Hidden In A French Valley
ANCIENT CHRISTIAN WORSHIP: The Abbey of Solesmes stands above the valley of the Sarthe River, midway between Le Mans and Angers. St. Thuribus, in the fifth century, organized Christian worship here in the Gallo-Roman villa de Solesmis. The Abbey was founded in 1010, half a century before the Normans invaded England and all was peaceful in the lovely valley of Solesmes for the next three hundred years.
In 1375 Solesmes experienced the first sufferings of the Hundred Years War – as the English occupied and then destroyed the abbey 50 years later. The abbey underwent a rebirth around 1425, with a rebuilding of property structures, the Church roof vaulting, the bell tower, the north and south transept, cloister, library, and sacristy following the work initiatives of Jean Bouglar through about 1556. The monks enjoyed a cloistered life during this Renaissance time, as the surrounding population of Solesmes benefited from holy preaching.
ABBOT BANISHED: In the Concordat of Boulogne 1516, the monastery was deprived of a superior general, and life for the monks deteriorated into chaos. The King of France disposed of the priory, leaving the monks essentially leaderless and under secular power. The Congregation of St Maurus in 1618 helped preside over the reform of the Benedictine monasteries, including Solesmes.
In 1790, the French Revolutionaries outlawed religious vows. The monks of Solesmes were ordered to leave. Actually, only one left; three were then arrested, and the other three went into hiding. Officially the monastery was sold, but actually, no new owners came forward. The monastery was left abandoned, but the villagers rescued a prized relic, a thorn from the Crown of Thorns, which was hidden from the authorities for generations and returned to the monks in 1850.
A New Beginning
It was 1833, and Solesmes Abbey had long been abandoned and left in ruins. A young secular priest, Prosper Guéranger, a bishop’s secretary in Paris, learned that disaster was looming — Solesmes was slated to be destroyed for lack of a buyer.
With his bishop’s approval and God’s grace, Guéranger collected enough money to rent the property, and moved in with three friends on July 11, 1833. He received a canonical dispensation to become a Benedictine monk, and soon had many French and English benefactors for this fledging community.
In 1837, Dom Gueranger went to Rome to ask for official recognition of the priory. Rome granted him instead recognition as an abbey, making Solesmes the head of the new Benedictine Congregation de France. On July 26, Dom Guéranger made his solemn profession in the presence of the Abbot of St. Paul Outside the Walls in Rome.
Over the years, daughterhouses have been founded from Solesmes, in many cases old monasteries being restored: Ligugé (1853), Silos in Spain (1880), Glanfeuil (1892), and Fontanelle (1893); also new foundations at Marseilles(1865), Farnborough in England and Wisque (1895), Paris (1893), and Kergonan (1897). In the 20th century, sixteen more houses were founded.
Catholics the world over today consider Dom Gueranger to be the grandfather of the modern Liturgical Movement. Gregorian chant (‘plainchant’ in England) became a primary focus of Solesmes, as Dom Gueranger and his monks sought to restore the beauty and integrity of this ancient music. At first they used old choir books, but found the music lacking, so Gueranger began to study chant. Soon, others from outside Solesmes were seeking his advice, and he eventually assigned further study to the young monks Jausions and Pothier. These two men became the 19th century’s experts in chant, traveling widely to carefully copy ancient chant collected in the libraries of Europe. These were brought to Solesmes for study and analysis.
Solesmes Abbey became a central collection point for these old manuscripts, and eventually the Vatican recognized the great work of the monks. In 1904, Pope Pius X entrusted to the monks of Solesmes the work of preparing an official Vatican edition of the Church’s chant, and appointed a Commission with Dom Pothier as its president.
Abbaye de Saint Cecile de Solesmes
The Abbey of St Cecile was founded by Dom Gueranger in 1866 as a woman’s Benedictine counterpart, located not far from St Peter’s Abbey of Solesmes. The foundress and abbess was Jenny Bruyere, a young woman whom Dom Gueranger had helped prepare for first Communion. The Abbey of St Cecile has also worked toward the study of Gregorian chant, and has seven daughter houses under it, including the Benedictines of St Cecilia’s Abbey on the Isle of Wight.
Solesmes in the Center of the Storm
Incredibly, since its restoration in 1833, this peaceful monastery has been dissolved by the French government no less than four times. In 1880, 1882, and 1883 the monks were ejected by force; each time, the Catholic laity protected and supported them.
In 1903 the Solesmes monks were forced to leave the country, as were all religious of France. The monks and nuns established themselves on the Island of Wight, and built a new monastery there. A friend of the community purchased Solesmes in hopes that the monks would return; in the event they did return to Solesmes in 1922.
Two decades later, three monks of Solesmes died in battle during the Nazi occupation, and many more monks were imprisoned. Only a few older or incapacitated monks were left in the monastery; the rest found ways to fight the occupiers.
At the end of the war, many monks returned from Nazi prison camps to return to the life they knew, worshiping Our Lord. Vocations increased after the war, and life returned to peaceful solitude.
The Abbey of St Peter’s of Solesmes Today
Dom Guéranger, who resuscitated Benedictine life at Solesmes, liked to refer to the Church as a ‘society of divine praise.’ In his view, each monastery is a reduced image of the Church of God and it privileges this aspect of adoration and praise. The Rule of Saint Benedict draws attention to this point when it says that nothing ought to be preferred to the work of God, that is, to liturgical prayer. Little by little, under the guidance of Dom Guéranger and his successors, the tradition of Solesmes has organized things in such a way so that this priority of the liturgy might shine forth. It is the dominant characteristic of their life, to such an extent that everywhere in the Christian world Solesmes and the liturgy are identified as one thing.
Solesmes is known for its work in Gregorian Chant, sensitive restoration of melodies, scholarly research, publication of liturgical books for the Church, and recordings of much of the repertoire of the liturgy. Their publishing house continues in multiple languages, and their work can be purchased through their website.
Today, the Solesmes monks continue following the Rule of St Benedict.
“God seeks man and in turn man must seek God. We do nothing else in the monastic life.”
————Dom Delatte, third Abbott of Solesmes 1890-1921)
Solesmes websites below: