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The history of the Couvent de la Salette

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A vast building located at the gates of Millau, at the intersection between the Gorges du Tarn and the Dourbie River, the Couvent de la Salette was constructed in the late 19th century, from November 1895 to June 1896, to accommodate missionary sisters from Notre-Dame d’Afrique during their postulancy in France. Sober, in keeping with its function, and elegant, with semi-circular arch windows punctuating the façade, the building adjoins the Chapelle Notre-Dame, which was promoted to become a convent.

The chapel - erected in 1873 after a few Millau inhabitants visited the Sanctuary of Notre-Dame de la Salette, in the department of Isère - was constructed at the request of Millau locals. The congregation of missionary sisters known as the Sœurs Blanches [White Sisters] was established by Cardinal Lavigerie in 1869, then approved by Rome in 1887. Its mission was to evangelise the lands of Africa.

For seven years, the convent housed young postulants who went there to pursue their vocation, pray and meditate, before leaving a few months later for another noviciate. The ceremonies marking their “departure” from the Millau postulancy house were moving and followed closely by Millau parishioners.

It was thus that over the months, the lives of the Sœurs Blanches would blend in with Millau’s festive occasions when the faithful made pilgrimages to the Chapelle de la Salette – for example on 19 September, the anniversary of the Virgin’s apparition, or throughout the month of May, dedicated to Mary, or else on the feast days of the Virgin, particularly on 2 July, marking the Visitation. The presence of the sisters was relatively short. They left the premises in 1903, even before the congregation was dissolved in accordance with the policy made by French statesman Émile Combes.

The premises were then acquired by an artillery officer from Paris, Monsieur Grandin de l’Éprevier, who in 1935 dedicated a biography to Mother Marie Salomé, the congregation’s first Superior General in 1882. The parish priest of the Sacré-Cœur in Millau rented the chapel and the neighbouring land. In 1907, Grandin de l’Éprevier and his wife sold the premises to Madame Durand, the sister of Monseigneur Montéty, Archbishop of Béryte, born in Compeyre, a village near Millau.

Madame Durand went on to sell the building to Monsieur and Madame Bruno Perris, lovers of beautiful residences. The couple strived to preserve the building by respecting its antique features. They then made a gift of the building to their daughter Stéphanie, who decided to leave the Paris region where she was working as a cultural journalist, to carry out renovations. After twelve months of works, the Salette today welcomes visitors wishing to stay in this history-laden place, unique for both its origins and its architecture.

The Sœurs Blanches

The congregation of the Missionary Sisters of Notre-Dame d’Afrique was established in 1869 in Algeria. It shares the same founder as that of the Pères Blancs [White Fathers]: Cardinal Charles Lavigerie, Archbishop of Algiers, who envisioned Algeria as an “open door to a continent of 200 million souls”. The instructions that he gave to these two missionary institutes continue to apply today: learning the language of the people welcoming them (“I desire that, […] six months at the latest after their arrival at the mission, all missionaries speak between themselves exclusively in the language of the tribes among whom they reside”), living like the locals in terms of food, housing, clothing.

Charles Lavigerie dressed his missionaries in the white habits of Algerian inhabitants, which earned them their nicknames, “White Fathers” and “White Sisters”. The archbishop founded the congregation of sisters in 1869 to ensure the subsistence and supervision of young orphans in Africa. Eight young women from Brittany would answer the call, before being joined by other postulants from France and Belgium.

A few years later, Cardinal Charles Lavigerie deemed the project a failure, despite the sisters’ commitment and devotion, as many of them lacked the necessary skills to fulfill their task. He decided to close the noviciate. Mother Marie-Salomé, however, chose to continue her mission, and would play a decisive role in the congregation’s future. She would be appointed as the congregation’s first Superior General in 1882.

On 2 April 1887, the congregation obtained its Decretum laudis (or Decree of Worship) whereby the Holy See approved the institute’s existence and granted it power to exercise its apostleship throughout the Church (the Universal Church). Mother Marie-Salomé would open, in France and other countries, postulancy houses where the missionary vocations of young women could be tested before they left for Africa. The postulancy house at Millau is one of them, and welcomed its first five sisters on 1st September 1896.

Source: Georges Girard

The chapel

The chapel of Notre-Dame de la Salette was built by Millau inhabitants in honour of the Virgin who appeared, in the department of Isère in the Alps region on 19 September 1846, to two children: Maximin Giraud and Mélanie Calvet Mathieu. A lush site at the feet of the Puncho d’Agast was chosen to recall the Alps where the “Weeping Virgin” was sighted. The chapel building was constructed between 1872 and 1873, on land close to a confluence of the Tarn and the Dourbie, in the form of a Latin cross and graced with a bell tower. The little chapel would later become, thanks to the efforts of Cardinal Bourret, the Bishop of Rodez, the centre of a new initiative in Aveyron: an incubator for young missionary sisters destined to serve the needs of Africa.

These missions, launched in 1869 by Cardinal Lavigerie, included a training period in France, comprising a primary stage in a postulancy house. It was thus that a postulancy house opened at La Salette. The Chapelle de la Salette, upon its promotion to become the chapel of the Convent of the Sœurs Blanches, was endowed with a few new decorations, namely a stained-glass rose window, on which the arms of Cardinal Lavigerie can be distinguished.

Source: Marc Parguel

Stéphanie Perris
     One woman’s story

You’d think she came straight out of a medieval tale… Sitting on the front steps of the Couvent de la Salette, Stéphanie Perris is a daughter of the Causses Noirs, this region of France where hospitality is accentuated by the enchantment of magical spots. A child of this land, Stéphanie – not yet fifty years old – seems to have lived several lives. A medieval scholar and a former student of the École du Louvre, she developed a strong taste for art history early on. As a journalist with a passion for news on the art market, she is also a woman of her times, attentive to the latest trends. After twenty or so years as head editor of the international pages of La Gazette Drouot, the young woman embarked on a more personal path. She left behind her life in Paris and the buzz of the news world to devote herself to a new passion: a disused convent dating from the end of the 19th century, handed down to her by her father Bruno, where she had spent part of her childhood. A return to her roots, undertaken by her as a wonderful new family adventure. It is thus in Millau, at the heart of the Aveyron region, that Stéphanie today patiently applies the lessons learned in galleries and museums, as well as from her uncle, a great Parisian fashion designer: a piece of work is always a fragment of time… paired with a spark of talent. After writing on the art world and frequenting eminent collectors, this woman of taste therefore recently finished restoring this 1,000m2 building. Rare objects and curiosities, a spirit of pure elegance… The convent’s identity is a reflection of Stéphanie, mineral and playful. Her first-rate listening skills, which helped her to become a top-notch interviewer, now enable her to welcome guests with all the finesse that this former convent demands. With her two children, Emma and Hugo, she applies herself to bringing to life the spirit of the place, as it was once transmitted to her - that is, with affection and warmth. International experience and local anchorage… Add to this mix that distinctive smile indicative of women of character. Behold the alchemy, just like in a medieval tale, but revisited…

Gilles Picard

Photo: Victor Guilloteau, Midi Libre