Living in a 21st century Cistercian church in Quebec: Val Notre-Dame

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The five years (2004-2009) of community reflection that preceded the transfer of our monastic community from Oka to Saint-Jean-de-Matha gave us an opportunity to consider our Cistercian heritage and make construction and installation choices that are consistent with our values and in keeping with the framework of our Church and our Quebec people at the beginning of this 21st century.


The exterior materials were chosen to reflect simplicity and detachment. In Roman art, there are generally fewer windows: several narrow ones, often three in the apse, with stained glass. We had certain choices to make to take our location into account, considering Quebec’s long winters when night falls early in the afternoon and lasts until late the next morning, as well as our spirituality, which is full of light. Behind the altar, we have placed a large floor-to-ceiling plate glass bay window, opening onto the splendours of nature in Lanaudière, with a mountain that seems to be closer or further away, depending on the time of day and especially the season. The cycles of light that accompany and set the pace for the hours of prayer (seven times a day) and the liturgical seasons are now much easier for us to distinguish. Initially, we experienced some moments of distraction at some passing deer or a bear, or a vulture flew overhead. But in this openness to creation, there is another ongoing experience: openness to the Creator.


Our 21st century abbey church allows the presence of nature around us and through the window speak to us of the same radical simplicity and lead us to the same interiority, but with less material rigidity than a medieval church requiring stone walls more than a metre thick to guard against a more hostile environment (climate and invasions) than today; this church lets in more of the nuances of life and is a better fit for Quebec contemplatives, so closely tied to nature and the changing seasons. In accordance with Cistercian tradition, the church has an eastern orientation: each morning, we pray the Office of Lauds as the rising sun gradually illuminates the entire church. Shades can be drawn to filter the light when it is too bright.


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Our choice of green architecture is in keeping with a desire to respect nature: to preserve our location’s greenery by altering it as little as possible, thanks to modern technologies such as geothermal heating, water treatment and recovery, energy conservation, soundproofing and vegetative roofs. Since we are in church between four and five hours a day, very early in the morning and at the end of the day, geothermal was a must. This is a procedure that maintains a stable temperature and has the advantage—of great interest for a praying community—of not making any noise, thereby maintaining our atmosphere of reflection.


We also paid special attention to lighting. Natural light illuminates the entire church, but it can also be filtered by three large shades that cover the three sections of the church’s large window. The monks’ stalls have more direct lighting, with dimmers that vary depending on the time of the office. All of the church’s lighting can also be modulated as needed: for instance, indirect lighting at the base of the walls and lower lighting in the stalls create an atmosphere of greater interiority at Compline.


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Living in a church requires an entire series of community decisions based on values and principles to honour the mystery that is celebrated in this place; these decisions build on each other to ensure unity between the various signs and symbols. The praise that rises from this church comes from heart and voice, but also from the beauty and harmony of the site’s development.

Br. André Barbeau

Abbaye Val Notre-Dame
250, Chemin de la Montagne-Coupée
St-Jean-de-Matha (Québec) J0K 2S0
Telephone :(450) 960-2889
Fax :
(450) 960-2890
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