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Spectacular Helicopter Maneuver Lifts Angel from Famous Spire

May 5, 1987

MONT ST. MICHEL, France (AP) _ A helicopter hovering precariously over Mont St. Michel on Tuesday removed for restoration the massive bronze archangel that has topped the spire of the spectacular island abbey for nearly a century.

A crowd below cheered as the white helicopter made two sweeps around the abbey before depositing the statue gently on the dike connecting the island to the mainland.

Hundreds of visitors, local officials and reporters watched from vantage points overlooking the Gulf of St. Malo.

Culture Minister Francois Leotard was on hand for the delicate operation, which took only a few minutes once it began. Heavy cables were lowered from the helicopter over the spire, shrouded in a wooden scaffolding, where workmen waited for 25 mph winds to subside so they could attach the cables to the angel.

The helicopter dipped three times before the cables were fixed firmly in place.

Then, like a giant white bird against a bright blue sky, it lifted the archangel high over the abbey, which rises 515 feet above the ground and dominates the view for miles around.

Like the French-made Statue of Liberty, built at roughly the same time with the same materials - wrought iron covered with bronze sheeting - the archangel has been corroded by exposure to humidity, salt air, wind and lightening.

The archangel is to be taken to a Paris suburb for a 3.8 million franc ($630,000) restoration and will be placed back atop the abbey spire in about six months, Culture Ministry officials said.

″Maintenance is very important. In fact, if we had had more funds to begin with to maintain the Mont St. Michel, we wouldn’t have had to undertake such costly renovations now,″ said Claude Roux, a spokeswoman for the Department of Historical Monuments.

Built by Emmanuel Fremier in 1897, the statue represents St. Michael battling the forces of evil. It weighs one ton and stands 15 feet tall, winged and helmeted and holding a sword that serves as the only lightening rod in a 25-mile radius.

The abbey, begun in the 8th century, has burned 13 times from fires sparked by lightening. A substitute rod was immediately put in place when St. Michael was removed.

The abbey took five centuries to complete. Over the years the abbey also served as a prison, military fortress and pilgrimmage site.

Listed as a national historic monument, the abbey is currently inhabited by three monks and three nuns who maintain the site and celebrate Mass. The village surrounding the abbey is a warren of souvenir shops and restaurants serving the more than 1 million visitors who come to the island each year.

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