Poitiers is a lovely city in the northwestern Poitou-Charentes region of France. It is famous—among other things—as a highly favored setting of the formidable queen Eleanor of Aquitaine (also called Aliénor de Poitiers). A queen of Aquitaine in her own right, Eleanor was wife to two kings and mother of three more; her other seven children, including Marie de Champagne (see the page on Courtly Love), were either queens, dukes, duchesses, counts, or countesses. Sophie, as a diligent student of French history, was surely well aware of her existence!
Located along the Clain River, Poitiers today boasts Eleanor’s magnificent palace (above), an elegant cathedral (below), and other fine examples of Romanesque and Gothic architecture.
It is also the location of a beautiful 17th-century monastery, built for a group of Feuillantine monks (reformed Cistercians) who were patronized by King Louis XIII. It is here that Sophie was called in 1806 to establish her third school. During the Revolution, the monastery had been emptied of its residents and contents, and most of the interior was seriously damaged. Two women were attempting to run a boarding school for girls when Sophie arrived, but it was failing, and they were on the point of ceding it to the bishop for use as a seminary.
In the chapter entitled “Les Feuillants,” Sophie arrives in the midst of a rainstorm after a harrowing trip from Grenoble. This is the door through which she actually first entered the building and was met by Lydia Chobelet.
Here at Les Feuillants, Sophie developed her ideas for training novices, and her year here was one that she always looked back on fondly as her “Manresa”—a reference to the place where Ignatius de Loyola developed his ideas for forming Jesuit priests.
In the novel, we are privy to several moments in which Sophie is engaged in shaping the young women who have come to her. A favorite spot for her to sit with her protégées was under a walnut tree that still stands in the garden that faces the Clain River.
One can almost hear the laughter—and the shared stories of the young women, many of whom had endured unspeakable loss and hardship during the Revolution.
Today the monastery is the site of the French archives for the Society of the Sacred Heart. The building is no longer a school but a dormitory for students studying in Poitiers and a retirement home retired religious.
I imagine Sophie here in the shadow of Eleanor, enjoying her time away from “the world”–but well aware of the extraordinary power that a talented woman can wield when she has the opportunity and means . . .
At one point in this chapter (“Honeymoon in Manresa”), she is greeted after a short absence by a chorus of nuns singing the Te Deum. For more information on this chant, go to the Chants page and click the link for the Te Deum. (I could not find a women’s choir singing it on youtube, but there is one available on iTunes, performed by Appassionata. http://itunes.apple.com/au/album/very-best-gregorian-chant/id292710547)