Joanna Moorhead travels to France to meet a community of sisters whose monastery is unique in the Catholic Church, anywhere in the world and at any time in history.
On a wooded hillside in central France, on the edge of one of the Loire Valley’s prettiest market towns, there’s a monastery unique in the Catholic Church. There’s never been anywhere like it, anywhere in the world or at any time in history.
There are ten nuns in the community of the Little Sisters Disciples of the Lamb; and eight of them have Down’s Syndrome. They’re aged between 20 and 60; they live as any other religious community, although the Rule they follow has been adapted to accommodate their needs, and unlike most monasteries in Western Europe, they have a waiting list of would-be sisters wanting to join them.
My visit is on a sunny weekday; I walk up a steep lane towards the modern-looking house where they’re based – if it wasn’t for the large chapel (of which more later), it wouldn’t be recognisable as a religious house. Within a few seconds of ringing the doorbell, the community’s reverend mother, Mère Line, is ushering me into their parlour, with its wooden high-backed chairs and gentle views over the valley.
With her is Sister Florence, the only other non-Down’s nun at the monastery; it was the sisters’ rest time, Mère Line explained, so they were both available. We are joined by a friend of the community who can translate; like me, she is fascinated by the story of how such an unusual convent came into being.
Its existence is down to two women: one is Mère Line, whose family originally came from this area of France, Le Blanc; and the other is the first of the sisters, Véronique. Mère Line moved to Paris as a young woman to study psychology, and then worked for 20 years for a Church organisation, caring for disabled people.
Her work took her to other parts of France, and in 1984 she met a woman called Véronique who explained that she felt called to be a nun, but could find no community to accommodate her as she had Down’s Syndrome. ‘I said to her, we have to do something,’ says Mère Line. ‘I realised I had known many religious communities, but had never known one which included people with learning difficulties. And I thought, why can’t people with learning difficulties follow the religious life? God can call them, just as He can call any of us.’
Mère Line was aware that she, too, had a vocation to the religious life – and meeting Véronique clarified her own future. The two women moved into a small house to begin living as sisters. ‘We had nothing – just the contents of our suitcases,’ she tells me. ‘But we knew we could do this. We believed in God: we had trust, we had faith.’
Within five years, through word of mouth, another two women with Down’s Syndrome had asked to join the small community and been admitted. ‘At this point, I went to see the Bishop of Tours to ask him to recognise us as an association,’ says Mère Line. ‘But he said he couldn’t do that. There would need to be a request to Rome, because there was nothing in the rules of the Church that recognised that people with a mental handicap might have a religious vocation.’
The turning-point came in 1995, when Pope John Paul II published his encyclical Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life), in which he writes about how every human being has the right to live out his or her vocation. This, Mère Line realised, was the opening she and the other sisters had been hoping for; she went to see a different prelate, and got his support. In 1999, the community was recognised as a religious institute by the Bishop of Bourges, Mgr Plateau; 12 years later, its statues were officially recognised, giving it the status of a religious order.
In the meantime, the community had outgrown the small house where it had been based, and had moved to the town of Le Blanc. Support came from many quarters, including the monks of the nearby Abbey of Fongombault; and Mère Line was able to raise funds to build the new monastery and chapel. The small church is truly stunning; when we’ve finished chatting Mère Line takes me to see it. Its stand-out feature is a series of huge glass windows behind the altar, which makes it feel as though it’s part of the forest that surrounds it; there’s a real sense of being at one with nature.
The garden, says Mère Line, is a big part of community life; and especially fascinating is its apothecary plot, where medicinal herbs are planted and used to make a series of herb teas that will soon be on sale in the small on-site shop the sisters are planning to open. As well as psychology, Mère Line has studied herbalism. The preparations created by the community today, she tells me, follow the recipes of St Hildegard of Bingen, who was an expert on the healing properties of plants and who stressed, as Mere Line does, the need for harmony between body, mind and spirit.
In addition to the teas and herbs, the shop stocks pottery and scarves made by the sisters – there’s a pottery workshop and a weaving shed on site, Mère Line explains. ‘We follow the Rule of St Benedict here, though we’ve adapted it to take account of the needs of the sisters with Downs Syndrome,’ explains Mère Line. ‘We can’t live the life of a Benedictine or Carmelite – it would be too difficult for the sisters.’
Right now Mère Line and Soeur Florence are wearing their weekday habit, a long, blue denim dress with a brown scapular over the top, and a white veil. For Sundays, the dress under the scapular is white; and it was in their white robes that three of the Downs Syndrome sisters, and Mère Line, met Pope Francis in Rome in 2017. For Mère Line, it must have felt like the culmination of all she’d fought for, in terms of getting her community recognised. ‘When the Pope met us he had a huge smile on his face, and that told us everything we needed to know,’ she says. ‘We were in Rome for a big conference on disability, and one of our sisters addressed the gathering.’ Her testimony made a big difference to the cause; when they heard her speaking, from the heart, many of her listeners understood what it meant for people with learning disabilities also to have a vocation to the religious life.
The community in Le Blanc, says Mère Line, functions very much like an ordinary family. ‘That’s at the heart of everything we do. We behave as a family; we work together, we pray together. We decide on issues that affect our community together – all the sisters contribute their ideas and suggestions. It’s not about me telling them what to do – I learn from them, all the time.’
The monastery day begins at 7.30am when the sisters get up, have breakfast and go to the chapel for Lauds; next they pray the Rosary together and then it’s work time. ‘Some sisters prepare the lunch, which is our main meal, others do the gardening,’ explains Mère Line. ‘One of our sisters makes bread freshly every day, which is wonderful for all of us.’ After lunch there’s some private time before afternoon work, when the nuns do their pottery or weaving. Vespers is at 6pm, followed by recreation; the nuns enjoy playing card games and singing, says Mère Line – one of the sisters plays the flute, and another plays the organ. The day is rounded off with Compline in the chapel, after which it’s bedtime at 9pm.
There’s a palpable sense of peace and love in the community, and it doesn’t seem surprising that there’s a waiting list of young women wanting to join as novices. But how do the community gauge whether an applicant has a true vocation to the religious life? ‘It’s not difficult,’ says Mère Line. ‘The litmus test is as for anyone in a monastery or convent: if a person is happy and finds self-fulfilment here, it’s what God intended for them. We’re just like any religious community, we’re living out our faith. So the nuns here aren’t just being looked after – it’s not difficult to tell whether they belong here or not.’
Soeur Florence, who is in her twenties, joined the community five years ago after hearing about the sudden and tragic death of one of the Le Blanc nuns, Soeur Rose-Claire, who was just 26 when she died suddenly. ‘She wasn’t a Down sister,’ says Soeur Florence. ‘Her death was a big blow for the community. When I heard about it, I knew this was where God wanted me. I already knew I had a religious calling, and now I knew it would be here.’
Today, she says, she’s happier than she could have imagined. ‘I feel so privileged to be here, and to know the sisters,’ she says. ‘They help me to know God better, every day. It’s a very happy life here.’
Mère Line says the same. ‘At a time in the world when handicapped people sometimes seem not to be wanted, I think our life shows that’s a big error, a big mistake. We all have so much to learn from people with learning difficulties – they live out what it is to be a Christian in a very real and natural way. Everything is simple: there’s no jealousy, no hidden feelings.’
‘The sisters here might have difficulties, but they have the intelligence of the heart, the intelligence of love, in bucketloads. They bring so much love to the world – and that’s the most important thing any of us can bring.’