French Nuns and Climate Activists Square Off Over Plans for a Megachurch

When climate activists protesting the building of a huge church complex in a natural park in the South of France scaled the construction site, the nuns gave chase.

One sister grabbed an environmentalist climbing an excavator but lost her grip and fell rolling into a pit. Two other nuns tried to hold down a protester, who shook loose. Sister Benoîte raced and tackled a running activist — and pushed him into a ditch.

“They lost,” said Sister Gaetane, who had also grabbed a protester. “We tried not to cause any injuries.”

The clashes last month were a significant escalation of a longstanding hostility between environmental activists and the Missionary Family of Our Lady, a Roman Catholic order that wants to build a majestic new religious center in a verdant valley of the pristine Ardèche mountains.

The order, part of a Catholic community of about 150 people that includes nuns and brothers and has its headquarters in the village of Saint-Pierre-de-Colombier, has planned to build the new site for more than seven years to welcome what it says are a growing number of pilgrims who visit the village to venerate a statue of the Virgin Mary, Our Lady of the Snows.

Two pillars have already been erected in the Bourges river, among the trout swimming along, to hold a footbridge. The project also includes dining halls for pilgrims and a church — a more than 26,000-square-foot cream-colored behemoth with pointy spires and dozens of stained-glass windows.

The nuns and friars say the church, paid for by donations from pilgrims and other faithful, will bring new prestige to the area. They are enthusiastic that in France, a country that has seen its numbers of practicing Catholics steadily decline, churches are still being built at all.

Their opponents, said Brother Clement-Marie, a member of the order, use “ecology as an excuse” because they are fundamentally “anti-Catholic.”

But what the local religious group says is a project by “God’s grace,” the environmental activists say is a polluting eyesore in a region dense with rocky slopes, chestnut trees and zealous hikers.

The Catholic hierarchy itself has also, in part, opposed the grand project. A former local archbishop, Jean-Louis Balsa, said in 2020 that the church part of the complex was “disproportionate” and should not be built. The local order unsuccessfully appealed the decision to the Vatican and had to put the chapel’s construction on hold, focusing for now on the other buildings.

But Brother Clement-Marie remained hopeful that in the future the full project would get a green light. Perhaps, he said, the number of pilgrims would grow so much they would have to build the megachurch “for security reasons.”

About 2,000 pilgrims visit the site once a year, in December, to pray to and to ask for graces from the Our Lady of the Snows statue. It was erected to fulfill a pledge made in 1944 by local worshipers asking the Virgin Mary to protect the village from German forces during World War II.

The worshipers are now praying to her to help them beat a different enemy — one that does not bear rifles but banners that read, “No concrete.”

The environmental activists have for years organized protests or rallied in front of the Sunday Mass and have brought multiple legal challenges that have managed to delay the project, but never kill it.

They argue that the legal approvals for the church project were flawed and that the religious order cheated on an authorization form. To the question of whether the building was going to be in a natural park, the order had marked “no.”

“They are kidnapping the landscape,” Martine Maurice, an activist, said in a phone interview.

Brother Clement-Marie said it was an honest mistake on the form. “In France, for admin, we do so, so much paperwork,” he said, adding that in a dossier with dozens of pages, “it’s hard not to make one mistake.”

Lately, the activists have hung their hopes for stopping the project on the discovery of a protected plant, the réséda de Jacquin, on the construction site.

“The réséda de Jacquin has the power to stop the works,” said Pierrot Pantel, an ecological engineer and a member of the National Biodiversity Association. “To bring down the basilica.”

On Oct. 12, the activists chained themselves to the excavators deployed on the site to keep them from tearing up the white-flowered plant.

“Block the machines,” Ms. Maurice said. “Protect the plant.”

But on the second day of their occupation, the activists were confronted by a phalanx of nuns and friars seeking to protect the excavators. The physical confrontations — which caused a brother to sprain his ankle and an activist to break a finger — were followed by an hourslong standoff in which the nuns sang “Ave Maria” at the protesters, who sat on the machines.

At the end of the day, the activists went home, but they have pledged to continue trying to block the project. “Our main way to react,” said Brother Clément-Marie, “is prayer.”

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