An aristocratic week end in the Sarthe and the Mayenne

parisdiaArchitecture, Flowers and gardens, Happy moments14 Comments

The interior of Basilique Notre Dame d’Evron

A friend of mine, Sabine de La Rochefoucauld, invited me to the ordination of her son Bernard, a thirty three year old graduate of the ESCP business school and a handsome boy. For the last two months, I was utterly excited to be able to witness this “wedding with God”, which such few men undertake nowadays. And so I planned a little trip around this major event which took place in the Benedictine basilica of Evron, a few miles from Laval. I started with the visit of Château du Lude, where I used to attend the sound and light shows (son et lumière) with my mother when I was little and I booked a very nice room at Château d’Hauterive, formerly home of the Montalembert, in Argentré. As the bishop, Nicolas Thevenin, who performed the ordination mentioned, “God blessed our day”, because the weather was sunny and cool and the whole ceremony was a fascinating moment of joy, emotion and reflection. A much needed serenity in today’s world.

The gardens of Le Lude were designed by Edouard André at the end of the XIXth century along Le Loire

To get to le Lude was a three hour drive from Paris from which I escaped with great joy. There, a charming little town awaited me with the large castle in the center. Built in the Middle Ages as a fortress over the Loir (not to be mixed with La Loire), it has kept its late defensive towers, but was embellished during the Renaissance by Italian artists with sculpted medallions on the façade and paintings in the lovely “studiolo”. Henri IV and Louis XIII visited the castle in the 16 th and 17 th century. In the XVIII th century, it was bought by a shipowner from Saint Malo who had a Chinese wife and restored the house and created terraces. In the XIX th century, the Talhouëts turned it into a very comfortable house. Today, it belongs to Barbara and Louis Jean de Nicolay, senator of la Sarthe since 2014, and the superb grounds have been planted with Chinese roses and new essences of trees and transformed into a botanical garden by Augustin d’Ursel, Barbara’s brother. Barbara also created La Fête des Jardiniers, which celebrated its 30 th anniversary this June, and instilled her passion for botanics in every corner of the gardens.

The interior staircase is stunning

I enjoyed the long walk into the woods and the stroll through the maze and Chinese rose garden in front of the house. The vegetable garden is not accessible but you can see it is huge and well furbished. Inside the house, you are welcome by a very smiling lady and you can wander around the living rooms and huge galerie Renaissance recreated in the XIX th century. The large chimney was copied on Blois castle’s, the walls are covered in gold leafs and the amazing ornamental doors at both ends of the gallery make it a remarkable room.

The doors made of gilt lace are superb

I loved going up the stone stairs and visiting each one of the bedrooms and linen rooms with the old bells for the servants. You can also go down to the kitchen through a tiny exterior stone staircase. There is a definite “Downton Abbey” atmosphere in the house. In the green drawing room a painting of the Honnorez sisters  by Winterhalter, and in the blue room, a portrait of Countess de la Riboisière (1794-1851), daughter of one of the owners, who financed the hospital near gare du Nord in Paris. The library, the chapel, the studiolo, entirely painted in 1560 with scenes from “The triumphs” by Petraraque, are genuinely beautiful..

The studiolo was painted in 1560

Back to the focus of the week end, the ordination of Bernard de La Rochefoucauld, son of Duc and Duchesse d’Estissac, with eight other boys at Evron. I arrived very early for the 10 a m ceremony because I knew we were going to be at least a thousand. Only the family could walk into the basilica and a very charming boy, whom I tried to convince to let me in anyway, said, “don’t worry you’ll see everything much better on the screen than if you were sitting behind a pilar”. And he was right. I walked into the chapel amid strange earthy smells of onion (which we ate later with other vegetable and cold cuts on the lawn) and sat in front of the screen next a man who had travelled with twenty parishioners from Dijon, to assist their future priest on this important day. The atmosphere was electrical and the mix of friends who attended the ceremony was fascinating.

