French nuns and climate activists clash over plans for megachurch | ET REALITY

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When climate activists protesting the construction of a huge religious complex in a nature park in southern France scaled the construction site, nuns gave chase.

A sister grabbed an environmentalist who was climbing onto an excavator, but he broke free and rolled into a well. Two other nuns tried to restrain a protester, who broke free. Sister Benoîte ran and tackled a running activist and pushed him into a ditch.

“They lost,” said Sister Gaetane, who had also grabbed a protester. “We try not to cause any injuries.”

Last month’s clashes were a significant escalation of a long-standing hostility between environmental activists and the Missionary Family of Our Lady, a Roman Catholic order that wants to build a majestic new religious center in a green valley in the pristine Ardèche mountains.

The order, which is part of a Catholic community of about 150 people that includes nuns and brothers and is based in the village of Saint-Pierre-de-Colombier, has planned to build the new site for more than seven years to accommodate what says. More and more pilgrims visit the town to venerate a statue of the Virgin Mary, Our Lady of the Snows.

Two pillars have already been erected on the Bourges River, among the swimming trout, to support a walkway. The project also includes pilgrim dining halls and a church: a cream-colored, more than 26,000-square-foot behemoth with pointy spiers and dozens of stained glass windows.

The nuns and friars say the church, funded by donations from pilgrims and other faithful, will bring new prestige to the area. They are excited that in France, a country that has seen the number of practicing Catholics steadily decline, churches are still being built.

Their opponents, said Brother Clement-Marie, a member of the order, use “ecology as an excuse” because they are fundamentally “anti-Catholic.”

But what the local religious group says is a project of “the grace of God,” environmental activists say is a polluting eyesore in a region full of rocky slopes, chestnut trees and eager hikers.

The Catholic hierarchy itself has also opposed, in part, the great project. A former local archbishop, Jean-Louis Balsa, said in 2020 that the church portion of the complex was “disproportionate” and should not be built. The local order unsuccessfully appealed the decision to the Vatican and had to suspend construction of the chapel, focusing for now on the other buildings.

But Brother Clément-Marie was hopeful that in the future the entire project would get the green light. Perhaps, he said, the number of pilgrims would grow so much that they would have to build the megachurch “for security reasons.”

About 2,000 pilgrims visit the place once a year, in December, to pray and ask thanks to the statue of Our Lady of the Snows. It was erected to fulfill a promise made in 1944 by local worshipers who asked the Virgin Mary to protect the town from German forces during World War II.

The faithful now pray to him to help them defeat a different enemy, one who does not carry rifles but banners that say: “No concrete.”

Environmental activists have been organizing protests or demonstrations in front of Sunday mass for years and have filed multiple legal challenges that have managed to delay the project, but never end it.

They argue that legal approvals for the church project were flawed and that the religious order cheated on an authorization form. When asked if the building was going to be in a natural park, the order had marked “no.”

“They are hijacking the landscape,” Martine Maurice, an activist, said in a telephone interview.

Brother Clement-Marie said it was an honest mistake on the form. “In France, for the administration, we do that, a lot of paperwork,” he said, adding that in a file with dozens of pages, “it is difficult not to make a mistake.”

Lately, activists have pinned their hopes of stopping the project on the discovery of a protected plant, Jacquin’s réséda, at the construction site.

“Jacquin’s réséda has the power to stop construction,” said Pierrot Pantel, ecological engineer and member of the National Biodiversity Association. “To tear down the basilica.”

On October 12, activists chained themselves to the excavators deployed at the site to prevent them from uprooting the white flowering plant.

“Lock the machines,” Maurice said. “Protect the plant.”

But on the second day of their occupation, the activists faced a phalanx of nuns and friars seeking to protect the diggers. The physical clashes, which left one brother spraining his ankle and one activist breaking his finger, were followed by an hours-long standoff in which nuns sang “Ave Maria” to protesters, who were sitting on the machines.

At the end of the day, the activists returned home, but vowed to continue trying to block the project. “Our main way of reacting,” Brother Clément-Marie said, “is prayer.”

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