Couple spends retirement sharing St. Hildegard of Bingen’s wisdom and faith
A group of pilgrims who followed the spiritual retreat with Claude and Marie France Delpech in front of St. Hildegard Abbey in Ebingen, Germany, Sept. 17, 2012. | Credit: Les Jardins de Sainte-Hildegarde
Twenty years ago, Claude and Marie-France Delpech launched a family business in France called “Les Jardins de Sainte-Hildegarde,” selling products inspired by the life of St. Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1179), an abbess and mystic proclaimed a doctor of the Church by Pope Benedict XVI on Oct. 7, 2012.
Since then, the Delpechs’ mission has grown steadily, contributing to the rediscovery of the 12th-century German nun, celebrated in the Church calendar on Sept. 17, and her health remedies — as well as her little-known or understood spirituality.
The Delpechs, who are in their 70s and have three daughters and 11 grandchildren, became acquainted with St. Hildegard during Christmas 1994, when their eldest daughter gave them a cookbook called “Les recettes de la joie” (“Recipes for joy”). Originally from the Périgord region of southwestern France, the Delpechs were lovers of good food, and they tried the recipes out of curiosity.
The beginnings were simple: Marie-France cooked mainly with spelt — the dominant grain in St. Hildegard’s diet — as well as with herbs such as pyrethrum (derived from plants in the aster family) and galanga (the citrusy cousin of ginger), also recommended by the nun. Marie-France obtained her supplies from a small company in the Pyrenees that specializes in products and ingredients Hildegard used.
In 1998, as Claude prepared to retire, the couple was looking for a meaningful activity. During a charismatic prayer service in the Emmanuel community, they asked God for “something useful to do.” Strangely enough, all they got when they opened up the Bible were words about... plants.
“I really couldn’t see what it was all about,” Marie-France said with a laugh as she shared her memories with CNA.
In the autumn of 1998, suffering from asthma, Marie-France went on a health retreat in the Pyrenees and took the opportunity to visit the business that sold products inspired by St. Hildegard. To her astonishment, the manager, who was about to close down the business, asked her to take over.
When she declined the offer because of her asthma, he advised her to try scolopendra wine (wine made from soaking a centipede in it) — in a preparation of St. Hildegard’s that included cinnamon, long pepper, and other spices. In the course of eight days, the asthma had stopped. The Delpechs asked themselves: “What if this is what the Lord wanted to show us?”
The more science progresses, the more we understand St. Hildegard
In December 1999, the couple set about researching the work of St. Hildegard, about whom they knew little. To do so, they traveled to the saint’s abbey in Ebingen, Germany. There they met a community of 60 nuns who were “extremely dynamic and full of ‘joie de vivre,’” they recalled.
“The road was opening up,” the couple said in an email. “We felt we’d discovered a treasure, and we wanted to share it.”
Claude and Marie-France now work with German naturopath Wighard Strehlow, the successor of German physician Gottfried Hertzka (1913–1997) — a Nazi resistance fighter who rediscovered St. Hildegard when he was in a concentration camp. Strehlow has devoted his life to transmitting Hildegard’s medieval remedies “in concrete, accessible terms” for today’s generations.
“The more science progresses, the more we understand what St. Hildegard meant,” the Delpechs said in an email. “One of the latest examples is violet balm. St. Hildegard recommends it against cysts and mastitis, saying that ‘if it’s cancer, it will die when it has tasted it.’ It’s a bold thing to say in the 12th century... but last year, an Australian study demonstrated that the leaves and flowers of violets are powerful anti-cancer agents.”
To date, only 400 of Hildegard’s 2,000 remedies have been tested.
Over the years, the Delpechs have collaborated with a group of French doctors and launched a summer university program. They combine dietary advice with a spiritual component, preached by theologian Father Pierre Dumoulin. At the request of the Catholic community Foyers de Charité, they also began offering a spiritual retreat with a fast based on spelt. The initiative has met with enormous success, with growing demand from people seeking deeper spiritual and physical well-being.
A message of personal unity
Today, the couple’s business, based in Coux and Bigaroque in the Périgord, employs about 15 people. They sell spelt-based products, plants and spices, essential oils, gemstones, flavored wines, cosmetics, and various books.
The community of disabled brothers of Notre Dame d’Espérance participates in the preparation of the elixirs.
Claude and Marie France remain as volunteers in their business, which they see as a mission of evangelization.
“We’re very concerned that the spiritual side should not be neglected, but rather brought to the fore,” they said. For them, St. Hildegard is “a way of getting people to go to retreats they would never otherwise have gone to, because not everyone is interested in the Lord, but everyone is interested in their health.”
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During these retreats, people regain their shape and vigor, but something also happens “at the heart level,” they noted. “When you eat less, less fatty, less heavy things, something also happens on the mental level, and there’s a facilitation on the spiritual level, too.”
St. Hildegard’s work, argued the Delpechs, is “a message of personal unification. As the saint wrote: ‘When soul and body function in perfect harmony, they receive the supreme reward of health and joy.’ Joy is essential to Hildegarde.”
The Delpechs said their aim is to restore St. Hildegard to her rightful place within the Catholic Church.
“St. Hildegard was initially known in the New Age [movement], presented as a healer, as the first of the phytotherapists, as a magician, a miracle worker,” the couple said in an email. “But above all, she’s a Catholic saint with a unique charisma. The universe remains a great mystery, and for her, the Lord lifted the curtain. She was able to see the hidden subtleties of creation in the mineral, vegetable, and animal worlds. What a gift!”
Benedict XVI proclaimed St. Hildegard of Bingen a doctor of the Church not only for her spiritual work but also for “her holy medicine.”
“For us, St. Hildegard could be the patron saint of integral ecology,” the Delpechs said.
Every gift from the Holy Spirit is meant for the edification of the community of believers, taught the Pope at Wednesday's general audience. Dedicating his catechesis to St. Hildegard of Bingen, Benedict XVI praised her as a model for modern women religious, and noted that she benefited the faithful by her willingness to submit her supernatural visions to the interpretation of the Church.