The chronicle of Notre-Dame du Rhône

The visitor who crosses the Rhone, coming from Châteauneuf, first sees the proud silhouette of the cathedral that dominates the city. Approaching, he discovers the majestic building of the former episcopal palace, current town hall, on his left and the hotel de Roqueplane, current bishopric, on his right. Only then does he discover the Notre-Dame du Rhône church, a little behind, under the ramparts.


The very first Notre-Dame du Rhône is very old; built under the bishop Venance in the sixth century, it was designated for some time under the term St Saturnin and Notre Dame. A fortuitous rediscovery during the work in 1986 made it possible to make excavations on half of its surface and to discover there numerous tombs and, undoubtedly, that of the founder St Venance. Its ruins unfortunately later covered, are half under the car park of the town hall and half under the road leading to Chateauneuf. Towards the end of the 7th century a Benedictine monastery was built near this church. A legend tells that in 737, during the passage of Saracen invasions and the destruction of their monastery, the nuns fled carrying the relics of St Venance to Soyons where they took refuge. It is more probable that the ruins of the church continued to shelter the tomb of this bishop. A new church was built by moving it to the northeast but was devastated during the Wars of Religion. It is mentioned in the fourteenth century in the registers of solicitors.


The alms of the Brotherhood took place on the day of Pentecost. The Canon de Banne had examined the ruins. He said that it was built, according to him, "... on the ruins of some hall or public market ...". He had noticed many large windows in an old wall, and he knew of the existence, in this place, of the Benedictine monastery.


In 1624, reports our chronicler Jacques de Banne, "... certain ladies of the diocese, moved with piety and devotion wished to found a monastery of nuns of the order of St Dominic under the direction of the Jacobins Fathers of Puy and  not finding any other cleaner  place in the town begged Messieurs du Chapitre to grant them the place and enclosures of Notre-Dame du Rhone outside the castle walls ... ". They said that the monastery would bring all kinds of amenities to the public because it would live on its income and would not need any begging. There were deliberations within the chapter and between the consuls, and permission was given. On November 13, 1624, the chapter yielded the place, enclosure and church Notre-Dame du Rhone and the lands dependent on the cure of the church to build the said monastery. In January 1625, the first five nuns, under the direction of mother Jeanne Croupet, arrived at Viviers. The notables and the people of Viviers "... went to meet them with torches because of the darkness of the night." The nuns were lodged in the house of Francoise de la Baume d'Uzer during the works. The church partially destroyed by the Huguenots was rebuilt in 1567. An extraordinary discovery allowed the masons to save money on materials. More than one hundred coffins they used the stone from to build the new convent. An inscription engraved on the white marble piece of one of the coffins indicated that the buried person had left the heresy which did not recognize the Holy Trinity and had returned to the belief of this dogma. The reconstruction began on the east side, it was necessary to cut down the choir which was capped by a vault in the form of quarter sphere.


Bishop Louis de la Baume de Suze laid the first stone in October 1625. But the church was partially buried, it took down about twenty steps to enter, which made it a damp building. In 1636, the nuns had a wall built to better isolate themselves. But this was to be insufficient since in 1652, say the records "... in the presence of numerous thefts, committed at night by climbing or burglary, armed and masked, including the monastery of ND du Rhone, the council decides to restore the bourgeois guard ". The sisters' diary, which Dominique-Antoine Flaugergues had consulted, reports that the community lived in a state of extreme poverty, feeding very feebly for the sake of sacrifice. Only the chimney of the kitchen allowed them to heat themselves. Yet the establishment had property; in the archives, the donations received on the arrival of new sisters are recorded and the municipal deliberations teach us that the monastery owned half of the port (then located at Baume Baume, south of Viviers). 1663: "... the ladies of the monastery fearing that the Marquis de Chateauneuf will undertake to withdraw by force his wife who has taken refuge at home, claim a night guard that the council grants them".


Do not be fooled by appearances

Flaugergues tells us an anecdote read in the manuscript of the monastery. A man lodged in a small house on the banks of the Rhone, and the nuns who saw him from their garden had high esteem because he only moved with a large rosary in his hand, which for them could only be a sign of holiness.


So they bought him with devotion eggs and vegetables that he sold them… after stealing them in the neighborhood ! The sisters even said that they slept peacefully in the vicinity of a man so openly pious.


But the robberies and murders committed by the man at night were discovered, he was arrested and, before being broken alive, he confessed that he had conceived the project of breaking into the buildings and slaughtering all the nuns. .


In 1732, the new bishop, Bishop de Villeneuve laid the foundation stone of the episcopal palace that Jean-Baptiste Franque, renowned architect was going to build him.


The following year, he hired the nuns to take advantage of the masons' presence to rebuild their church, which benefited from Claude Projet's plans. While digging to make the foundations, one found medals with the effigy of the emperors Nero and Caesar, as well as tombs in stones and bricks. Flaugergues regretted that no one could read the inscriptions engraved on them. In 1732, the nuns made cession of a dovecote and a hemp tree to enlarge the future bishop's garden.


I could not find any details on the date of departure of the nuns of their convent; only the notification of their dispersion at the Revolution.


"... are of the opinion that the buildings of the aforesaid convent of the nuns of St Dominic, composed on the ground floor of a church, sacristy, vestibule, choir, chapel, parlor, cellar, refectory, kitchen, dump, crap (sic), stable, several rooms, attics and galetas are in very bad condition, the doors and windows were removed and broken interior .... the said buildings are in a state of disrepair nearly about to fall.


The buildings and adjoining land, garden, vineyard, orchard and small piece of land were estimated at 4756 pounds in capital in 238 pounds in income. In the sales of national goods the various buildings are qualified of: "hovels and rural buildings" Individuals bought the various domains, lands and barns like Olivet, Jargières, the Condamine, possessions of the monastery. The church, which was seized as a national property, became a fodder shop and later housed the Larmande tiling warehouse. It is currently decommissioned but remains a place of observation for students.


During the Revolution the buildings of the convent served as the farm of the hospital and prison. A part was then renovated and converted in 1908, in premises for the Catholic school which still occupies it. One of the buildings at the back of the church, served some parish theater time and keeps paintings on its walls.


The architect Jean-Baptiste Franque has printed the same style in the three buildings built at the same time: the Episcopal Palace, the Hotel de Roqueplane and Notre-Dame du Rhone. The triangular pediment of the church is found in the other facades. Ionic pilasters frame the porch. The beautiful cut stones come from the quarries of St-Restitut. The appearance is sober, without religious ornamentation. The single nave is vaulted in a cloister arch, with arches delineating niches housing small chapels. An opening now walled gave access to the choir of the nuns, where they could hear Mass without showing themselves.


In 2006 and 2007 this place was the subject, among others, of internships for the architects of the School of Chaillot, of Paris, who specialized in the architecture of the Heritage and could find in the monuments of Viviers a vast field of studies.

Text published in La Tribune - Edition A26 - Number 24 - Thursday, June 12, 2008 - written by Yvonne Leclère - all rights reserved