A Day in Paris-Our Last Day

Today many of our group took in the sights of Paris with a morning bus tour. We began in the Montparnasse District, home to the vibrant Parisian intellectual and artistic scene in the early 20th century.

Our next stop was that most famous of churches, Notre Dame Cathedral. The 849-year-old Gothic masterpiece continues to be, literally and figuratively, the heart of Paris.

We then crossed the Seine to stop at the Louvre, home to some of the world’s greatest artistic treasures, and then proceeded down the Champs-Elysees before crossing the river again to visit iconic Eiffel Tower (where my wife, Mary, and I took the obligatory photo opp!)

We ended the tour with a walk to the summit of Montmartre, the highest point in the city, home to the Sacré-Coeur Basilica. (For those not up for the 300 steps, there is a funicular railway to the top that serves 6,000 people a day.)

Consecrated in 1919, Sacré-Coeur is impressive in its own right, but the site also provides the most commanding view of the city. Our tour guide, Antoine, had told us earlier that Paris is a city of some 500 streets, 20 districts and 14 million residents. The view from atop Montmartre really brought home the meaning of those numbers!

The basilica is open around the clock, and apparently the local hotels are accustomed to leaving wakeup calls for guests who want to reach the summit early to watch the sun come up over Paris.

We descended Montmartre, and spent the remainder of the afternoon absorbing the richness of the city around us. We’ll share a final group dinner tonight, and depart tomorrow for the flight home.

Mary and I feel blessed that we were able to be part of this tour. Thank you for following my blog these past two weeks – we hope you have learned more about the history and heritage of the Norbertine order.

I would also like to acknowledge John Watters, of the St. Norbert College communications office, who helped with the editing of the blog. Thanks, John!

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Photos from our tour of Paris

The Montparnasse District in Paris

Notre Dame

Notre Dame

Notre Dame

The Louvre

(Left to right) Rev. Jay Fostner, O.Praem., Abbot emeritus Thomas DeWane, O.Praem, and Rev. Sal Cuccia, O.Praem., at the Eiffel Tower

Funicular railway to the basilica of Sacre-Coeur

View from the steps of the basilica of Sacre-Coeur

Musee d'Orsay

Mary and Mike Counter at the Eiffel Tower

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Thursday in Mondaye

Our last abbey visit of the Norbertine heritage tour was to the small abbey of Mondaye, just outside of Bayeux.

The buildings at Mondaye Abbey date from the 18th century and reflect a French Classical style, but the abbey itself is far older. It was founded in 1202; like many abbeys, sadly, it suffered frequently over the centuries from the plague and war, and nothing remains of the original structures.

That said, the “new” buildings of the 1700’s are quite beautiful. The Rev. Dominique Marie, O.Praem., our tour guide, led us through the church, refectory, cloister, library and other parts of the abbey. The church was impressive, and designed in traditional Premonstratensian (Norbertine) fashion, with the altar at the center and an especially long transept (the “arms” of the church extending out to either side of the altar). Also impressive was the church’s beautiful organ, dating from 1741.

The abbey library houses 40,000 volumes, many extremely rare, with some dating back to the 16th century. I was especially interested to see early scientific treatises: St. Norbert College cherishes both faith and reason, and it was reaffirming to see how deeply rooted that idea is in the Norbertine tradition itself.

Being from The Dairy State, I was also interested to learn that for centuries, until recently, the abbey operated a working dairy farm and sold yogurt to the local communities. (Between this and the many abbey breweries, it’s hardly surprising the Norbertines chose Wisconsin for their first American home; they seem to be made for each other!)

With our tour complete, Father Dominique Marie bid us farewell and we boarded the bus for Paris, the last stop on what has been a remarkable trip.

