One of the most significant retreat locations in the Lasallian world, Parmenie is where De La Salle came — albeit for a short time — at a key moment in his life. He received significant inspiration from Sr. Louise and a call from the Brothers who wrote to him from Paris.
This idyllic setting, high in the mountains just outside Grenoble, is a special retreat setting for all who travel here. It was so for De La Salle during one of his most difficult periods, and it is so for Brothers and for student groups today. Its long religious history, prayerful atmosphere, and evocative natural setting give some measure of the blessing that it must have been for De La Salle as he was struggling to understand, accept, and live out God’s ongoing call in his life.
The name Parmenie (Latin “para moenia” for “alongside the walls”) indicates that the place was heavily fortified. A deep cistern near the present chapel is a souvenir of Roman days. Here, it is thought Mercury and Isis were worshipped and the Druids gathered.
In the early Middle Ages, Parmenie served as a refuge for the early Christian bishops. It is believed that relics of the Holy Cross were kept here, and so Parmenie became a place of pilgrimage as early as the 8th century. After a devastating flood in 1219, a pilgrimage was led to Parmenie and that is now commemorated in the annual September fair of the neighboring village of Beaucroissant.
Saved by Sister Louise
After being in the hands of various religious (including the Carthusian nun, Blessed Beatrice, who died in 1303 and is buried at Parmenie) the property remained in ruins for 200 years until the advent of the shepherd girl, Sister Louise, who was born in 1646. Sister Louise was convinced that God had told her to build a shrine at Parmenie in his honor. Eventually, Louise received permission, and rebuilt the chapel with help from others. It was blessed on May 3, 1674, and the relics of Blessed Beatrice were re-interred. All the ancient monastery buildings were still in ruins, but Louise enlarged the chapel (the former chapel was now used as a sacristy) and built a residence large enough to house a priest, several retreatants, her companion and herself.
Seeking a Chaplain
In 1681, Sister Louise sought permission from the local bishop for a permanent chaplain. Thinking she would be unable to succeed, he invited her to find a priest who was willing and able to help. Father Roux was to work at Parmenie for 30 years. Additional buildings were erected to accommodate more retreatants. After Father Roux’s death, the retreats were directed by Father de Saleon who, on becoming bishop, was succeeded by Father Soland.
De La Salle Meets Sister Louise
The encounter at Parmenie between De La Salle and Sister Louise in 1714 is perhaps the most important event that ever took place there. There is good reason to suppose that if this providential encounter had not taken place, De La Salle’s work might have perished. After a serious illness at Grenoble, De La Salle was invited by Father de Saleon (who had first asked the Brothers to Grenoble) to spend a few days in the solitude of Parmenie.
De Saleon Asks De La Salle to Cover His Position at Parmenie Retreat
Aware that De La Salle’s zeal for the apostolate might force him to leave Parmenie too soon, De Saleon took advantage of some urgent business in Provence as an excuse to ask De La Salle to replace him temporarily as director of the retreats. This gave De La Salle a way of expressing his gratitude, and in turn a reason to remain at the retreat. Could this work be the answer that God had in store for him? Sister Louise, who was at this time looking for a new director for the retreats, told De La Salle that his work was with the Brothers. To the traveler: De La Salle’s room was most likely the sacristy which is now the sanctuary of the chapel.
Brothers Request their Superior
It was either at Parmenie or at Grenoble that De La Salle received the letter from the Brothers in Paris. His decision to return to Paris was confirmed by another meeting.
An Example of Providence at Work
Claude Dulac de Montisambert, a man of honorable family and upbringing, had been a gambler when a soldier. Twice he had been close to death. After 8 years of military service, he left the army without notifying his family. He knew that his father would oppose and block any such move, but he wanted to try his vocation as a Capuchin and as a Carthusian but had to leave when he realized that his father’s consent was demanded. At a Trappist Abbey, the abbot told Dulac to continue searching. He then sought out the advice of the local priest who happened to be Father de Saleon and who invited him to spend a few weeks in retreat with him at Parmenie. Dulac had previously seen Brothers in Grenoble, but because of his upbringing and lack of formal schooling did not at first feel attracted to them. Brother Irenee was a very poor teacher and this caused him to ponder his vocation. He later became sub-Director of novices under Br Bartholomew and then Director of Novices, and Director General of St. Yon (in this capacity he closed De La Salle’s eyes in death), and first Assistant to the Superior.
De La Salle’s Time at Parmenie
Both Blain and Maillefer say that the Founder spent a fortnight at Parmenie, but Brother Leo Burkhard argues convincingly for a stay of the greater part of four months (February-June of 1714) with a few returns to the Grenoble community.
Sister Louise Dies
Sister Louise was 82 when she died on January 22, 1727, having spent 54 years at Parmenie. Shortly after Sister Louise had fulfilled her divinely-appointed mission, Parmenie fell back into oblivion. In 1964, just 250 years after De La Salle’s sojourn, the Brothers acquired title to Parmenie. Arson was committed the following year but Parmenie has been re-built by Br. Leo Burkhard and became the focus of a large gathering of young Lasallian people in 1980. It is presently a retreat center for the District of France.
- When you see a place like Parmenie, where De La Salle really didn’t spend a great deal of time, why do you think it became such an important moment in his life?
- What other aspects of De La Salle’s experience, writings, innovations, and perspectives regarding education and his work with the Brothers would make Parmenie a fitting place for personal renewal?
- What kinds of things do you do in order to recharge your batteries? What more could you do, if only you had the time? What could you do even without the time?
- There are key moments in everyone’s life, moments that shape one’s future. Why was this decision such a key one in De La Salle’s life? What other options did he have?
- What kinds of things do you think were going through De La Salle’s head as he was reading the letter from the “principal Brothers” and trying to decide what to do?
- What are some of the key moments in your life – times when you knew that your choice would make a major impact on your life? How did you finally come to a decision?
- Sr. Louise seems to have been quite a person. From what you know, why do you think that this was the case? And how is it that an illiterate shepherdess became so appealing to a Canon of Reims Cathedral and Doctor of Theology?
- Br. Leo Burkhard was passionate about De La Salle and his experience at Parmenie. Where is your passion, if it exists, in the area of Lasallian history or pedagogy or spirituality?
- Parmenie is now a retreat center for Lasallians and others. Why is it important to have times for retreat, renewal, and rest? Look beyond the obvious answers.