The revitalisation of abandoned monasteries in France and Italy
La rivitalizzazione dei monasteri abbandonati in Francia e in Italia

Growing secularisation, declining numbers of the faithful and vocations, and plummeting offerings are the cause of many empty or abandoned religious buildings. With maintenance costs, in times of economic crisis, increasingly unsustainable for the owners.

The Wall Street Journal writes that the Anglican Church closes an average of 20 religious buildings a year, in Germany hundreds of churches have closed in recent years, and the same happens in Catholic countries such as Italy and France, respectively the first and second largest nations in Europe in terms of the number of religious buildings.

The census of religious buildings

According to a census carried out by the National Office for Ecclesiastical Cultural Heritage and Worship Buildings, there are more than 200,000 sacred buildings in Italy, 77,000 of which are owned by parishes and the others by Regions, Municipalities, religious Orders, private citizens and the Ministry of the Interior, which owns more than 800 managed by the FEC, Fondo Edifici di Culto.

It is estimated that there are over 800 abandoned churches and monasteries in Italy. Historic, unique buildings, rich in treasures of art, spirituality and culture that risk disappearing.

The same happens in France. For the Observatoire du PatrimoineReligieux, there would be about 100,000 places of worship, of which about 40,000 are owned by municipalities.

500 churches, convents and abbeys are already closed to worship, and 2,500 to 5,000 are at risk of abandonment, sale or collapse by 2030.

Heritage of community or counter-witness?

Pope Francis said on a visit to the Centro Astalli in Rome in 2013 that ‘empty convents are not for the Church to turn into hotels and earn money. Empty convents are not yours, they are for the flesh of Christ who are the refugees‘.

Yet faced with the prospect of deterioration or, worse, looting, the only alternative would seem to be to revitalise and reconvert them. The faithful seem to be the first to agree.

The sensitivity of the faithful

This is confirmed by a survey commissioned by La Croix, one of the most popular Catholic-inspired newspapers in the world: 71% of the French faithful are in favour of revitalising religious real estate and converting it into civil buildings.

Every year in France, around twenty places of worship are subject to a decree of deconsecration, the first step towards their sale and conversion into libraries, bookshops, cafeterias or concert halls. But also homes, hotels or restaurants.

Examples of revitalisation

A few examples? The Abbaye de la Bussière, in the heart of the Côte-d’Or département in Burgundy, is now a luxury hotel; the Abbaye de la Celle, in Provence, is the maison of Nicolas Pierantoni, one of Alain Ducasse’s disciples, 21 Michelin stars in his career; the Abbaye Royale de Fontevraud, in the Maine and Loire département, combines hotellerie, restaurant and cultural institution, with a renowned collection of contemporary art open to the public.

The same happens in Italy, with many dioceses deciding to give a non-liturgical use to the building of worship while retaining ownership, or to sell it to an institution or a private individual.

Many ancient places of the spirit today, after skilful and careful restorations, have been transformed into places of well-being, exclusive resorts, suggestive residences and hotels, or facilities with socio-cultural purposes: the Eremito Hotelito del Alma, a former 14th-century monastery immersed in the woods of Parrano, in Umbria, has become a resort with a vegetarian restaurant, a bar and a spa; in Garfagnana, Tuscany, the former Augustinian monastery of the 13th century, I Romiti del Torrente, offers charming accommodation to artists and creative people attracted also by the old chapel that has become a loft for exhibitions, workshops, concerts and tastings; in Sicily, the Hotel Antico Convento has obtained charming rooms from the 40 cells of the monks of the former Capuchin convent, the restaurant is run by teachers and students of the Nosco school of Mediterranean cuisine and the proceeds of the activities are reinvested in social works.

Not to mention the now legendary San Domenico Palace hotel in Taormina managed by Four Seasons built in the structure of a former Dominican convent dating back to the 14th century with original frescoes, the location of the HBO hit series White Lotus.

Citizens’ initiatives

There are also initiatives that originate from citizens’ groups whose sole purpose is to preserve the existence of these buildings as historical, cultural and spiritual heritage. For example in Venice, where a committee of architects has taken action to recover at least 30 abandoned churches, and the Poveglia association is trying to buy and save the island of the same name, a former lazaret and place of worship; or the committee of Preci, in Umbria, which is trying to rebuild the abbey of Sant’Utizio, the cradle of Benedictine monasticism devastated by the 2016 earthquake; or the citizens of Monterosso, in the Cinque Terre, who are trying to save the 13th-century sanctuary of Nostra Signora la Madonna di Soviore, a place of devotion, historical memory and art.

What prospects?

What then? On the one hand, there are the concerns of the religious who, faced with buildings of worship transformed into ice-cream parlours, night clubs and discotheques, emphasise that the ‘problem is not only cultural, but also values and pastoral’; on the other hand, there is the prospect that this heritage runs the risk of disappearing under the blows of time and lack of funds. In the middle is a necessary reflection on how to promote a revitalisation that respects all sensitivities to which, first and foremost, real estate operators are called.