The apostolic nuncio in Cairo, Bishop Nicolas Thevenin consecrating Don Bernard

Among the future priests was one German, Lukas Klinger, who is going to Châlons sur Saône. Another one will go to Font Romeu in the Pyrénées and another to Limoges, Porto-Vecchio, Chateau-Thierry and Sarcelles. Bernard is returning to Agen where he spent a year as a deacon. I met the priest he will be assisting, who looked just a few years older, and was ecstatic about his training year. The parishioners had brought wonderful prunes dipped in chocolate, the specialty of this southern town. The service lasted three hours with a series of blessings and dressing up, readings and speeches. It was extroardinarily moving and yet very simple and natural. The 130 priests from the community surrounded the altar and each came to impose their hands on  the ordained men after Bishop Nicolas Thevenin, apostolic nuncio in Cairo ointed each young man and held their hands. He recited the litanies of the saints and performed other rituals. The length (3 hours) of the ceremony and the repetition of the holy words, had a very soothing effect on the public who was both moved and mesmerized. Each new priest will join a community of three who live together in a presbytery.

The nine future priest lie down for at least ten minutes

The ceremony was also a precise ballet of priests and seminarists, lavishly dressed with incense and songs in Latin, French and German. The orderly (almost military) organization, the smoothness of it all, were very reassuring and comforting for all these parents who saw their son leave their family. I personally loved the idea that they would still be alive when I die and might be able to celebrate my funeral! I must say when we all exited the chapel and met with hundreds of very cute men carrying beers and ice tea to the tables set in the garden, it was a very exciting vision!

The seminary of Evron is run by the order of St Martin founded in 1976, recognized by the Pope in 2000, which moved to its present location in 2014

At lunch after the ceremony, everyone mixed in a friendly way, children played a mini football and the joy was communicative. The parishioners had driven from all around France and felt they were part of an exceptional moment and so did I. The beauty of  the seminary and its French rose garden helped of course. What I will remember from this day is the constant smile on the newly ordained priests and the intelligence of the various speeches.  There was a mix of strong tradition and the modernity of the youth. Some of the priests were only 26 and 27 while the eldest was 40.

The next day, after celebrating his first mass, Don Bernard with Louise, his sister and Sabine, his mother

This very emotional day was followed by a series of first masses. At the congregation last Sunday, and in Paris at Saint Philippe du Roule on Monday. Next Sunday, if you are in Agen, Don Bernard will celebrate his first mass at 10.30 in the cathedral.

I spent the night at the very pretty château de Hauterive where writer Hugues de Montalembert was born. It has been entirely refurbished and has a beautiful rose garden and  pretty and comfortable bedrooms. Sadly the owners did’t bother to open the shutters of the living room and forgot to put roses in my bedroom! The grounds are beautiful with horses and sheep grazing. And the three bedrooms I visited are pretty. (214€ a night in Argentré)

Château de Hauterive is a beautiful overnight bed and breakfast near Laval

You can buy the book on the Lude published by Flammarion and written by Barbara and Christiane de Nicolay.

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14 Comments on “An aristocratic week end in the Sarthe and the Mayenne”

  1. Merci Laure pour ce récit de cette cérémonie si émouvante, et très belle aussi d’après ta description. Un peu de grâce dans un monde tourmenté.

  2. Thank you for this beautiful story. I was entranced not only by the event (the ordination) but the thrilling and very engrossing story you shared with us. All of us who read your posts are very grateful.

  3. Laure : the way you share your gratitude, as well as knowledge, for the wonderful experiences you are fortunate to have is very moving.

  4. Les Très Riches Heures de …Laure de Gramont! What a rich and varied tapestry of French life for those of us from across the pond.
    Thank you, Laure!

  5. A marvelous and moving account of a remarkable trip and extraordinary ceremony. It almost made me want to rejoin the Catholic Church although I am still waiting for them to ordain women!
    Laure, your connection to the family, and return to Hugues’ roots was the perfect framework for this unforgettable account. The pictures taken by you are fabulous as well.
    Abbracci Siciliani,

  6. Génial ! Une lettre survitaminée, passionnante et variée. De l’ordination émouvante du fils de Sabine en Mayenne aux femmes résistantes… Un grand merci pour cette lecture que j’attends avec bonheur chaque semaine

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