Perched on a hill with beautiful views over the village of Échourgnac in the Dordogne, is the Notre Dame de Bonne-Espérance abbey where this year a community of nuns have been celebrating their 100th year at the abbey. The nuns are also involved in maturing the Dordogne’s famous Trappe Échourgnac cheese. Fascinated by their story, I went along to speak to Sister Nathalie and Antoine Dumont to find out more.

In 1868 monks settled on this site where, amongst other things, they made bricks from local clay and built three wings of the monastery. They also started a cheese maturation activity. After the monks left in 1910, Cistercian nuns came to settle on the same site in 1923.

Cistercians are a Catholic religious order of monks and nuns. Trappists (hence the name of the cheese) branched off from Cistercians and follow the rule of Saint Benedict.

The nuns at the Notre Dame de Bonne-Espérance abbey worked hard collectively and were self-sufficient producing wicker for baskets and Sorghum for brooms. They tended to their vegetable garden and orchard and had chickens, rabbits, pigs and cows. Following in the steps of the monks, they continued with the cheese activity but in 1983 a fire destroyed everything. Not to be beaten, while they were waiting to reconstruct the cheese building, the nuns moved into making jams and fruit jellies.

Today the Notre Dame de Bonne-Espérance abbey consists of approximately 200 hectares with 7000m2 of vegetable garden, 7000m2 of orchards, a monastery, church, shop, hostel and numerous other buildings used for the cheese and sweets business. The only parts open to the public are a small viewing area of the church and the shop.

Meticulous attention to detail

It’s important to note that the nuns at the Notre Dame de Bonne-Espérance abbey do not make the cheese; their expertise lies in maturing it. They receive the cheese 24 hours after it is made and for 4-10 weeks they carefully and meticulously control the maturation process by hand so that the texture, taste and rind are perfect. The Trappe Échourgnac cheese is aromatic with a strong colour and is a firm favourite of top chefs in France. It is sold all over France and exported to Belgium and Germany. I came across it in a little supermarket in the centre of Eymet. It can be ordered online.

In 1999 the nuns introduced a similar cheese that is matured in nut wine distilled from Périgord-grown walnuts in Sarlat. And in 2011, they started working on maturing a goat’s cheese produced in the Pyrenees.

The church was completely renovated between 2014 and 2016 and is impressive in its simplicity with no stained-glass windows, a lack of paintings and no statues. According to Sister Nathalie, this is the Cistercian style. Visitors are allowed to quietly and respectfully observe the church from a small viewing area that is divided from the sacred area. It is important to note that this is not a monument historique based on the idea of a visite. This site is a sanctuary.

The shop sells jams, fruit jellies (pâte des fruits), honey from their own beehives, dried fruits and herbal teas all produced either by the nuns from their own organic gardens or local producers. These products are only available to buy from the shop and not online.

The hostel acts as a spiritual retreat for those searching for calm. It is a place for reflection and contemplation and welcomes individuals or groups. More information can be found on the website.

From archeology to monastery. Interview with Sister Nathalie

When did you first decide to become a nun and why?

In 2000. I was 32 and working as an archaeologist on an excavation of an abbey. I started to discover and learn about this form of religious life of which I didn’t know a lot. Questions began forming in my mind about the meaning of life and where I was going. And little by little I was drawn to it. I felt a calling to Christ. It seemed to make sense to me and made me happy. For me, entry into the monastic life took eight years.

Can you describe a typical day?

Our day is very structured by prayer time which takes place seven times a day. We also have our work to do, whether manual or intellectual. The cheese side of things is largely managed by employees of a small business although we are very present with our savoir-faire.

What is your favourite moment of the day?

Favourite isn’t the right word to use. The most times are my meetings with Christ.

Do you have any free time and if so, what do you enjoy doing?

Yes, we have free time when I enjoy walking and reading.

What is the biggest challenge for you in being a nun?

That’s a difficult question to answer. What is difficult is not to get exhausted. The demands of others are very, very diverse therefore it’s difficult to decide which oness are the most urgent to deal with straight away and those that can wait. We mustn’t lose sight of the fact that the important point in our lives is our relationship with Christ and we must maintain calm, balance and have our hearts open. If not, we will miss the point. It’s perfectly normal that mankind is always searching for meaning and people see us as having found that and want to know more. But as nuns, we have chosen to separate ourselves from the world and we are happy. But we are constantly being pulled away from this by external demands which are, of course, totally legitimate

With only 22 nuns currently in the monastery, with time you are obviously going to lose some. Do you have a regular number of new nuns joining you?