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Photos from Mondaye Abbey

Mondaye Abbey

Our tour guide, the Rev. Dominique Marie, O.Praem., shows us some rare books in the library at Mondaye Abbey

The Rev. Sal Cuccia, O.Praem., in the Mondaye Abbey library

Mondaye Abbey - this area was a farm at one time

St. Martin church

St. Martin church altar

St. Martin church

Chapter room in St. Martin church

In the distance, a statue of St. Norbert on the hill at Mondaye Abbey

Dessert at our lunch in Mondaye: apple tart and brie!

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Our trip to Normandy

When the Norbertine heritage trip was planned, organizers began with this day, July 4th, and worked from there. They wanted us to celebrate Independence Day visiting the battlegrounds and resting place of American heroes.

We began with an extremely moving experience at Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial. We were on American soil again as the French gifted this land to the U.S.

It’s amazing to see up close the graves of 9,000 American soldiers and the names of 1,557 of the missing, including many from Wisconsin and our neighbor state Michigan. In all, 25,000 Americans died in Normandy. (See photos)

The cemetery has a disproportionate amount of officers buried here because their families felt the officers would want to be buried with the troops they had led.

The massive allied assault on the Normandy coastline on June 6, 1944, aimed to liberate France and drive into Nazi Germany. Six U.S., British and Canadian divisions landed on the beaches including Omaha beach (See photos) in history’s greatest amphibious assault.

We also traveled down the coastline to Arromanches-les-Bains near Gold Beach where the British troops landed on D-Day. The French tank and the Higgins boat in the photos below are a stark reminder of the battles fought here.

I realized quickly after seeing one of the German military cemeteries that the fallen German soldiers were also beloved sons. There are six graveyards totaling a staggering 78,000 German soldiers who lost their lives in Normandy. (See photos)

Our last stop took us to Pointe du Hoc, which honors soldiers of the 2nd Ranger Battalion.

It’s strategically situated between Utah and Omaha beaches and was German occupied. It’s amazing to think American soldiers scaled the 100-foot cliff and disabled German guns threatening the beaches. Two hundred and thirty-five soldiers from the 2nd Ranger Battalion started the mission and only 90 soldiers survived.

It was fitting that it rained as we hurried past some German bunkers and escaped back to cover on the bus. (See photos)

It was an incredible day. You could hear a pin drop as the bus took us back to our hotel. It was an experience none of us will soon forget.

Tomorrow we will visit our last abbey, Mondaye, near Bayeux. From there we are on to Paris, our last stop of the tour.

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Photos from Normandy

Normandy American Cemetery

Abbot emeritus Thomas DeWane, O.Praem. at Normandy American Cemetery

Wisconsin soldier buried at Normandy American Cemetery

Michigan soldier buried at Normandy American Cemetery

Normandy Memorial

Omaha Beach

Omaha Beach

William Hyland, Director, Center for Norbertine Studies stands next to a French tank.

Higgins boat

German Military Cemeteries

German Military Cemeteries

Walls at Pointe du Hoc

German bunkers at Pointe du Hoc

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Our trip to Bayeux

We left Rouen this morning. I wish we had stayed a while longer … the Tour de France was scheduled to pass through town this afternoon! But that would mean closed streets and big crowds. (Speaking of streets, they were covered last night in newspapers, apparently in protest over the closing of a local independent paper.)

Our destination today was Bayeux, home of the famous Bayeux Tapestry, a unique piece of embroidery dating back to the 11th century.

Housed in a museum that occupies a former seminary, the tapestry depicts the events leading up to the conquest of England by William, the Duke of Normandy, in 1066. Some of the tapestry’s most striking scenes depict the epic Battle of Hastings.

It is an incredibly impressive work. First, it is enormous – some 230 feet long. It is also elaborate, not only in its themes but in its use of many different-colored threads and four different stitch techniques.

While there are competing theories about who commissioned the work, and about who actually performed it, it’s generally agreed it took about three years to complete. Not quite as efficient a way to report on events as the newspapers we saw last night, but definitely a more beautiful one!

