We traveled from Bayeux to Paris for our last adventures in Europe. We took a bus tour of some of the major monuments on Saturday morning, with a stop to see the extensive stained-glass window collection at Sainte-Chapelle. Please excuse the reflections in some of the photos of the city, as they had to be taken through the bus window. Some SNC alums happened to be in Paris at the same time, so it was fun to have them join us on this portion of our tour. We then had some free time to explore Paris prior to our farewell dinner cruise on the Seine River. It was an evening filled with conversation and laughter, and the perfect way to end our trip. Thank you for following along on our journey!
Happy 4th of July! What a fitting day to visit Pointe du Hoc, Utah Beach, Omaha Beach and the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial.
Pointe du Hoc
Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial
And a little fun along the way …
Many hours were spent on the bus today as we headed to Normandy, with a glamorous service station lunch break (it actually was pretty delicious). After a quick check-in at the hotel, we drove to Mondaye Abbey. Founded in 1210, it’s the only Norbertine Abbey still active in Normandy. In the 1500s, the abbey burned, its treasures were dispersed, and the abbot was killed. Total reconstruction of the abbey was undertaken in the 1700s, but was never finished, as shown below. During the French Revolution, 17 Norbertines from Mondaye were expelled or imprisoned and all 92 Norbertine abbeys in France were closed. In 1859, the bishop of Bayeux gave Mondaye Abbey to Norbertines from Grimbergen Abbey in Belgium, and once again community life flourished at Mondaye, but only for a short time. The Norbertines were forced from the abbey a few times between 1880 and 1921. The Allied landings during WWII subjected the abbey to many days of bombing, and although the buildings have been repaired, you can still see evidence of the bombings on the abbey walls. Today, all of the abbey is their property except the church, which is the property of the village. They run a busy guest center on-site – we weren’t able to stay here because all the rooms were booked. Of the approximately 47 members of this Norbertine community, 27 live here at the abbey.
The medieval area of Laon was built on the top of a flat plateau. It has the largest number of historical buildings per square meter in France. Notre Dame is the third cathedral to be built on this site. Because it was safe high up on the plateau, many people wanted to live here, and the city had a lot of money. When the architecture of the previous cathedral went out of style, they simply tore it down and built this one in the early Gothic style around 1150. In 1854, the nave started to detach from the facade, so they had to detach all the stones, fill in support, and then reattach each stone. This is the only church in the region that wasn’t damaged by bombs in the World Wars. They’re hard to see in the photos, but there are 16 life-size oxen sculptures at the top of the towers, most likely because oxen were used to carry stone up the hill.
The rose windows are possible because the ends of the church are flat. While the church wasn’t damaged in the wars, there was at one point an explosion that blew out the windows, and the stained glass windows in the photos above were repaired. The rest of the windows along the walls were replaced with lighter stained glass, which is why the church is so bright inside. A unique feature of this cathedral is its four levels of elevation. Flying buttresses were mastered later, which allowed cathedrals built in that style to achieve great height with only three levels of elevation.
Today we left Belgium, and spent the morning driving to our hotel in Chamouille, France, just outside Laon. We enjoyed lunch at the hotel’s restaurant overlooking a lake, and then boarded the bus bound for Prémontré. Norbertine scholar Martine Plouvier was our guide, with Rose Condette translating. Norbert was an itinerant preacher, but the bishop said he needed to settle in a location. Prémontré had been owned by the Benedictines, but they deserted the place, and Norbert chose that site. The altar of the first chapel Norbert had constructed using masons from France and Cologne cracked in half, so everything was torn down and a new chapel was built and dedicated around Christmas. Prémontré was a large abbey with many buildings, but much of it was destroyed during the French Revolution. The wall around the property had four entrances, to welcome people from all directions of the world. The buildings that remain intact are from the 17th and 18th centuries, although many were again damaged in WWI and had to be restored. Most of the property is now a psychiatric hospital.