No, not a lot. Not regularly. In Europe it’s not a brilliant situation and we need to be realistic. God will decide. We intend to carry on doing what we are doing but we understand that we have to evolve and adapt as a community before it is too late and while we still can. I think that the joy that we share will attract others.

Can you explain a little more about the idea of sharing?

When you arrive, you give everything you have to the collective life here. We share everything between us. It’s a choice. We also share with others outside of the monastery. If we have more than we need in life, we share it with others, according to their needs. If someone needs more than the next person, then we share more with them. It’s the rule of Saint Benoit. It’s about respect for the person.

How do you see the future of the monastery?

We set up a temporary museum for the centenary but it’s not that that really interests us. We look forward. So, we are currently studying a project to open a visitor’s centre where we can show what our life is all about today, because life is beautiful.

Interview with Antoine Dumont

In 2020 the nuns entered into a collaboration with the Dumont family who invested in the cheese business and today there is a great partnership between Antoine Dumont and his team and the nuns. “There are around 30 people working in a team here and two-thirds of them are the Sisters,” says Antoine proudly.

Antoine went on to explain the importance for him in ensuring the long-term existence of both the economic side of things as well as the tradition and culture linked to it that has existed for over 150 years. Biodiversity, sustainability and respect for the environment are all very important a the Notre Dame de Bonne-Espérance abbey. “As can also be seen in the buildings,” he says, “we are not just passing through, we are here for the long term.”

Referring to Sister Nathalie’s words on how important the concept of sharing is between not only the nuns but with others too, Antoine explained how the business also takes this on board with 20,000 euros of donations made locally every year. “We have links with the local school and associations so that we can work on projects together,” he says, “and we have one person who works full time on this area of the business”.

A window into the collective life of the Échourgnac nuns

Along with the Sisters, the Dumont family also recognise the importance of looking forward and Antoine enlightened me a little more on the visitor’s centre that Sister Nathalie had mentioned. “We are currently working together on plans to modernise the way in which the public are welcomed,” says Antoine. “People are interested in the lives of the nuns, but visitors are not permitted to enter the cheese factory or the monastery. So, there isn’t much to see when they come here. The nuns are very aware of this and together we want to provide a visitors’ centre, like a museum, that gives an idea of how they live. At the moment the shop plays this role with its 25 min video. With the staff being knowledgeable, it isn’t just a shop, it’s an information point too. We want to improve that.”

Sister Nathalie and Antoine were both a delight to meet. And whether you are religious or not, the nuns’ focus on sharing and respect for others along with Antoine’s ideas for the future are refreshing and a perhaps a lesson to us all. What struck me, as Sister Nathalie and I were chatting on the way back to the shop, was how slowly she was walking. Maybe not slow, but slow for me living in a busy world. Adjusting myself to her pace, I was totally in the moment. Why the rush?

Contact details:

Notre Dame de Bonne-Espérance

Échourgnac en Périgord

24410 Échourgnac

Tel : 05 53 80 82 50

Email :

www.abbaye-echourgnac.org

www.fromageriedelatrappe.com

Shop opening times: July and August Tuesday to Saturday from 10h to 18h, Sunday and Monday from 12h to 18h. For opening times for the rest of the year, visit www.fromageriedelatrappe.com

 

What is WWOOFing?

WWOOF stands for Worldwide Opportunities On Organic Farms. It is a movement to link visitors (WWOOFers) with organic farmers, promote a cultural and educational exchange, and build a global community conscious of ecological farming and sustainability practices. WWOOF started 50 years ago and has grown from a small group in the 1970’s to a worldwide community of hundreds of thousands of people today. The Notre Dame de Bonne-Espérance abbey at Échourgnac supports this movement towards durability and of a respect for the environment. It welcomes groups of three for a two-week period once a month (with some breaks in the calendar).

There are many sites dedicated to WWOOF. Just type in WWOOF.

 

Photo credits and copyright:

  • Aeriel View:© Photographie.Pro
  • Cheese in the cellar:© 2022-LEA-BOEGLIN
  • Cheese with black background:© Nicolas ravinaud- NR PHOTO

The nuns of Echourgnac