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The business of religion in France

Business seems to be booming for the abbeys and monasteries in France. Brexit, the Covid-19 pandemic and an economic crisis don’t appear to have slowed down revenue for these entrepreneurs at all. Whilst we tend to think of these religious buildings solely as peaceful places of worship with magnificent architecture, they are also thriving businesses which have survived not just decades, but centuries. In the current economy, when so many local and global businesses are fighting for survival, how do these abbeys and monasteries continue to stay afloat? What is their secret?

For many of these religious institutions, the answer is simple… diversity and evolution. The Abbaye Saint-Martin de Ligugé, which dates back to the 4th century, is a shining example of such diversity. As one source of revenue, this beautiful abbey offers lodgings where you can enjoy a spiritual retreat. Every year, over 4,000 visitors spend time relaxing here in the tranquil countryside just south of Poitiers (Vienne), whilst embracing their spirituality.

Other income comes from its charming boutique of books and artisanal products, and sales of enamelled goods made by the monks here and sold throughout France. Not forgetting its pâtisserie, Scofa – a simple, yet mouth-wateringly delicious, almond cake. The initials of the five ingredients in this cake form its name (Sucre, Crême, Oeufs, Farine, Amandes) and it’s sold at the abbey, as well as in local shops and large supermarkets throughout the Nouvelle-Aquitaine region.

The monks didn’t sit idly during the pandemic, choosing to use their time productively instead. Frère Christophe of Abbaye Saint-Martin de Ligugé explains, “There was a drop in sales of Scofas, our tasty cake, but we took advantage of producing less pâtisserie to ramp up our production of enamelled goods. We increased our stocks and now they’re selling well today.”

Long known as astute businessmen and women, the religious communities in France seem to know how to adapt to changing times to continue to attract visitors and bring revenue to their sites. Most of the abbeys and monasteries here have some form of boutique in their grounds to promote sales and increase revenue, and during the Covid-19 crisis, a large majority of these turned to internet sales when they were forced to close their physical shops during lockdown.

Frère Christophe emphasises the importance of evolution. “During the Covid period, the abbey was closed, so we sold our boutique items online and we developed our website for this purpose,” he states, adding that it functioned very well.

The Abbaye Notre Dame de Bonne-Espérance (Abbaye d’Echourgnac) in Dordogne also evolved during this period. This magnificent Cistercian abbey, dating back to the 19th century, has diverse sources of revenue: cheese production, spiritual retreats, pottery manufacturing and an artisanal production of herbal teas, sweets and jam, amongst other things. Soeur Nathalie explains that for this abbey too, evolution has been paramount to surviving. “The change in economic conditions led us to adapting our work. In September 2020, our community partnered with the Dumont family who now manage our cheese production in Echourgnac,” she says.

The Abbaye du Barroux in the Vaucluse department already had thriving sales by mail order and internet before the recent pandemic even began. Its boutique showcases everything from books (spiritual and non-religious) and wine to sweets and leather sandals. You can even purchase CDs and DVDs of chants and songs by various religious communities here. A genuine one-stop shop for everything you could possibly want!

Each abbey or monastery has a particular speciality, produced by the site itself, then sold via the network of religious boutiques throughout France to increase revenue. The Abbaye du Barroux (84) is renowned for its olive oil, produced by the monks there; the Trappist nuns at the Abbaye de la Coudre in Laval (53) produce thousands of their famous flan sachets every year; and people flock from all over the south-west region to purchase the delicious cheese made by the sisters at the Abbaye Notre-Dame de Bonne Espérance in Echourgnac (24). This network proves invaluable in promoting a strong community spirit and increasing revenue.

If there is one thing the recent health crisis has taught us, it’s the value of community. Perhaps it is this shift in attitudes which has encouraged people to spend less on factory-produced, imported goods and more on locally produced, traditional products with natural ingredients? A much-needed “return to basics” to remind us all of the important things in life. No longer solely for religious and spiritual people, the abbeys and monasteries in France are now sought after by all those looking to buy locally, regardless of religion.

Frère Christophe explains, “Monastic products bear a monastic label and they always sell well, even though their price is often quite high. They are top-quality items that people love to buy and they’ll continue to buy them even in difficult times. When it’s good, it’s worth it!”

Many abbeys and monasteries in France focus on producing high-quality products using the finest, natural ingredients to justify their price. Remedies and healing treatments using formulas which date back centuries form a large part of their boutique revenue. You can purchase delights such as the “Pilgrim’s Foot Balm” designed to ease the aches and pains from a long day spent on your feet, or the “Lavender relaxation spray” to help you unwind and sleep well after a tough day. Who needs to spend a fortune on designer brands when the enticing aroma and nurturing properties of these natural products are so captivating?

Another highly cherished value adhered to in all the abbeys and monasteries in France is that of a good work ethic. Soeur Nathalie explains that a typical day at the Abbaye d’Echourgnac begins with morning prayers (Vigiles) at 5.15 am and ends with evening prayers (Complies) at 8.30 pm. Typically, this includes between six and seven hours in one of the abbey’s work areas, which include cheese production, pottery making and welcoming guests for the retreats.

Soeur Michelle of Abbaye de la Coudre describes a similar pattern of long days, incorporating prayer time and working hours, with the nuns beginning their day at 4 am and finishing with evening prayers at 8 pm. Abbaye de la Coudre is a stunning, early 19th century abbey in Laval, Mayenne and the community of nuns who reside here divide their work time between cheese production, manufacturing artisanal leather goods and producing their delicious flan mixes. Originally in just six flavours, they have recently added pistachio and salted caramel to the available choices, and Soeur Michelle adds that production continues to evolve here.

It’s hard not to admire the dedication, determination and passionate work ethic in these religious communities. When asked how the abbey has managed to survive the difficult, recent years with a struggling economy and one crisis after another, Soeur Michelle answers pragmatically, “Practically nothing has changed for us. We’ve just had to work more in order to sell more as our customers have fewer means to buy… and we’ve had to find new customers too.”

So, when we are counting our pennies and looking for ways to survive these difficult times, it can’t hurt to take a lesson from the religious orders in France – the key to their success lies in a strong work ethic, diversity and evolution. A winning combination and one which is sure to see these magnificent abbeys and monasteries in France continue to thrive for decades and centuries to come.

Leah Rottier is a freelance writer living in France.

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