Froma Harrop

Froma Harrop

A tiny French mountain village with a long name, L’Hospitalet-pres-l’Andorre, has lost half its population over three decades, according to the French newspaper Le Monde. Its name in English would be “The Hospital Near Andorra.” (Andorra is a small principality shoehorned between France and Spain.)

The village can tick off the losses. First the customs office closed, causing the five families whom it supported to leave. (The village’s economy mainly depended on the town’s location on the road to Andorra and some tourism in the Pyrenees mountains.) Other jobs were erased when a dam was automated. Then, barracks housing gendarmes, the local police, moved out of town. Meanwhile, five families dependent on the SCNF, France’s state-owned railway company, were relocated elsewhere.

The population of “L’Hospi” fell to 90. The village had already lost some public services, and there was talk of closing its grade school, which had only 10 students left.

Rural depopulation plagues large parts of France as well as isolated regions of the United States. The tough thing in all these cases is that as people move away, everything else in the village shrinks.

One winter night, a small group of L’Hospi locals got together looking for a solution. They had decided not let their village continue on the path to oblivion. The decided on an obvious response to losing people: Bring more in.

But who? There was a large unused building overlooking the town square. The villagers thought it could make a fine home for single mothers and their children. The mayor agreed.

As elsewhere, families in France headed by unmarried mothers often face a lonely, economically precarious existence. Helping single-parent families recently became one of French President Emmanuel Macron’s priorities.

So sometime this summer, six mothers and their nine children will be moving into the refurbished building, now poetically renamed the Maison de Cimes (House of the Peaks). Not only will the village automatically gain 15 people; nine of them will be children, some filling empty seats at the school. The newcomers will live in a supportive community eager to end its isolation. As the mayor said, the village can help these families rebuild their lives in a peaceful setting.

Now the talk among locals gathering at the Hotel de Puymorens for coffee centers on when the plumbing will be finished, how the electric work is coming along and whether the plasterboard is up. This has become everybody’s business.

One could envision depopulating towns in the rural Plains using some of their vacant buildings as group homes for single-parent families. Much of the rural heartland has excellent schools with empty seats.

Proposals to open empty spaces to new people need not be limited to rural areas. In Burlingame, Calif., and elsewhere, a declining population of nuns has left convents only partially filled. That led to the idea of opening the unused rooms to millennials.

The project, called Nuns and Nones, has led to a fascinating mix of older sisters and young unmarried men and women, often with outside jobs. The new participants are not necessarily Catholic or tied to any religion. Millennials are the most “unchurched” generation. But many of them are nonetheless spiritual and interested in good works. Both the millennials and the nuns would regard themselves as activists.

With fewer nuns now available to take leadership roles in Catholic hospitals and schools, these institutions increasingly rely on laypeople. What better way to groom some of these future leaders than to share quarters and activities with the nuns?

All these solutions involve small numbers, but that may be their virtue. They depend more on committed communities than big government programs. They benefit all parties. The experiment at L’Hospi is unique. Let’s see what happens.

Harrop is a syndicated columnist. Email her at fharrop@gmail.com or follow her on Twitter @FromaHarrop.