‘Francis Village’ offers an experience of human and ecological communion
The ‘Village du François’ is a project located in the south of France in a former Trappist abbey which brings together people from very diverse social backgrounds in a spirit of fraternity and with respect for the integral ecology advocated by the Pope.
Cyprien Viet – Vatican City
Notre-Dame-du-Désert Abbey, south of Toulouse, belonged to Trappist monks for more than 160 years until October 2020. It is now home to the first families involved in a project that aims to bring help people in difficult situations. with housing and a chance to find a job.
The founder of the projector, Étienne Villemain, had previously launched a shared accommodation initiative, created by the Association pour l’Amitié (Association pour l’Amitié) and the Lazare network, where people living in the street can live in a hostel instead, with young professionals or students. This model has spread to several cities in France, but also to other countries. Pope Francis has received groups of “roommates” from the Lazarus network on several occasions, notably in August 2021 during a pilgrimage to Rome organized to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Association.
The genesis of Francis Village follows the logic of inclusion inspired by the Gospel. “I started from 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” loners “, is saddened to admit Étienne Villemain.Obviously, a lot of organizations do extraordinary things and nobody wants to criticize them, but there is still a problem: we support people in the street in one way, migrants in another, and then the elderly. , people who prostitute themselves … It creates a kind of stigma, so if I am a man of the street, I will only end up with people of the street; if i am a disabled person i will only end up with disabled people“.
This frustration led to the idea of ”create a village where we are all poor, with our own wounds, with our frailties …. There are people who have been released from prison or who have experienced prostitution, disability, there may be elderly people , it doesn’t matter: let’s try to live together. The idea of Francis Village means that we take all of the “poor” that the gospel speaks of and we take the “classic” families – father, mother and children – and we try to share our lives. “
A warm relationship with the Trappist monks
By 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 middle of the 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 magnificent site, to the great satisfaction of the monks themselves, happy to see a Christian community continue to support their life. abbey.
Étienne Villemain fondly remembers the day the monks left, 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 amazed, moved at the idea of succeeding this monastic community! They are extraordinary, these little monks“, says Étienne with great tenderness. The last eight monks 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 his gratitude for the great generosity and loyalty of the monks, who went through the transition until the handing over of the keys. “The day before the monks leave, says Étienne Villemain,a tree fell and broke a sign indicating the Abbey of Santa Maria del Deserto … Before leaving, the monks had the sign repaired. They continued to take care of everything until the end. At first they didn’t know we were coming, but they continued to run the place as if they knew there would be that continuity. They did everything, years of work and prayer, and we came to reap the benefits … We have a lot of gratitude to these monks!“
A viable economic model
Just as the monks had their own model of economic management, notably through the production and sale of honey, for Étienne Villemain his model is not utopian 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 people on the streets are a burden on society, but we believe that they can create wealth. This is why we try to set up economic activities, such as a beekeeping business, a hotel business, we try to set up an integration activity with an association called “À la bonne ferme”, which develops permaculture gardens: with all that about 30 jobs are being created. We are planning to develop a breeding farm for laying hens, a cosmetics production activity, etc. Each project is different from the other, ”he enthusiastically shares.
This approach responds to the encouragement of Pope Francis, who constantly reminds us that everything is linked and that respect for the environment and respect for the human person are inseparable. “We want to take care of the common home, integral ecology and life from start to finish: this is why we welcome pregnant women in difficulty and the elderly who could end their days at the Francis Village., continues Étienne.
The objective of taking care of the environment obviously implies “rethink 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 experience something very simple», Adds Étienne Villemain.
A prophetic approach
This approach requires a profound transformation of ways of thinking. The Village François, fully supported and accompanied by the local Church, perhaps bears a prophetic witness to what Christianity is called to be: a place of sharing, of communion between brothers and sisters from different backgrounds, with a welcome in love with fragile and vulnerable people …
“When you give a feast, do not seek the rich but the poor, the crippled, the lame, and you will see that your joy will be great in heaven. It’s a promise of the gospel and that’s what we try to live out at Francis Village: welcoming the crippled and the lame – after all, we’re all a little lame – and trying to be loving, despite our clumsiness. .“For Étienne Villemain, the inevitable difficulties that may arise, particularly in terms of relationships and finances, should not discourage the people involved in this experience from living together. “Of course, there may be times when we get angry, but we try to do our best“.
This pilot experiment currently consists of six families, and people from different backgrounds will be gradually welcomed as the premises become available. It marks a challenge for all Christians, but also for society as a whole. He concludes : “There is a realization that our world can no longer continue as it has done for centuries, without worrying about nature, without worrying about the poor … There is a real awareness and a lot of people are aware of this. Step by step, what was impossible becomes possible and will allow marginalized people to lead a fraternal life but also a life of prayer, to live together, then also to lead a Christian life where they will draw on a fraternal life but also a life of prayer: something that will give meaning to their life.“
All the information on this ecological and human adventure can be found on the levillagedefrancois.com website. The documentary co-produced by KTO and Grand Angle can be viewed in its entirety on YouTube: https://youtu.be/7XGXbYVqpvo