Sunday 9 July 2023. Cathy gave us a “you’ve got to be kidding” look when we asked her if we could have breakfast at 6:30 a.m., but when she realized we were serious, she graciously accommodated us. We told her to keep it simple, so we didn’t get any freshly made crêpes. Tant pis (too bad).
But why did we want breakfast at such an ungodly hour on a Sunday morning, anyway?
Well, during the time Michael served in France as a young missionary, his favorite assignment had been in a small town in the Loire Valley called Angers (pronounced ahn-zhay). He had always wanted to go back to Angers, but had never had the opportunity—until now. Months ago, as he was planning the itinerary for this summer’s European travels, Michael decided to include a stop in Angers between our stay in La Rochelle and a visit to the coast of Normandy. Making this trip on a Sunday would be perfect, he reasoned, because we could attend church in Angers at the LDS ward in which he had served forty-eight years ago. He contacted the bishop of the Angers Ward to learn what time their meetings were held and was told that sacrament meeting would begin at 9:30 a.m. We would have to leave La Rochelle by 7:15 a.m. to reach Angers in time—hence the need for an early breakfast.
We arrived at the chapel about five minutes before the meeting began. Michael immediately recognized Serge D______, who had been a young father at the time of their last contact. Though they had worked together only a few times, Serge had had a lasting impact on Michael. Just after being transferred out of Angers, Michael had solicited Serge’s advice about how to approach teaching another young father whose wife was not interested in the missionaries’ message. Michael knew that the same had been the case with Serge when he and Françoise were first married; Serge advised him to be patient and loving, but stay strong in the faith. When the end of Michael’s mission came and he was ready to return to the U.S., Serge had purchased his bicycle.
A couple of years ago, while Michael was searching the Church History Library catalog during his mission with Nancy in New Zealand, he happened upon a recorded oral history of Serge and Françoise. They shared experiences from their years of Church service, how blessed they felt to watch their little branch grow, and how grateful they were to now have a temple in France. (The Paris Temple opened in 2017.) Listening to them not only brought back memories for Michael but also gave him much joy, knowing that they had remained faithful, committed disciples of Christ.
Just before sacrament meeting began in the Angers Ward, the bishop asked Michael if he would be willing to share a few remarks as a “guest speaker.” He was a little hesitant but agreed to try, and once he got started his nerves seemed to calm down. He spoke mostly about the impact his experience in Angers had had on the rest of his life, how grateful he was for the example of the members there, and how, after he left the city, he felt he like he had become an “adult” in the Kingdom of God, able and willing to help it grow.
The primary speakers for the meeting were a senior couple who had been called as supervisors for the Service Missionary program in northwestern France. (Service Missionaries are young adults called to volunteer for a certain number of hours a week in their home areas rather than serving full-time in another part of the world. The program provides opportunities for young people with special needs to have a mission experience if they so desire. Assignments, customized to fit their particular abilities and circumstances, can range from working at a community soup kitchen to helping the full-time missionaries move furniture from one apartment to another.) The husband in the supervising pair prefaced his remarks by saying how grateful he was for the many young missionaries such as Elder Harward who had served faithfully decades ago to help build up the Church in France.
And it has been built up! Michael was very impressed with the size of the congregation; about ninety people were present. Back in 1976, attendance at the Angers Branch had been more like twenty-five, and the group had met in a small storefront; now the ward has its own chapel.
After the meeting, a man whom Michael estimated to be in his late fifties or early sixties struck up a conversation with him. When he mentioned his surname, Michael realized that he remembered the family and this man, who had been a teenager in 1975. They had joined the church shortly before Michael arrived in Angers. What a delight to reconnect with him and to learn that he and his family were still strong in the faith. As they spoke, Michael could tell that Jean-Yves had fully embraced the gospel and committed his life to serving the Lord.
Even though he had recognized only a few people at the meeting, returning to Angers was a gratifying experience for Michael. Much had changed in the nearly fifty years since he had worked there, but most of the changes seemed to be for the better. And although Nancy and Pat understood little that was said during the meeting, they were grateful for the opportunity to take the sacrament and feel the Spirit within another community of Latter-day Saints.
We did not stay for the ward’s second-hour meetings because Patricia and Astrid had told us that before we left Angers, we must go see the historic tapestry on display in the château there, so we followed their advice. We learned that the tapestry in Angers is the largest surviving example of the craft from the fourteenth century, having been commissioned by Louis I, Duke of Anjou, about 1373 and thereafter held within the Cathédrale d’Angers. During the Revolution of 1789, the French proletariat regarded the huge tapestry as a prime example of royal excess, so the panels were cut apart to be used as blankets and floor coverings. Clergymen later recovered most of the pieces and carefully restored them. During the first half of the twentieth century, the tapestry went on display at World’s Fairs and museums around the globe and then returned to Angers, where a special gallery had been constructed for it. The tapestry depicts the Apocalypse as described by Saint John in the Book of Revelation, and the medieval artists’ less-than-realistic style perfectly suits the book’s bizarre imagery.
