Port-Royal-des-Champs

From Vincentian Encyclopedia

Port-Royal-des-Champs

The ancient Cistercian monastery for women at Port Royal near Chevreuse had, by the seventeenth century, become very lax. Angélique Arnauld (1591-1661), daughter of a powerful noble family, becaem abbess at age eleven. She acceded, since the abbey was something of a family responsibility and she could earn a living as abbess. Following an illness, she began to take religious life seriously --- very seriously. One of the results of her reforming sprit was that novices flocked to Port Royal, despite its damp and otherwise unhealthy location. She also attracted Jean Duvergier de Hauranne (1581-1643), better known from his title as the abbé of Saint Cyran. He was a leader of the Jansenist movement, emphasising religious conversion in a somewhat Calvinist fashion, austerity, detachment from pleasure, admission of total personal corruption.

As the monastery grew, expansion became necessary. For this reason, in 1625 Mother Angélique led all her nuns to a new house in Paris, also called Port Royal, near the Val de Grâce. Her reforming personality, joined with the power of her family and pushed by Saint Cyran, led to an ever-increasing populrity of the Jansenist movement. One of her brothers, Antoine (1612-1694), returned to the country location and attracted other men of like temperment. They lived on the hill above the old abbey in refurbished barns. One of their works was primary education. They became known as the "Solitaries" of Port Royal. A group of nuns from the city house who wanted to reume living at the abandoned abbey joned them 1648.

The theologians of Port Royal found in the work of Jansenius, late bishop of Ypres, a good statement of their convictions. Gradually, Vincent became involved. He had been a friend of Saint Cyran's and continued to visit him (probably at Port Royal in the city). Vincent eventually found himself as one of the leaders of the opposition against the Jansenist movement and prompted multiple papal condemnations. Louis VIV, as a loyal son of the Church, also became involved. He finally forbade the nuns to receive novices, dispersed the Solitaries and, when the nuns were mostly aged, had them removed and leveled their old monastery.

Today the privately owned ruins of the old abbey may be visited. Only two original buildings are left: the tithe barn and the pigeon coop. A small memorial chapel (1891) has been erected on the site of the old abbey church. The "canal" or narrow waterway used by the nuns remains, as does their outdoor recreation area, tucked into a fold of the rocks along a creek. They read, sang, prayed, and conversed here.

To reach the residence of the Solitaries from the abbey, the traditional route follows the Hundred Steps cut into the hillside. The school that the Solitaries built in 1651-1652 has been turned into a museum. Many of the rooms are maintained as they were originally. Intriguingly, not a single reference to Vincent's work is to be found among the museum exhibits. It appears that the saint visited here at least once in 1653. His purpose was to try to pursade the Solitaries to submit to the papal condemnation. He was not successful. Louise also visited, in 1649, concerning one of her relatives, a nun of this abbey. (Route D9, near Chevreuse).