Today we had power and slightly cooler temps, so all is good again! We are staying just outside Dinant, so it was back on the bus to Leffe for mass. Founded in 1154, it flourished for centuries. The 15th century, however, brought plague, flood and fire. In 1844 the last member of the Leffe Norbertine community died and everything appeared to be finished. However, the Norbertines of Frigolet were expecting to be expelled from their abbey, so in 1902 those members bought Leffe. During World War I, the abbey was turned into a prison for 1800 women. The Norbertine community eventually was able to return to the abbey. In 1929 a fire destroyed part of the abbey of Tongerlo, leaving those Norbertines homeless. They took shelter at Leffe, and eventually Leffe was officially transferred to Tongerlo. In WWII, Leffe was able to hide 40 Jewish children from the Germans. Today, they have 13 members, and are in need of vocations.
When we arrived at the hotel yesterday, we learned there was a regional power outage, so to all our loyal followers, you will see two posts today! We started our day at Park Abbey. Four Norbertines from Laon founded it in 1129. Park Abbey is known for its 17th century stained-glass windows depicting the life of Norbert, 41 in all. After the French Revolution, the Norbertines had to sell the windows to survive. They are in the process of purchasing them back from private collections and museums around the world. So far, 21 of them have been returned to Park. They are currently being studied and restored, but it was so exciting to be able to see five of them. As you can see in the photos, the abbey is currently undergoing major renovations, so it would be great to go back in four or five years to see it in its completed state.
We hopped back on the bus and headed to Grimbergen for lunch at their restaurant and a tour. Founded in 1126, it’s best known in the U.S. for its beer, which is currently brewed by Carlsberg group. They recently found their original Norbertine recipe for beer, and are starting a microbrewery. The first beer should be ready in 2020. In addition to the restaurant, they have a guest house and retreat center on site. The church was spared during the French Revolution, but the Norbertines had to flee. In 1831 they resumed communal living, and in 1951 they founded a priory in Cape Town, South Africa. They currently have 17 members, 11 of whom live at Grimbergen.
The bus rides have been fairly quiet, but I think we’re starting to win the jet lag battle. We visited beautiful Postel Abbey for a tour, mass and lunch today. Fr. Benedict greeted us, and we chatted over tea and coffee. Postel generates income through a 28-room guesthouse, and they make and sell their own cheese and products made from their herb garden. They have 23 members, 16 of whom live here. The others live in parishes or elder care facilities. Like other Norbertine abbeys we’ve visited, their members are elderly, and they struggle with vocations. In the 1950s they had approximately 100 members – some were doing mission work in the Congo. In 1970 they started a priory there with more than 50 members that is now an independent canonry.
It’s a beautiful walk down a tree-lined lane to St. Catherine’s Monastery. Almost 700 years ago, seven daughters were given permission to join the Order of Prémontré. The location of the monastery changed several times throughout the centuries, until 1647 when they moved to their present location in Oosterhout. In 1954, the sisters began restoring and preserving antique books to generate income. The economic downfall in 2008 seriously affected the income from their book work. In 2012, the sisters declared they would stay at the monastery, and they would stay there together, but they needed a new source of income. They decided to start a vineyard on the property, and after developing a business plan, the community supported them. All the sisters voted on decisions throughout the process, in order to stay true to who they are as Norbertine sisters.
In addition to the vineyard, the sisters also started a guesthouse. There are 14 rooms that can be used for retreats and other events.
The vineyard was planted in 2015, and last year was their first harvest. They grow six different varietals, and bottled 11,000 bottles of white wine their first year. On Saturday they release this year’s wine, and have grown to 55,000 bottles.
After breakfast at the hotel, we rode the bus to Berne Abbey, founded shortly after Norbert’s death in 1134. This current location has been home to the Norbertines since 1857. In the late 1800s, they had a large number of vocations, which allowed them to send three Norbertines, including Bernard Pennings, to Wisconsin in 1893. Berne would send 26 Norbertines in all, which led to the purchase of St. Joseph Parish and the founding of the college.