By Chantal Brocca
In 1639, three young Augustinian nuns pursued a perilous voyage across the Atlantic Ocean on the orders of their French King to go and heal the bodies and souls of the inhabitants of New France, a string of settlements across the Saint Lawrence river which came to be known as Québec City. The dedication with which the Sisters carried out their important mission led to the birth of Le Monastère des Augustines, the very first hospital in North America and eventual epicenter of the many gems that litter the old cobbled streets of Québec City, proclaimed in 1985 as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Built over green cliffs hanging over the narrowing St. Lawrence river, the city and its surroundings boast an incredible landscape of waterfalls, canyons and lakes, rife with lush greenery that can only breed a mentality that naturally lends itself to living harmoniously with and through nature. Just across the river one finds the Île d’Orléans, a haven for agrotourism and city dwellers hoping to escape the stresses of a life that never seems to stop taking. Littered with charming, isolated cottages built in a beautiful, old French style and large family run farms that stock the city’s plentiful farm-to-table restaurants with seasonal organic fruits and vegetables, the island gives the impression of being the perfect retreat into simple living.
Back in Old Québec, there are plenty of historical sites to visit, made all the more unique by the varied cultures and societies that occupied the perfectly positioned colony. Perhaps this is where Québec draws most of its charm; its multicolored roofs characterizing an identity defined by a melting pot of diverse heritages cultivated over centuries to become something inimitably Québécois, with traditions that emancipated themselves into a distinctly separate character.
It is with this spirit that Le Monastère des Augustines pioneered a distinctly unique take on contemporary wellness. Back in 1990, as a testament to the natural aptitude towards holistic health and community values of the region, the Augustinian Sisters, now in dwindling numbers, got to thinking about how they could perpetuate their heritage, mission, and vocation to helping others long into the future. The concept became an innovative heritage conservation model of hotel-museum-wellness center that won them the prestigious Phoenix Award in 2016, translating centuries of health care into a contemporary language that can be enjoyed by old and new generations alike.
Nestled in a corner of the old town, where most of the old schools and buildings have been kept exactly as they were first built, the walls of the Monastère aesthetically convey the harmonious interplay between modernity and history that characterize its particular social and cultural mission.
What makes the concept so unique is that everything, from meals to the décor and placement of the rooms, to the programs available to wellness retreaters, was designed with the intention of preserving tradition – and since the Sisters threw nothing away in four centuries, that also means a profound dedication to sustainability.
The Monastère uses geothermal heating and cooling systems, sustainable waste management and composting systems and ethically promotes the local industry by sourcing everything from the region, from the healthy, organic ingredients it uses in its restaurant, to the materials and objects it houses. Especially when it comes to nutrition, a fundamental pillar of the nun’s holistic healing traditions, the center goes above and beyond by growing their own sprouts and herbs, as well as developing and promoting their own locally produced medicinal herbal teas based on recipes used by the nuns over 300 years ago.
At its core lies an NGO: its social engagement goals expand to providing respite for those who dedicated their lives to helping others, from a relative or friend accompanying a sick person at the famous Hôtel-Dieu next door, to nurses and social workers looking to revisit their commitments to their professions by learning from the various programs aimed at passing on ancient hospitality and healing practices and principles.
Traditionally, a nun would be unable to care for others if she herself was not well, mentally and physically, because the spiritual balance we try to share with others is inextricably linked with what we hold inside. To that end, the day begins with an Awakening Activity that includes breathing practices and meditation to get in touch with your inner self and gently ease the body into a new day, continuing with a fresh buffet style breakfast revised by nutritionists that is mandatorily taken in silence, according to a tradition that finds its roots in the 6th century.
The daily list of programs available to guests include activities that harmonize and stimulate the body, such as tai chi, restorative yoga, and intuitive dance. For those who want to make the most of their stay, additional treatments are offered which teach you methods to uphold wellness even once you return home, such as posture realignment, and nutritional and holistic health consultations.
If all of this weren’t impressive enough, what really distinguishes the Monastère is the history that resides in its interiors. The ancient archives, found in the white walled vaults just beneath the lobby, hold the collective history of healing, heritage and identity of a people spanning four centuries. Old artifacts, religious paintings and the work of the Augustinian nuns line the walls and corners of every floor, acting as an immersive museum. Guests can also peek into the daily lives and development of the Monastère through the ages in specific rooms on the ground floor housing fascinating permanent exhibits.
The rooms themselves are a wonder: those who truly want to immerse themselves in a spiritual experience can choose an original room that still contains most of the original furniture from centuries ago, except of course, the beds, which were all replaced with the most plush mattresses I have ever had the pleasure to sleep in.
After just spending a few days here, Le Monastère des Augustines has proved to me to be more than a simple wellness center, digging back into a healing philosophy and wisdom accumulated over centuries by people whose sole vocation in life was to selflessly improve the lives of others.
The increasingly varied afflictions of our modern day and age are inciting people more and more to step back from the lab created tablets and take a look at natural and spiritual practices which have been shunned in the name of progress, making Le Monastère a guidepost, as well as a perfect little haven, for future generations to pass on methods of healing based in community values, self discovery and interconnectedness with the environment.
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