Monks feed the rich, so they can give to the poor

Brother Marie-Paques and the chef of La Tonnelle.

Brother Marie-Paques

Pruning the vines for grapes.

Tess Vigeland: Just off the coast from the French movie festival town of Cannes there's a little island that's been occupied by monks since the Fifth Century. They're an interesting bunch.
During the film festival they hold a Silence Festival at the monastery for stressed-out Hollywood types.
But their beyond that event, the monks are making money -- with wine and a luxury restaurant. After all, the more you earn, the more you can give away.

John Laurenson has our report.


John Laurenson: Night prayers sung by the 20 monks of the abbey here on the island of Saint Honorat. They live by strict rules -- poverty, silence, prayer... and wealth creation. Brother Vladimir is the abbot. He admits that Saint Benedict, who drew up the monastic rules, didn't have this last one in mind back in the Sixth Century. But, he insists, this monastery obeys his teaching in spirit.

Brother Vladimir: In the Medieval time, monks were growing food necessary for the people to live. With our wine it's a completely different problem. Our wine is not necessary. And, if we sell our wine at a good price, we can live without asking money to other people and we can give some money.

The abbey's wine sales raked in $490,000 last year. The wine was even served to world leaders at the G-20 summit in Cannes. And now the brothers have opened this restaurant -- La Tonnelle it's called, where patrons eat seared duck foie-gras with confit of violets under the shade of the Mediterranean pines, overlooking the sea. It's about $80 for starter, main and desert. The man in charge of the monastery's finances is very proud of La Tonnelle. He's a broad-chested monk with a sound head for business who goes by the name of Frère Marie-Paques -- Brother Mary-Easter.

Marie-Paques: We are targeting a relatively rich clientele. People who really love good food and wine and can pay for the best. But we have a policy which is to welcome everyone in the same way. Rich and poor, educated and ignorant. We have to receive them -- Saint Benedict tells us -- as if they were Jesus Christ.

In the monastery dining room, dinner in silence. Here, indeed, all comers can take simple meals for very little money. One of them is Father Dominique Aubert, rector of Chartres Cathedral, who's on a week's retreat. He approves of the monks' initiative and says it will bring a new crowd to this ancient, holy place.

Dominique Aubert: They can receive the people in this restaurant, and when the people are coming inside this isle, probably they come to see the abbey. It's a good idea they have because people are coming to this place in the middle of the sea where there is something very special, you know, not only a restaurant.

Behind the abbey is a walled vineyard called the Clos de la Charité, where grapes ripen in the sun. Donors pay a minimum of $1,300 to sponsor a vine here. A little plaque bearing their name is put in front of it. And when its wine is auctioned each year, the proceeds -- $100,000 last year -- go to 10 charities in France and abroad. Giving, says Brother Marie-Paques, is the greatest luxury you can buy.

On the island of Saint Honorat, I'm John Laurenson for Marketplace.

Brother Marie-Paques

Pruning the vines for grapes.

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