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Celles-sur-Belle, Monastery of


Former Augustinian foundation near the village of Melle, France, Diocese of Poitiers. It was founded early in the 11th century, on property originally given to the benedictines of saint-maixent by William of Aquitaine, as a priory of canons regular of st. augustine dependent on the Abbey of Saint-Pierre de Lesterp. It was created an abbey by Bp. William II Adelelme of Poitiers in 1140 with Jean de Uzon as the first abbot, and had its independence from Lesterp ratified under Bp. gilbert dela porrÉe in 1148 through a bull of eugene iii. The abbey was dedicated to Our Lady, and the fame of the miracles attributed to her intercession at Celles made it a pilgrimage center from c. 1095, although the great annual pilgrimage, the Septembresch, or the Feast of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary, is first mentioned only in 1395. The pilgrimage flourished into the 15th century, reaching its apogee in the reign of Louis XI, who visited the abbey about ten times, left lavish gifts, and had the 12th-century monastery church reconstructed during the years 1470 to 1477. The pilgrimage was restored in 1899, and Bishop Durfort of Poitiers solemnly crowned the venerated statue of Notre-Dame de Celles on Sept. 26, 1926. The practice of commendation was introduced in 1515 with the nomination of Geoffroy d'Estissac, later abbot-bishop of Maillezais. The monastery was pillaged by the huguenots and abandoned by the monks in 1568. It was besieged again in 1569 by Admiral Coligny, but defended by the Barbeziére family, on whom King Charles IX of France (d. 1574) subsequently bestowed its income. Following attempts by Cardinal F. de La Rochefoucauld and Henri-Louis II de La Rochefoucauld to wrest the control from the Barbezières, the abbey was finally united to the Congregation of France in 1651. The church was rebuilt in 1669, and new cloisters were constructed in 1682. Its income in 1787 was estimated at 14,000 livres, and it had several priories, 12 parishes, and some chapels dependent on it. The last titular abbot was C. talleyrand-pÉrigord. The monks were expelled in 1791, and the property served as a prison for the Vendée rebels. Today the church serves parish needs and is administered by the montfort fathers, who in 1921 established a novitiate in the former cloisters of the abbey.

Bibliography: l. h. cottineau, Répertoire topobibliographique des abbayes et prieurés, 2 v. (Mâon 193539) 1:649. p. calendini, Dictionnaire d'histoire et de géographie ecclésiastiques, ed. a. baudrillart et al. (Paris 1912 ) 12:116118. r. gazeau, Catholicisme. Hier, aujourd'hui et demain, ed. g. jacquemet (Paris 1947) 2:773. a. largeault, Notre-Dame de Celles, son abbaye, son pèlerinage (Parthenay 1900).

[g. e. gingras]

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