The Abbey of Notre-Dame-du-Désert, south of Toulouse, belonged to Trappist monks for more than 160 years until October 2020. Today it is home to the first families involved in a project that aims to offer help to people in difficult situations with housing and a chance to find employment.
Projector founder, Étienne Villemain, had already launched previously a shared accommodation initiative, created by the Association pour l’Amitié (Association for Friendship) and the Lazare network, whereby people living on the streets can live in a home instead, together with young professionals or students. This model has spread to several cities in France, and also to other countries. Pope Francis has received groups of “flatmates” from the Lazare network on several occasions, most notably in August 2021 during a pilgrimage to Rome organised to celebrate the Association’s tenth anniversary.
The genesis of Francis Village follows the logic of inclusion inspired by the Gospel. “I started off with an important observation: we know that in France we have one of the best social systems in the world, yet it generates so much poverty, so many ‘lonely’ people,” Étienne Villemain is saddened to admit. “Obviously, many organisations are doing extraordinary things and no one wants to criticise them, but there is still a problem: we support people on the street in one way, migrants in another, and then the elderly, people who are in prostitution… It creates a sort of stigma, so if I am a street person, I will only find myself with street people; if I am a disabled person, I will only find myself with people who have a disability“.
This frustration led to the idea of “creating a village where we are all poor, with our own injuries, with our frailties…. There are people who have been released from prison or who have experienced prostitution, disability, maybe there are elderly people, it doesn’t matter: let’s try to live together. The idea of the Francis Village means that we take all the ‘poor’ of whom the Gospel speaks and we take the ‘classic’ families – father, mother and children – and we try to share our lives.”
A warm relationship with the Trappist monks
While looking for other places, the first project found its development around the abbey of Notre-Dame-du-Désert in the diocese of Toulouse. Trappist monks had resided there since the mid-19th century, but were now leaving. A substantial reduction in the sale price of the abbey and a generous contribution from an American donor made it possible to acquire this splendid site, to the great satisfaction of the monks themselves, happy to see a Christian community continue to keep their abbey alive.
Étienne Villemain recalls with emotion the day of the monks’ departure, on the eve of the Feast of Saint Francis in October 2020, and sees Francis Village in respectful and affectionate continuity with the monks who had lived there until 2020.
“We were very stunned, moved at the thought of succeeding this monastic community! They are extraordinary, these little monks,” says Étienne with great tenderness. The last eight monks have moved to different monasteries, one even went to Ecuador. But the links with the current occupants of the abbey remain deep. ‘We pray for them, they pray for us, it is a beautiful communion and also a beautiful fruitfulness‘.
Etienne expresses gratitude for the great generosity and loyalty of the monks, who went through the transition up to the handing over of the keys. “The day before the monks’ departure,” says Étienne Villemain, “a tree fell and broke a sign pointing to the Abbey of Santa Maria del Deserto…. Before they left, the monks had the sign repaired. They continued to take care of everything until the end. At the beginning, they didn’t know we were coming, but they continued to manage the place as if they knew there would be this continuity. They did it all, years of work and prayer, and we came to reap the fruits… We have a great deal of gratitude towards these monks!”
A viable economic model
Just as the monks had their own model of economic management, specifically through the production and sale of honey, for Étienne Villemain his is not a utopia but certainly realistic from an economic point of view. Indeed, the Francis Village will be a place of economic activity to create jobs and give a new chance to people in precarious situations.
“Very often, too often, people think that street people are a burden on society, but we believe that they can create wealth. That’s why we’re trying to set up economic activities, such as a beekeeping business, a hotel business, we’re trying to set up an integration activity with an association called ‘À la bonne ferme’ (The Good Farm), which develops permaculture gardens: with all this we’re creating about thirty jobs. We are planning to develop a breeding farm for laying hens, a cosmetics production activity, etc. Each project is different from the other, ” he shares enthusiastically.
This approach responds to the encouragement of Pope Francis, who constantly reminds us that everything is connected and that respect for the environment and respect for the human person are inseparable. “We want to take care of the common home, of integral ecology and of life from beginning to end: this is why we welcome pregnant mothers in difficulty and elderly people who may be ending their days in the Francis Village,” Etienne continues.
The objective of taking care of the environment obviously implies “rethinking the heating system, water management, short circuits and our means of transport. We want to create a complete ecosystem. Keeping Laudato si’ and Fratelli tutti in mind, we are trying to live something very simple“, Étienne Villemain further explains.
A prophetic approach
This approach requires a profound transformation in ways of thinking. The Francis Village, fully supported and accompanied by the local Church, perhaps bears prophetic witness to what Christianity is called to be: a place of sharing, of communion between brothers and sisters of different backgrounds, with a loving welcome those who are fragile and vulnerable…
“When you give a feast, do not go looking for the rich but for the poor, the crippled, the lame, and you will see that your joy will be great in heaven. This is a promise from the Gospel and this is what we try to live out at Francis Village: welcoming the crippled and lame – after all, we all are a bit lame – and trying to be loving, despite our clumsiness.” For Étienne Villemain, the inevitable difficulties that can arise, especially in terms of relationships and finances, should not discourage the people involved in this experience from living together. “Of course, it may happen that we upset each other, but we try to do the best we can“.
This pilot experiment currently consists of six families, and people from different backgrounds will gradually be welcomed as the premises become available. It marks a challenge for all Christians, but also for society as a whole. He concludes: “There is an awareness that our world can no longer continue as it has done for centuries, not caring about nature, not caring about the poor…. There is a real awareness and many people are conscious of this. Step by step, what was impossible is becoming possible and will enable people who were on the margins to lead a fraternal life but also a life of prayer, to live together, and then also to lead a Christian life in which they can draw on a fraternal life but also a life of prayer: something that will give meaning to their lives.”
All the information on this ecological and human adventure can be found on the website levillagedefrancois.com. The documentary co-produced by KTO and Grand Angle can be viewed in its entirety on YouTube: https://youtu.be/7XGXbYVqpvo.
With thanks to Cyprien Viet and Vatican News, where this article originally appeared.