Update 4/30/08: The General House of the Order of Discalced Carmelites reports on this "re-ordering" of the chapel at the Lisieux Carmel that the work, though behind schedule, is close to completion. The chapel is scheduled to re-open on May 11. That article and an article from last year credit architect François Pin.
The online French daily La-Croix published an article yesterday titled "La "refondation" du Carmel de Lisieux" (The "Refoundation of the Lisieux Carmel). The article is about recent changes and construction at the Carmelite monastery in Lisieux, France, where St. Thérèse of Lisieux lived in the late 19th century. Without actually translating that fairly detailed article, this post includes some of the information from the article and links to interesting photos related to the work. A website devoted to the Lisieux Carmel, with several photos, can be found here. The old brick building of the cloister can be seen here and here. In contrast, a photo taken at the monastery in 2005, is shown here.
Thérèse died in 1897. After her canonization in 1925, people were reluctant to update the buildings, believing -- wrongly -- that they were in that condition when Thérèse lived there. As a result, even in the 1990's, none of the nuns' cells had running water.
With the centenary of Thérèse's death approaching, the idea of expanding and renovating the monastery began to gain support. The nuns realized that if they did not update the monastery, there would be no new vocations there. Besides that, the Lisieux Carmel is perhaps the most famous, and most visited, monastery in the world. Besides restoring the buildings, which were much deteriorated and out of date, there was a desire to create a greater space for the large number of pilgrims who come to visit.
Step by step, in a process over several years, the monastery was not only given new wings, but really a new "foundation," supported by the Carmelite order beginning in 1999. A second stage, with a renovated chapel and concourse for pilgrims, gained the order's support in 2006. A photo of the chapel, as it was in 2000, can be found here. The gates are presently closed to visitors as the work continues, and will remain closed until near Christmas.
An architect from the Paris area, Dominique Benoist, was chosen for the project. The artist Pierre Buraglio was commissioned to decorate the oratory. The website of Benoist Architectes has a slide show of some of the firm's work, including a picture of new construction at the Lisieux Carmel. The art Blog d'Eric Seydoux has a Pierre Buraglio category with pictures of some of his work (not the Lisieux Carmel). Another website features Buraglio's work for an exposition at the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon in 2004.
The work is still ongoing. The old brick cloister, seen in the pages linked above, is now joined to a comfortable new wing shown on the architect's website also linked above. Pierre Buraglio's work is described by La-Croix as a play on "the pale stone of the ground, the light wood of a large cross behind the rough concrete altar, and golden light produced by the stained glass."
Naturally, so much change was a major event for the affected Carmelite nuns. "We could live in this convent for decades without anything changing, but today the world turns very quickly, and we must adapt", said Sister Marie of the Redemption, 86 years old, quoted in the La-Croix article. She entered here in 1942, and made profession in the hands of Mother Agnes, the older sister of St. Thérèse, who died in 1951! Before Vatican II, Carmelite nuns never left. "Even the dentist was required to come to the carmel!" she said. However, today, the sisters drive cars to run their errands.
To plan the project, eight nuns from different parts of France, and from different Carmelite backgrounds, came together for 9 months at the carmel de Saint-Brieuc (Côtes-d’Armor), described by one of them "as for a birth." They invented from day to day, working out the project. Some were accustomed to a city monastery with a grill, while others were accustomed to an open setting in a forest. At Easter, 2001, they again came together for 3 months at the Carmel in Caen, spending every other day at the Lisieux Carmel. In September, 2001, the 12 nuns at Lisieux and 5 from the original Saint-Brieuc group agreed to merge to form one community at the new Lisieux foundation.
In 2003, they received a new prioress, whose work has included listening to the difficulties faced by the nuns as they endured the unsettling changes. Sister Marie spoke of the Saint-Brieuc group's previous moves from their original homes to Saint-Brieuc and later to Caen as "an experience of poverty, because a Carmelite nun is not accustomed to being uprooted." By 2003, the new prioress said, ""There were sufferings to take into account, because what the sisters had experienced for a year and half had been very shaking." Then, they had to decide how to live in the new buildings. The order encouraged them to completely change the furniture of their cells.
However, once the new installation was completed, to their surprise, 5 new novices came to their door. That carmel had not seen more than 5 novices in the previous 10 years. The present prioress, Sister Dominique, said, "That assures us that God wills it."