The miracle of Mont Saint Michel

The Monastery of Mont Saint Michel sits easily on its rock in the English Channel, just off the Normandy Coast, a fixture of the landscape. Yet, it took an apparition, a burnt skull,  determination, several minor miracles  and incredible feats of construction to put it there.

Mont Saint Michel
Mont Saint Michel

In 708, the Archangel Michael appeared to the Bishop Aubert of Avranches and told him to build a church on a small rocky island, just off the nearby coast, in the English Channel. Believing the island to be a difficult, if not impossible site on which to build anything, let alone something a large and complex as a church, the Bishop steadfastly ignored the Archangel. Finally, the exasperated Michael burned a hole in Aubert’s skull and at last, he acquiesced. The  Monastery of Saint Michel was built. The Monastery became one of the holiest and most frequented pilgrimage sites in the known world and the Bishop became Saint Aubert.

The view from Mont Saint Michel
The view from Mont Saint Michel

In 1067, the Monastery lent its support to William the Conqueror in his invasion of England and his campaign for the English Crown. The Monastery and the treacherous sea that surrounds it feature in the famous Bayeux Tapestry. The Monastery was handsomely rewarded for its support, with a grant of land, which included an island  off the coast of Cornwall. A Norman Priory, modelled on Saint Michel and named Saint Michael’s Mount of Penzance, was established there.

The popularity and prestige of Mont Saint Michel declined over the ensuing centuries and by the time of the French Revolution, only a few monks remained in residence. During the revolution, the monastery was converted into a prison and precious frescos, paintings, furniture and books were tossed into the surrounding bay.

In 1836, prominent members of the French, including Victor Hugo, launched a campaign to save and restore what was left of the Monastery. They finally succeeded in closing the prison and Mont Saint Michel was declared an historic monument in 1874.

The permanent population of Mont Saint Michel is only about 40, but as it is one of the most visited monuments in France, thousands pour in every day to walk its ancient halls and pathways or to pick their way around its perilous sands at low tide.

Mont St Michel is now a UNESCO World Heritage site.

 

The Normandy Invasions

On June 6, 1944, the Allied forces landed on the beaches they had code named Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword,  along the Normandy coast in Western France.

The American war graves on the Normandy coast
The American war graves on the Normandy coast

On a jutting cliff, called Pointe du Hoc, between Utah and Omaha beaches, stood a set of concrete fortifications, housing a battery of Nazi artillery.

The American ground forces had been tasked with destroying the guns of Pointe du Hoc, but before they finally succeeded, thousands of men had been mown down as they struggled ashore or made their way up Utah and Omaha Beaches.

Today Pointe du Hoc still bears the signs of those June days. It is gouged with huge bomb craters and the concrete bunkers that housed the German guns remain, pitted with bullet holes.

On January 11, 1979 Pointe du Hoc was ceded to the Americans. It is maintained by the Battle Monuments Commission. A memorial and museum dedicated to the battle stand on the site.

In the American Cemetery at Colville-sur-Mer, looking out over the beach below, are 9, 387 small white crosses and stars of David. They mark the final resting places of the American servicemen who lost their lives in the invasion and liberation of Normandy. Many of them died on the beaches just below.

On a monument just across from the rows of crosses is a monument inscribed with the names of a further 1, 557 American soldiers, whose remains were never found or identified.

It is a place of great beauty, stillness, reflection and overwhelming sadness.

Remembering the war on the Normandy coast

The Hotel Churchill in Bayeux is full but there are just two groups of guests. One is a band of American seniors, the other a troop of schoolgirls from Australia. They’re all here for the same reason – to visit the places where the end of World War II began.

The statue of Our Lady at Arromanches
The statue of Our Lady at Arromanches

Most of the Americans are probably sons, daughters, nephews and nieces of the soldiers who played a part in the D Day landings along the nearby coast in June, 1944 and drove the Nazi forces into retreat. Some are possibly even veteran soldiers themselves. Many of the Australians are probably grand or great-grandchildren children of soldiers who played their part in World War II, if not here, then somewhere else in the world.

The Churchill is a perfect base for such a pilgrimage. Used as a hospital during the war, it is redolent of the ghosts of the people who passed through it.  The numerous photos which hang on its walls and the memorabilia in its cabinets tell the small war stories of young American soldiers and the people of Bayeux.

The history – the grand, heroic story of the D Day Invasions, is told through compelling displays and multimedia presentations in the Musée de la Bataille on the outskirts of the town. It is told again, even more compellingly, in the 360 degree cinema on the cliff above the nearby town of Arromanches. Along the cliff, a statue of Our Lady, a large crucifix and  photos showing the devastation of the local villages and towns, the suffering and the resilience of the local people, admonish to peace.