The church in Ste. Mere Eglise has become a pilgrimage spot for D-Day veterans and a must-see stop for those with an interest in 20th-century history.
As of Sept. 11 it will also stand as an inspiration to our generation — a reminder that our nation has faced a formidable foe determined to see our demise in the past, and we have prevailed.
Many of the Catholic churches in Normandy, France, bear battle scars from World War II.
The church in Ste. Mere Eglise, therefore, is not unique in having walls that are marked with nicks and gashes from heavy gunfire. However, the parish and the town also keep a more human reminder of the events that took place in early June 1944. Hanging from the steeple of the church is a life-size model of a U.S. paratrooper.
The model memorializes the story of Pvt. John Steele, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment (PIR), who was dropped into Normandy in the early hours of June 6, 1944 — D-Day — as part of Operation Overlord. During the descent, his parachute became entangled on the steeple. He hung there for a couple hours, pretending to be dead, before he was cut down and captured by the Germans.
Seeing the replica of the paratrooper caught on the outside of the church of course reminded me of Steele's story (made famous by the book and movie The Longest Day) but, in a greater sense, it really is emblematic of the price that was paid for the liberation of Ste. Mere Eglise. The figure serves as a catalyst for the imagination. Stand in the square and picture paratroopers raining down from the sky. Understand that their descent was anything but peaceful.
These men were not supposed to land in the town center. Poor weather conditions and antiaircraft fire had forced a good percentage of the airborne landing (not just those of Steele's platoon) off course.
Unfortunately for those who unexpectedly found themselves descending into the town square of Ste. Mere Eglise, a fire in the middle of the night had awakened many of the townspeople as well as the German occupiers. They all were out on the streets helping to battle the blaze and, therefore, the Germans were able to react quickly to the invasion. The men descending in the parachutes were defenseless and suffered many casualties.
Although the Allies had not intended on landing directly in Ste. Mere Eglise, the town was considered to be of great strategic importance. According to historian Stephen Ambrose in D-Day, June 6 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II, capturing the town meant gaining control of a main road from Caen to Cherbourg and the isolation of German troops to the north in the Cotentin peninsula. Ste. Mere Eglise, therefore, was one of the main D-Day targets of the U.S. Airborne.
By the time additional U.S. para-troopers arrived in the town around 4 a.m., the action had subsided and the Germans actually had gone to bed. The Americans were able to take control of Ste. Mere Eglise relatively easily at this point, but holding on to it proved difficult as the Germans also knew the value of the town. Members of the 2nd and 3rd Battalions of the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment spent the day staving off counterattacks.
In Their Honor
As I sat in Sunday Mass in the Ste. Mere Eglise church, I noticed that a majority of the congregation has white hair. I was moved to think that many of them probably have lived in the town their entire lives and witnessed its liberation first hand.
For those of us who did not, a visit to the church in Ste. Mere Eglise cannot help us completely understand the horror of what went on that day. What it does provide is a chance to reflect on the sacrifices made on D-Day; it allows for an opportunity to thank God for our freedom and to honor the men who fought for it. Inside are two stained-glass windows which were dedicated with this purpose in mind.
The first, located in the back of the church, was commissioned soon after the war's end. I overheard a private tour guide state that it uniquely combines images of the Virgin Mary and armed soldiers. The dominant figure in the scene is the Holy Mother, who is holding the Infant Jesus. However, she is surrounded by U.S. paratroopers descending onto Ste. Mere Eglise, which is pictured in the bottom panels. Literature interpreting this particular window says the idea was to show the town “ravaged by the fire, but haloed by the glory of the liberation.”
The second stained-glass window, located in a small alcove close to the choir, was commissioned by the C47 Club of the 505th on the 25th anniversary of D-Day. It depicts a winged and armored Archangel Michael (many paratroopers consider him their patron saint) defeating the devil. Along the edges of the picture are the various emblems and insignia of the U.S. 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions.
The church also has a fairly new pipe organ dedicated to the memory of those who lost their lives during World War II. It was completed in 1994, in time for the 50th anniversary of D-Day. Not forgetting those who lost their lives in the first World War, one of the stations of the cross pays tribute to a man killed in 1918.
There are relatively few statues in the church at Ste. Mere Eglise. One is a striking figure of St. Sebastian carved in a stark white stone. Golden arrows pierce his flesh. The entire wall around him is a deep green marble, decorated with gilded pillars and other gold flourishes. The same color scheme carries over to the high altar where golden rays fill the top of the arch and cascade down to a painting of the Assumption of Mary. In statue form, she is depicted to the left of the altar holding the baby Jesus and near the St. Sebastian alcove as Our Lady of Lourdes. The latter is surrounded with offertory flowers and plaques giving thanks for prayers answered.
Parts of the church structure, including the base of the tower, date back to the 11th century. The tower itself was built in the 13th century and is called saddle-backed due to the way it is situated on the rest of the building.
The Gothic interior includes vaulted ceilings and side aisles lined with pillared arches. The floor is bare stone; it felt like the middle of winter indoors even on a pleasant day in mid-May. Far from being a deterrent, however, the climate contributes to the ambiance and the experience of worshiping in this historic place.
On the 50th anniversary of D-Day, the day was fondly remembered for the sacrifice of Americans who left small towns across the nation, came to Europe and “saved the world.” This Church is a reminder of Christ, who really did save the world, once and for all — and who remains the world's only hope.
Monta Monaco Hernon writes from Mokena, Illinois.