Bonjour, everyone! You read that right: I’m not in Spain yet. Until Friday, I am accompanying a class from St. Norbert College on its visit to Mondaye, a Norbertine abbey in the northern French province of Normandy.
My journey to Mondaye (and Europe in general) started on Saturday, 7 January. My family drove me to O’Hare International Airport, from which my flight was scheduled to leave at 6:30 p.m. but actually left around 7 due to refueling issues. My arrival in France was also delayed due to fog on the ground. (Such delays beyond the times scheduled by the airline are not especially unusual, as anyone who has traveled much probably knows.) I arrived at Charles de Gaulle Airport north of Paris around 10:20 a.m. on Sunday, 8 January. After getting through security, customs, and luggage, I joined the class, who had graciously waited for me since its arrival some hours earlier, and we made our way four hours west to Mondaye.
Like many European Norbertine abbeys, Mondaye was founded in an isolated rural area northwest of the town of Bayeux (site of the famous Bayeux Tapestry, which we’ll be visiting on Wednesday!). Even today, only a small village sits near the church and cloister (where the canons live).
Mondaye was founded as a leprosarium, a place where lepers and other outcasts received welcome and care, in the early thirteenth century, at which time it was not yet affiliated with the Order of Prémontré. Later in the century, Mondaye was “grafted” into the Norbertine Order and given La Lucerne (no longer an extant community) as its mother abbey. At the beginning of the eighteenth century, the medieval church was destroyed and replaced by the current structure, both due to damage from various conflicts (such as the Hundred Years War) and to changing tastes in architecture. A member of the community who was an architect was tasked with designing and constructing the new church, itself an impressive (if somewhat “new” in European terms) building.
The church of Mondaye was only a few decades old when the French Revolution began in 1789. In fact, the cloister was not finished, the fourth wall of its courtyard (the usual design of Norbertine abbeys) still under construction. The extreme anticlericalism that occurred in the 1790s in France prohibited further construction and, moreover, resulted in the dissolution of the community of canons at Mondaye along with basically every religious community in France and, eventually, Belgium and other regions overrun by the French army.
Churches of religious communities were destroyed during the French Revolution; the church of Mondaye, since it was being used as a parish church when the Revolution arrived, was not. With the canons gone, Mondaye was split into different properties (some of which the community has bought back in recent decades) and home to both a school and a community of Trappist nuns until 1858. In this year, Norbertines from Grimbergen Abbey outside of Brussels, Belgium (where I stayed for two weeks in 2015 for a research trip) sent some of its members to France and reestablished Mondaye. The order had returned to Belgium in the 1830s and from there renewed its presence in Western Europe, though it did so in many fewer communities than had existed before the French Revolution.
The Norbertines of Mondaye were also expelled in the second half of the nineteenth century and in the early twentieth century, for around 20 years in the latter incident (I don’t really know why; sorry!). Since then, however, they have lived and prayed here to the present, including during World War II (shrapnel marks from the Allied invasion of Normandy in 1944 can still be seen in some areas of the church). Today, Mondaye has over two dozen members. With purchases in the last decade of land it formerly owned, the abbey has created a guest house in a former farmhouse and moved its gift shop (a quite common feature of many Norbertine abbeys in Europe) to other former farm buildings.
The gift shop sells, among other products, CDs of religious chants sung by the community: after listening to the beautiful sounds produced by the canons at Mass and at different sections of the Liturgy of the Hours, I can say with confidence that I will be purchasing at least one before I leave the abbey. After centuries of singing psalms, antiphons, and chants, the Norbertines of Mondaye go through Lauds, Mass, Vespers, and other religious rituals with ease and enjoyment yet also knowledge and grace.
We received a tour and history of Mondaye on Monday of this week; most of the information you read in this post comes from them. Thus, my gratitude is owed to Fr. Dominic Marie and Frater Godfroid for the time and knowledge they shared with us. Appreciation also goes, of course, to Fr. Andrew Ciferni, Dr. Rosemary Sands, Fr. Matthew Dougherty, and the entire class of the “Communio” course for allowing me to join them for part of this trip. I must give thanks to God that I have arrived safely in Europe, that I have a roof over my head and regular meals where I am, and that I have had the ability and privilege to go abroad in the first place. And, finally, I’ll thank you (whoever you are) for reading all of this! I hope you have found it entertaining and informative.
My adventure in Europe has started on a wonderful note, and it seems (and I hope!) that it will continue on this note for the rest of my time at Mondaye. Until my next post, everyone, au revoir!
- No one comes off a plane feeling fresh as a daisy, at least if you’re in economy class.
- For those of you who don’t know, northwestern Europe (the UK, Ireland, Belgium, Holland, much of France, and part of Germany) has a much milder winter than Wisconsin (and the northern United States in general) even though it is farther north. The Gulf Stream of the Atlantic Ocean brings warm water (and air) to this region: as a result, for example, palm trees can grow in southwestern Ireland. The region, including Normandy, can be characterized (without too much exaggeration) as cloudy and damp. The sun does break through several times each day, and, even though it could be described as “gloomy,” I find the climate overall quite pleasant.
- The outside temperature is actually sometimes higher than the temperature inside the church and hallways of Mondaye. Remember: these are buildings from 1700s (i.e., way before centralized heating through vents was standard in Europe). Norbertines wear heavy capes to trap warmth, and visitors like us imitate them by keeping our coats on when indoors.
- Roads and vehicles are narrower in Europe than in the United States.
- In France, even gas station restaurants have a wide array of baked goods: they’re compact pâtissières!
- Historical landmarks in Europe, at least back to the Middle Ages, are appreciated but commonplace.
- There are many winding country roads in the area, especially on the approach to Mondaye. They are slightly terrifying (especially when a car comes down the road from the opposite direction!) but also charming.
P.S. Yep, the title is indeed a play on the The Mamas and the Papas song “Monday, Monday.” Puns are fun!