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Music and Food Are All Part of the Service in This Order

Carmelite nuns run a chain of restaurants to spread the gospel. They gather in the dining room each evening at 9 to sing 'Ave Maria.'

November 13, 2005|Meraiah Foley | Associated Press Writer

NOUMEA, New Caledonia — Every evening at 9 o'clock, diners at L'Eau Vive restaurant are treated to an unusual feast of sight and sound: Colorfully garbed nuns scatter across the room and perform a harmonious rendition of "Ave Maria," accompanied by a single guitar.

L'Eau Vive du Pacifique is one of 13 restaurants operated around the world by the Missionary Workers of the Immaculate Conception, an order of Carmelite nuns that was started in 1950 by a French priest, the Rev. Marcel Roussel Galle.

The nuns are not cloistered but live and work in everyday society. They use their daily interactions with people to "spread an evangelical message," said one waitress, Sister Pauline, a nun from the West African nation of Burkina Faso.

In the 1960s, the order opened its chain of restaurants to support missionary activities and raise money for local charities.

Don't expect to see the nuns wearing habits at L'Eau Vive in Noumea, the New Caledonian capital.

The sisters wear traditional dresses from their homelands, providing a colorful backdrop to the restaurant's otherwise nondescript interior.

Eighteen nuns from nations including Peru, Burkina Faso, Vanuatu and the French territorial islands of New Caledonia, Wallis and Futuna work at the L'Eau Vive in Noumea, which has become a popular South Pacific attraction for tourists.

The restaurant serves hearty French fare, complete with an extensive wine list, along with special dishes from the home countries of the resident nuns. Like the rest of the restaurants run by the order, it is open every day but Sunday.

The chain also is used as a training ground for young women wishing to enter the order, Sister Pauline said.

One group of student nuns emerged from the kitchen, self-conscious and giggling, to perform a traditional South Pacific dance while a senior nun whispered instructions.

Shortly before 9 p.m., the restaurant fell silent as diners set down their wine glasses and awaited the restaurant's key attraction.

Seven nuns spread out through the restaurant, all facing a single portrait of the Virgin Mary, and performed "Ave Maria" in English and French.

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