Journalist Fran Stoddard is in France this week with a group from Burlington City Arts, to celebrate the Lake Champlain Quadricentennial. She sent this report earlier this week, from Mont St. Michel. Click here for her earlier posts.
Sunday, May 24
Mont St. Michel is an astonishing fortified village and Abbey that reaches for the sky on a small island off the coast of Brittany. Over 3 million souls venture there every year , but only 1 million make the climb to the Abbey on top. Because of the vanderHeyden connections (former St. Mike's president Marc and his wife Dana are on the trip), we were among a few hundred who made it, not only for a remarkable tour of the Abby but also up a narrow stone spiral assent. We ended up above the buttresses via the "lace staircase" — a challenge for those of us with claustrophobia and height issues, but worth the physical terror.
One of France’s great writers of the 19th century can offer better than I the poetry Mont St. Michel inspires and deserves. From Guy de Maupassant:
After several hours' walking, I reached the enormous mass of rock which supports the little town, dominated by the great church. Having climbed the steep and narrow street, I entered the most wonderful Gothic building that has ever been erected to God on earth, large as a town, and full of low rooms which seem buried beneath vaulted roofs, and of lofty galleries supported by delicate columns. I entered this gigantic granite jewel, which is as light in its effect as a bit of lace and is covered with towers, with slender belfries to which spiral staircases ascend. The flying buttresses raise strange heads that bristle with chimeras. with devils, with fantastic animals, with monstrous flowers, are joined together by finely carved arches, to the blue sky by day, and to the black sky by night.
When I had reached the summit. I said to the monk who accompanied me: "Father, how happy you must be here!" And he replied: "It is very windy, Monsieur"; and so we began to talk while watching the rising tide, which ran over the sand and covered it with a steel cuirass.
There is no direct connection of Mont St. Michel to Samuel de Champlain that we know of, but since the first evidence of settlement there 1300 years ago, Mont St. Michel was certainly around and possibly as familiar in his time as it is in ours. And, it is connected to the Champlain Valley as the namesake of St. Michael’s College.
It was the College’s Edmundite Order who restored the liturgy to the Mont in the mid 19th century. Mont St. Michel had been Benedictine since early times, but during the French Revolution, religion was squashed and many monasteries were destroyed, their stones used to build something else, or in the case of Mont St. Michel, used as a prison (like Brouage!).
In the mid 800’s there was a re-Chrisianization of France, but the Benedictines didn’t show interest in returning to “the Mont.” So the Bishop turned to the Edmundite order who had restored the cathedral and Catholic worship in Pontigny, France. The Edmundites agreed to take on the challenge of Mont St. Michel and were there for several decades. The government of France, however, decided to take the abbey back in 1880 and sent the Edmundites down the hill to a small chapel. The priests were smart enough to know it was time to look further afield for a settlement for their teaching and way of life and they looked to America. A spot they chose was in Vermont and the group eventually set up St. Michael’s College, named after Mont St. Michel. Who knew?
Today, Mont St. Michel continues to be owned by the state and the liturgy is run once again by Benedictines, but historian and former St. Michael’s president, Marc vanderHeyeden made sure the Edmundite piece of its history was honored with a plaque dedicated in the smaller chapel several years ago. As we descend through the medieval city, he pointed out a house solidly clinging to the tower of building that is the Mont, where he and Dana stayed with the former French Minister of Tourism.
After lunch, back on the mainland, away from the tourist crowds, Andre Senecal introduced us to a song of St. Malo, starting an impromptu French song sing-along, as we headed back to that walled city for the evening.