The abbey of Senanque is founded the 9th of the Calends of July 1148 (23th of June) by Cistercian monks from Mazan in Ardeche. Our Lady of Senanque is the fourth Cistercian abbey founded in Provence, after Le Thoronet, Aiguebelle and Silvacane.
The abbey belongs to a powerful monastic order, hold by the aura of Saint Bernard.
At the foundation of Senanque, the Cistercians count more than 350 monasteries all over Europe. Based on a solid organization, they develop a specific architectural style, immediately recognizable.
Plan de l’Abbaye – Etat reconstitué du Moyen-Age
(MAP, Paris, Charenton)
At Senanque, the community takes possession of a narrow valley of 1 kilometer long and 300 meters wide, but the location perfectly corresponds with the instructions of the Cistercian order which specify than monasteries cannot be built in the towns, the villages and the rural houses (chapter 9 of the Summa Cartae Caritatis).
Saint Benedict asks that the monastery possesses all the necessary things: water, mill, garden, bakery, and the various occupations in order that monks don’t have to go outside, which is not beneficial for their souls.
The valley of Senanque presents all the materials needed for the construction as stone and wood. It’s isolated, with cultivable lands, pastures and especially, a river: the Senancole.
During the XIIth century, the climate, fresh and rainy, was different than nowadays: the river Senancole was enough for the needs of the founding monks. Witnesses of that ancient strength, some remains are still visible at several places of the valley.
The name of the abbey can be linked to this providential river: sana aqua (pure water). According to the Summa Cartae Caritatis, each new foundation has to count twelve monks and one abbot, but it’s seems that it was not the case in Senanque. Only six religious including the first abbot Pierre are mentioned : the abbot, three monks and two lay brothers.
In 1220, the construction of the abbey ends, after 60 years of work.
Crosse de l’Abbaye du 12ème siècle.
Retrouvée à la Révolution dans l’église abbatiale
The golden age of the abbey
Thanks to the numerous donations of the Agoult Simiane family from Gordes and the lords of Venasque, the abbey prospers quickly. The grateful monks of Senanque accept to bury Geoffrey from Venasque in the church. His funerary monument is still visible in the East transept.
The lands, the power and the influence of the abbey grow during the XIIIth and the XIVth centuries. This is its peak. The abbey owns four mills, seven granges, a hospital in Arles, several houses in l’Isle sur la Sorgue, Cavaillon, Carpentras, Marseille, a farm in Maussane and a hospice in Pernes les Fontaines where you can find a road with the name of Senanque. From the Mount Ventoux to Sisteron, the flocks of the abbey can graze.
Example of the richness of the abbey : the day before Christmas, the abbey collects 8 kilograms of pepper and cinnamon in the town of Buis les Baronnies and 4 kilograms of spices in the port of Marseille. Then the community counts around 40 brothers.
The situation of the abbey deteriorates at the beginning of the XVth century: during a period of discord and violence, the properties of the abbey can’t be conserved, the revenues decrease and the vocations reduce. Only three brothers stay in Senanque in 1439.
Dom Berenger Borgarelli, abbot designated in 1444, describe a catastrophic situation: monastery in ruins, destroyed buildings and revenues at the lowest because of the wars which devastate the area.
Presages of the wars of religion, in 1544, an armed group of 25 waldensian from Cabrières rises up and attacks Senanque. The south part of the monastery is burnt. The refectory, the fountain in the cloister and the building for the lay brothers are destroyed, the archives lost. Twelve monks would have been hung. Meanwhile in Provence, plague spreads.
In 1781, when the last monk of Senanque dies, Dom Dreux, prior of Thoronet abbey, is named as administrator but doesn’t live in the abbey. In May 1790, he welcomes the revolutionaries who make the inventory of the property.
The 24th of September 1792, the abbey is sold as national property for 28 000 francs. In order to protect Senanque, the new owner takes care to remove every “too religious” detail in that disordered period : he takes the cross at the top of the church and the 3 bells off, he degrades the coat of arms from the south part.
Inventaire de l’Abbaye 17 Mai 1790 (AD Vaucluse, 2 Q 13)
Père Jean Léonard
At the beginning of the XIXth century, crazy ideas are suggested concerning the destiny of Senanque : from the destruction to sell the stones to the transformation in factory…
In 1854, a community of monks moves in Senanque. The 29th of April 1857, Mr de Pluvinal, private owner of the abbey, sells the buildings to the community, represented by its abbot Dom Barnouin. This one starts important works of restauration. New parts are built : for the noviciate above the river Senancole, for workshops in the south part and a last one to welcome guests in front of the church. Thanks to the numerous vocations, the community extends to 72 brothers.
During that same period, Jean Leonard (1815-1895), ordained priest in 1839 in Nîmes, then professor of mathematics at the minor seminary of Beaucaire, enters at the abbey of Senanque and becomes the master of novices. He is appreciated of the others monks for his literary and scientific knowledge, his intense and radiant devotion. He spreads a true family spirit, consolidated by the prayers. He becomes abbot of the abbey of Fontfroide which is truly seen as a place of charity and hospitality. The words and the writings of Jean Leonard influence personalities like Saint Therese of the Child Jesus, Dom Chautard and Saint Antoine Marie Claret. His beatification process is in progress.
However, the 5th of November 1880, the police evicts the monks because of the new lay against the religious congregations : most of the monks move to the abbeys of Fontfroide or Lérins. Three brothers are allowed to stay in Senanque on condition of abandoning orders.
In 1882, the abbey is sell again as public property for 15 000 francs.
In 1889, the monks come back at the abbey without contestation of the owner. At the beginning of the XXth century, authorities react against that installation : the community is evicted in 1903. During the period of abandonment, the monastery is open to everybody : as testimony, we can see, still nowadays, graffitis on several walls.
The abbey is sold the 27th of June 1905 to an annuitant of Cavaillon who gives the responsibility to a farmer. The 17th of March 1921, the State orders the classification as Historical Monument, concerning the oldest part of the buildings.
In May 1926, a dozen of monks moves to Senanque. The monastery is bought again : Our Lady of Senanque is now priory of the abbey of Lérins.
(c) Alain Cassaigne
(c) Corinne Brisbois
In March 1969, the five last monks of Senanque are not able to handle the heavy burden of the abbey : they move to their mother-house of Lérins.
The abbot of Lérins decides to rent momentarily the buildings to a privet owner who promises to restore it during an emphyteutic lease. At the end of the contract, the place will be returned to the Cistercian monks. The 24th of October 1969, a lease of 30 years is signed with the Berliet Company, which starts a several campaigns of restauration. This agreement is encouraged by the Minister of Culture, André Malraux, who is determined to save monuments in danger.
At the beginning of the 1980s, the monastic community of Lérins is enough developed to plan to expand in Italy (Pra’d’Mill) et think to return to Senanque. The emphyteutic lease is not finished but, with generosity, Paul Berliet gives the abbey back to the brothers. The 26th of November 1988, a community of Cistercian monks came from Lérins moves again to Senanque.
The community follows the rule of Saint Benedict and lives thanks to the work of the brothers. Cultivation of the lavender, olive grove, production of honey, visits of the abbey, hospitality and monastic shop permit the monks to live and especially to maintain and restore the monument.