As the three of us helped each other identify details of the scriptural scene depicted in each panel of the Apocalypse Tapestry, we realized that we had not missed the second-hour of Sunday church meetings after all—we’d simply held our own religious discussion about the End Times and the Second Coming at a different venue. (The Guardian published an interesting article in April 2020 about the Apocalypse Tapestry and its relevance to our time; you can read it here.)
We left Angers a little before noon so we could reach our next major destination, Mont Saint-Michel, by mid-afternoon. We stopped for lunch in Vern-sur-Seiche, a little town at about the halfway point of our afternoon journey. We’d planned to pick up some sandwiches at a boulangerie but couldn’t find any that were open; Crêperie La Bretonne seemed to be the only local food source that wasn’t closed on a Sunday afternoon. Although its name was, coincidentally, nearly the same as that of the crêperie in Paris where we had eaten lunch together the previous week, this menu featured galette fillings that were less traditional. Pat played it safe and ordered a cheese galette, but Michael went for a Thai version filled with coconut-curried chicken, zucchini, and carrots. Nancy’s galette Africaine was stuffed with chicken, puréed sweet potatoes, and peanut sauce. Excellent!
When we arrived at what might be called the “staging area” for Mont Saint-Michel, Michael was impressed with how well the Department of Manche had prepared to handle the islet’s visitors—some three million each year. Sometime after Nancy’s first visit in 1976—when her BYU group had been dropped off right next to the island at low tide and told to be back within two hours or they’d have to wade back to the bus through quicksand—French authorities procured a large plot of nearby farmland to transform into a massive parking lot, from which a fleet of electric buses now shuttle everyone (free of charge) across a causeway to the Mont.
As we expected, thousands of other people were threading their way up the single narrow street that leads to the pinnacle of Mont Saint-Michel. We had pre-purchased tickets to visit the abbey anytime between 1:00 p.m and 5:30 p.m., which was fortunate because it took us at least half an hour to work our way up the 300 meters (and 350 stair steps) from the bottom of the hill. Pat had been worried that her heart condition might inhibit her from completing the steep ascent, but we took our time and let her rest along the way as often as she needed. (Michael and Nancy didn’t mind resting, either, because it was really hot!) Touring the abbey was well worth the climb, especially with the excellent audio guide we had pre-purchased; we could freely wander from room to room at our own pace while hearing the informative commentary.
Once we got back to our rental car, we had to drive about ten miles east to the small town of Céaux, where we had reserved rooms at the Hôtel Les Montois. Frédéric, the young proprietor, checked us in. Before he led us upstairs, we inquired about the restaurant adjacent to the lobby; was it open? “Non,” he replied, explaining that currently, he and his wife were the whole establishment’s only staff. The couple had bought the old hotel and restaurant last year, and at this point were concentrating on simply keeping the hotel open while modernizing the facilities. Frédéric hoped it would not be long before they could hire more help and reopen the restaurant. He shared his story with such enthusiasm that we wished we could do more to help him and his wife make their dreams become reality.
Since our host could not offer us dinner himself, he recommended that we try La Parenthèse de la Baie, a restaurant we remembered passing on the drive from Mont Saint-Michel. It turned out to be very good, featuring a menu of locally sourced foods. Michael had salmon on a bed of mixed grains and ratatouille; Nancy had lamb chops with cider sauce and frites. Considering that we’d had ice cream only a couple of hours earlier, we might have skipped dessert, but Pat was enticed by a dessert order she saw pass by on the way to another table.
“What is that?” she exclaimed, pointing to a rectangular plate containing two big puff pastries drenched in chocolate sauce and surrounded by swirls of whipped cream. “Whatever it is, I want some!”
We’d seen profiteroles on the dessert menu, but apparently Pat was unfamiliar with that alternate name for cream puffs. They did look irresistible, so since Pat didn’t think she had room for a whole order, Nancy agreed to share it with her. The puffs were filled with vanilla ice cream and tasted as good as they looked. Never one to pass on dessert, Michael ordered a slice of the Chocolat Royal, a delicious mousse cake.
It was 9:15 p.m. and getting dark by the time we returned to the hotel. Our room was small, but Frédéric and his wife had done their best to make it comfortable and give it some character. We could tell that the windows were newly installed. The only problem was that the frame of the one in our bedroom had not been completely secured to the wall, so we couldn’t open it without fear of the whole thing crashing to the floor. Fortunately, the window in the bathroom did not have the same issue, so with the help of a small portable fan we managed to keep cool air circulating around us during the night.
About midnight, Nancy awoke. Michael was moving around the room with the flashlight on. At first she thought he must be looking for something because he wasn’t going into the bathroom, but his movements did not seem at all purposeful.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
The flashlight suddenly turned to focus on her. Michael stood motionless for a moment and then said, “I don’t know.” The flashlight snapped off, and he got back into bed without another word. Weird.
Around 5:15 a.m., Nancy felt a whack across her face. Michael’s arms were flailing.
“What’s the matter?” she cried.
After Michael woke up enough to respond, he said, “Did I hit you? I’m sorry, but I was trying to save a baby in a car seat from a feral cat that was about to jump through the car window.”
Apparently, the new medication Michael had begun taking just before we left the States, the one that warned of “hallucinatory dreams” as a potential side effect, was just doing its thing.