It is literally built on an ancient oak tree, where a staircase spirals around its twisted trunk, which makes me remember a tree house. Within there are two small chapels, which are to this day used as places of worship by the local people. How old the tree is exactly is still the subject of some debate but it is without doubt the oldest known tree in France. While Chêne Chapelle (Oak Chapel) has persevered through the centuries, others have come and gone. So you can get an idea of how old it is, it was growing when France became a truly centralized kingdom under Louis IX in the thirteenth century. It survived the ravages of the Hundred Years War with the English. The Black Death, the Reformation, the Revolution and the time of Napoleon all came and went as it spread its branches. Local folklore places the time at which the acorn first took root as a thousand years ago. They maintain that William the Conqueror said prayers at its base before he went off to thrash the Anglo-Saxons near a small seaside town called Hastings. Yet tree experts put the real age of the tree at around 800, which puts its roots firmly in the thirteenth century.
But, as many things in life, the Chapel has also suffered some damages. A catastrophe occurred in the late 1600s, when the oak was nearing 500 years in age. On one stormy night it was struck by lightning, and a bolt with a temperature approaching 30,000 °C pierced the magnificent tree to its heart. Yet instead of dying, something astonishing happened. The fire within burned slowly through the center and hollowed the tree out. Perhaps it should then have simply slowly rotted away, but each year new leaves would form and the tree would produce acorns in abundance. In those religious times it was not long before the miraculous tree gained some pious attention. The local Abbot Du Detroit and the village priest, Father Du Cerceau, determined that the lighting striking and hollowing the tree was an event that had happened with holy purpose. So they built a place of pilgrimage devoted to the Virgin Mary in the hollow. In later years, the chapel above was added, as was the staircase.
The need to survive sometimes precipitates change. During the Revolution the tree became an emblem of the old system of governance and tyranny as well as the church that aided and abetted it. A crowd descended upon the village, intent on burning the tree to the ground. However, a local whose name is lost to history had an inspired thought: he renamed the oak the temple of reason and as such it became a symbol of the new ways of thinking and the chapel was spared.
Of course, a tree this old cannot go on forever and Chêne chapelle is showing its age. Poles must shore up its weight where it once it bore its own, like a giant stretching. Wooden shingles have been used to cover areas of the tree which have lost their bark. Yet as much care and diligence is given to the tree as can be, to ensure that it lives on as long as possible even though part of its trunk is already dead. Yet twice a year its loyal congregation gathers and mass is celebrated within the confines of this remarkable chapel of oak.
The chapels are called Notre Dame de la Paix (Our Lady of Peace) and the Chambre de l'Ermite (Hermit's Room). On August 15 of each year it is still a site of pilgrimage for local Christians.