Founded in 1147 by Saint Bernard, on the vestiges of a Gallo-Roman site, Notre-Dame-de-Chéhéry was an emblematic Cistercian abbey, with farms, barns, mines, forges, mills and glassworks.
The Cistercian movement sought to break with Cluny’s luxury and to restore the original purity of monastic life.
Bernard, the abbot of Clairvaux, helped to rapidly develop this movement and to define a doctrine of voluntary austerity for the construction of monasteries, refusing all ornamentation which could cause distraction from prayer in cloisters and churches.
He wanted monasteries to become self-sufficient, separate from the rest of the world, constructed in such a way that all necessities were inside the perimeter walls and that their various trades enabled the monks to provide for themselves without having to confront the world.
The abbey also included lay members who came from the uneducated population. They took vows but led a different way of life. They undertook manual labour, from the ploughing of fields to the rearing of animals and miscellaneous other trades.
They formed a separate section of the community, with their own refectory, dormitory and chapel.
Chéhéry Abbey followed this example. The site was uncultivated, away from the world and the monastery was constructed by the waterside, seeking self-sufficiency.
The abbey was destroyed in the 17th century during the Fronde rebellion. The current, 18th century buildings are the work of architect Nicolas-Joseph.
After the French Revolution, they were sold to Gérard-de-Melcy, lawyer and prosecutor for Paris’ parliament. His son, Achille-Auguste-César-de-Melcy married opera singer, Julia-Grisi, in 1836 and destroyed two sides of the quadrilateral monastery, including the church, transforming it into a middle-class residence, a chateau.
A row of plane trees leads to the abbey from the secondary road.
The abbey appears at the end of the main courtyard, bordered by outbuildings on the right and left-hand sides.
The abbey residence
The main facade comprises sets of three openings, laid out on either side of a large central doorway, featuring a triangular pediment, topping an attractive, wrought iron, first floor balcony.
A stone string course enhances the chromatics provided by brick, ochre-coloured limestone and the slate of the roofs, with their roof dormers on the courtyard side and oculi on the parklands side.
Behind, next to the traditional square of the cloister, remain but two buildings forming an L-shape. The covered area makes it possible to appreciate the wonderful homogeneity of the cloister buildings, dominated on the lower level by the arcades set in the former cloister.
Double, semi-circular arched doors open into the central hall, paved with white stone featuring black inlaid decoration, which extends into a vestibule, housing the main stairway. The latter, with superb wrought iron railings featuring arabesques, curves its way upstairs.
A study, with a 19th century marble fireplace and panelling, precedes a dining room, the coffered ceiling of which has lost its easily replaceable, imitation hanging keystones. It also has a carved wooden fireplace and herringbone pattern parquet flooring which extends into a small music room, with an 18th century marble fireplace.
And finally in this section are a little kitchen, converted in the 20th century, a toilet and a door leading outside.
On the other side of the entrance hall are two large, adjoining, 58 and 74 m² reception lounges.
The first is, above all, marked by the presence of a splendid, highly wrought wooden fireplace. It notably features several coats-of-arms, not currently identified, as well as carvings of birds and lions’ heads. The fireback bears the engraving “LARAME”. The still incomplete list of monks from the abbey indicates the presence of a certain Jean-Joseph-La-Ramée, born around 1724, perhaps there is some connection?
The father abbot’s large, impressive audience room features herringbone pattern parquet flooring, an 18th century marble fireplace, panelling as well as white and gold decorative plasterwork.
The cloister can be reached via a heavy, carved, oak wood door, with a small-paned fanlight, from the main hall. Paved with large flagstones, the cloister provides access to the other wing set at right angles.
A large vestibule known as the “Virgin’s vestibule” precedes the back kitchen and the kitchen, said to be for important guests. The flagstones, the well, the sink and the monumental fireplace are all of stone.
These rooms precede a dining room, a music room, with a wood-burning stove housed in an alcove, and two storage rooms.
The stairway goes up to a vast, L-shaped gallery, reflecting the layout of the cloister.
It provides access to ten bedrooms, with wardrobes. Almost all of them feature a marble fireplace and panelling, whilst two have an 18th century alcove. The central, master bedroom dominates the courtyard from its elegant, wrought iron balcony. This level also comprises a bathroom, a toilet and two studies.
The roof is not completely weathertight and this level, having greatly suffered, is in need of major restoration works.
This red brick building, with large arcades and a slate, Mansard roof, is on the left-hand side of the courtyard.
It was built like a blind cloister in order to isolate the abbey residence from the noise of work taking place on the farm, set behind it.
Although still a working concern, the farm no longer belongs to the abbey.
The lay brothers’ dwelling
This building reflects the architecture of the outbuilding facing it, except for the fact that the large arcades contain openings. A roof bell-tower with a single bell, typical of the Cistercian order, reveals the presence of the lay brothers’ chapel which is set between the residential section, the garage and the woodshed.
This is actually the abbey’s only habitable building. The heavy, 18th century door is on the right-hand side. Made of wrought wood, it is painted black and features a refined door-knocker.
A small, tiled entrance hall, housing a stairway going upstairs, precedes a dining room. This plain, authentic room features terracotta tiles, an open-hearth fireplace and exposed beams. Running water is provided by a well, fitted with an electric pump. Nevertheless, the municipality is due to connect the abbey to the mains.
The modestly furnished kitchen is separated from the dining room via a glazed door.
These rooms are followed by a bathroom and a study which communicates with the vast hall preceding the chapel. This vestibule opens on to the outside via a splendid Louis XV style door, featuring a raised carved heart, Mary’s sorrowful heart with the Passion of Christ nails.
This chapel has two windows, enhanced with stained glass, original flagstones and an altar. One modification was, however, made by Achille-de-Melcy: he added a balcony at the end of the chapel for the performances given to select groups by his opera singing wife.
A plain, oak wood stairway goes upstairs. The adjoining rooms begin with a study, followed by two bedrooms with a bathroom and toilet.