will."

She insists she is not lonely, though, and says people always send invitations to local events and gatherings.

"I have lots of friends here and a lot of them are homosexual," she comments. "So you see, even as a Catholic nun, I'm not always in agreement with everything the Church says."

She has an open-minded view on abortion, too.

"I always try to answer people's questions," she tells me. "Ask away!"

So I ask what it's like to be a nun, before realising that it's an almost impossible question. But she smiles and nods. "Well, it's a family, a way of life, a vocation. I don't feel isolated. I could turn to communities all over the world. I have an iPad and an email address, so I don't feel cut off from the modern world either, although I am probably less aware of television and popular culture than other people.

“I wear a wedding ring; I feel like a married woman, and as a Mother Superior, I feel that I have daughters. I help and guide them, and give all sorts of people spiritual advice, too."

She's popular with locals, speaks fluent French and is also an accomplished musician. "I play the trumpet, and often play at events in the village," she says with a grin which makes it clear she knows full well that a trumpet-playing nun is unusual.

The Abbey at Aubazine is licensed for weddings and it is possible to camp in the grounds. (www.abbaye.aubazine.com)

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