We switched gears, but not time periods, as we left the museum and made our way to the Cathedral Notre Dame de Bayeux, the tapestry’s first home in France, consecrated about the same time the tapestry was completed.

The cathedral was introduced to us by our tour guide as being “more beautiful from the distance.” I have to agree. I remember our visit to the church of Grimbergen Abbey last week, where the exterior seemed almost purposely plain, the better to highlight the stunning interior.  But in the case of the Cathedral Notre Dame de Bayeux, it’s clear a dramatic first impression was intended. As you approach this Norman-Romanesque structure, you’re dazzled by the soaring, delicately carved spires and the intricate stained glass windows.

It is fascinating to think that this masterpiece was being built even as war was raging to the north, and that the war itself would spur the creation of another masterpiece, the Bayeux Tapestry.

The temptation is to romanticize these long-past wars; but tomorrow, on July 4, we’ll be reminded of the truth about them, when we visit the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial.

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Bayeaux Tapestry Museum and Cathedral Notre Dame de Bayeux Photos

Bayeaux Tapestry Museum

Bayeaux Tapestry

Bayeaux Tapestry

Rev. James Herring, O.Praem., looking at a Bayeaux Tapestry poster

Cathedral Notre Dame de Bayeux from a distance

Cathedral Notre Dame de Bayeux

Our group enters Cathedral Notre Dame de Bayeux

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Photos from Laon and Prémontré

St. Martin Church

St. Martin Church

St. Martin Church

Cathedral of Notre Dame de Laon

Cathedral of Notre Dame de Laon

Cathedral of Notre Dame de Laon

Cathedral of Notre Dame de Laon

Cathedral of Notre Dame de Laon and the north rose window that includes scenes depicting the sciences and the liberal arts.

Prémontré Church

Prémontré Abbey

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Where it all began

Today our travels took us to the birthplace of the Norbertine order. (Particularly appropriate for me, since I’m celebrating my own birth today! I’m not quite as old as the order – although I feel it, after a week of bus travel.)

We began the day in the walled medieval city of Laon, where Norbert resided before leaving to establish his order. He would return to Laon several years after his departure to form a new abbey, and our first stop was at St. Martin, the church of that now-defunct abbey. Built in stages during the 12th and 13 th centuries, St. Martin reflects both Romanesque and Gothic influence. Like so much of what we’ve seen in recent days, it is both ancient and stunningly beautiful.

And yet, not as ancient or (if it’s possible) as beautiful as the next place we visited in the city, the cathedral of Notre Dame de Laon. Built beginning in 1160 on the site of an even earlier church, this magnificent and massive structure is 100 meters long, soaring 60 meters high and boasting five towers. It is considered one of the purest and most important examples of Gothic architecture in all of Europe.

Especially memorable were the cathedral’s exquisite stained glass windows, many of them dating to the original construction. One in particular caught the attention of our contingent: The north rose window includes scenes depicting the sciences and the liberal arts, two subjects dear to the heart of St. Norbert College.

Following the cathedral tour, we capitalized on a beautiful day with lunch at a quintessentially French outdoor café, then made the short trip to Prémontré. It was here that St. Norbert, with the support of the bishop of Laon, founded the order that would bear his name.

A remote and wild place, Prémontré was not considered “prime real estate” at the time; other monks had tried to cultivate the land, to no avail. But Norbert and his followers persevered, and within six months they had built a church on the property.

It thrived for centuries. But the Prémontré Abbey, like so many others, was a casualty of the French Revolution, and many of its older structures were demolished around that time. The remaining 17th and 18th century buildings were converted to a hospital in the 1860’s, but we were permitted to tour the grounds, and were granted access to what had been the abbot’s home and chapel.

In addition, we toured the abbey’s church, still in use by the local parish. It contains a lone pillar from St. Norbert’s original, 12th century church – a single candle to commemorate what was born here.

Late in the day we set out for the city of Rouen, from which we will continue tomorrow to Bayeux.

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