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Secret history of French villages - April 2019

The ancient monastery that turned into a village: a look at the long religious history of the tiny Loire commune that was born shortly after the Revolution

Sainte-Croix-en-Jarez, Loire, is the only village in France which was once a monastery and was turned into a place to live for lay people after the Revolution.

Many of the old ecclesiastical buildings are now lived in by the village’s inhabitants, but there are also parts of the monastery which have been restored and can be visited by tourists, including the church, refectory, cloister and kitchen.

The monastery was founded at Sainte-Croix-en-Jarez in 1280 and remained an active monastery with around 30 monks for more than 500 years.

The community lived in the same way that Chartreuse monks in existing monasteries do today, with both Fathers and Brothers living lives of prayer and contemplation.

The Fathers are priests who have taken holy orders and spend most of their time alone in their cells.

The Brothers, in addition to the contemplative life, attend to the basic work necessary for the monastery.

The layout of the buildings still reflects the organisation of the monastery with two courtyards at each end, one was for the Fathers, La Cour des Pères, and the other for the Brothers, La Cour des Frères, and where you can now find the village Mairie.

Unlike some of the bigger communities, this one did not produce any goods such as the famous Chatreuse liqueur to be sold to the outside world. It was a silent, private place of prayer.

This world was shattered by the Revolution when all monasteries became the property of the state and were often put up for sale.

Sainte-Croix-en-Jarez (chartreuse-saintecroixenjarez.com) was large with several buildings and unlike most monasteries which were bought by one private owner, this one was divided up into several lots and bought by a number of different families who decided to live there.

One family in the village can trace its ancestors back to the post-Revolution purchase.

There are now 60 people living in the old monastery buildings and the commune totals a population of 130, including outlying hamlets. It has been listed as one of the Plus Beaux Villages de France (Most Beautiful Villages) since 1982.

Myriam Mathevet, a guide who gives tours in both French and English, says the change from silent retreat to lively village was a complete transformation: “It is now a dynamic, lively place with its own school in one of the Chartreuse buildings.

Tourists love to visit it and the villagers are very proud of their unusual history and created the Association de Sauvegarde in 1977 to raise enough money to ensure the restoration of the ancient buildings and to put on cultural events.”

Over a period of 40 years the association, with the help of public money, has renovated the Cour des Frères, the cloisters, the church, the hermitage and uncovered and cleaned the church’s 14th century paintings.

In 1981, the association managed to get a 20-year loan to buy the ancient kitchen and its 8.2metre fireplace to prevent it being sold across the Atlantic. To raise money it has, for many years, organised annual events such as son-et-lumière (sound and light) shows as well as a music festival.

Tourists can wander round the monastery-turned-village but can only see the cloisters, kitchens, church and hermitage by taking part in a guided visit.

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