The Abbey of Notre-Dame de Sénanque is a Cistercian monastery lying at the bottom of a deep canyon behind the village of Gordes, where the Sénancole River flows in the middle of the scrubland, dry oaks and lavender fields. It was built in 1148 by a community of 12 monks coming from the nearby Ardèche region, and is part of the “Three Provence Sisters” of the Cistercian Order, with the Abbey of Silvacane on the way to Aix-en-Provence and the one of the Thoronet closer to the Riviera.
The Cistercian Order is the major catholic monastic order of the 12th century in Europe, and comes from a branch of the Benedictine Order at the end of the 11th century inspired by the Gregorian Reform of the popes Leon IX and Gregory VII (1020-1085). It focuses on the improvement of the lands, agricultural work, rigour and an ascetic way of life.
The success of the Abbey is such that it becomes richer and richer, to the point that during the religious wars (16th century), monks are hung and the convers building (where the agrarian monks live) is burnt. It is sold to a private family during the French Revolution, and by chance, it is maintained and consolidated. It is bought back by the Abbey of Lerins (near Cannes) in 1857, and returns to its original mandate with a congregation of 72 monks. Through a 1969 sponsorship contract with the Berliet Company (French luxury cars and heavy trucks), the monastery is further consolidated, and opens to public visits.
The current community of monks works on a 10 ha exploitation of lavender, on beehives producing honey, and olive trees producing olive oil. They offer these products for sale at the bookshop near the entrance of the site.
The monks make their own bread, and eat essentially the vegetable they produce in their vegetable garden. They also welcome pilgrims (800 per year), who want to retreat during a few days and share the active monastic life of the community. The monastery can be visited only through a guided tour organized a few times per week.
The community of monks have catholic mass open to the public, which are on occasion with Gregorian chants.