82nd Airborne Chaplain Killed in D-Day Invasion Recognized for Heroism, Honored in Stained Glass
The story of Father Ignatius Maternowski grows even more compelling 78 years after D-Day.
The story of Conventual Franciscan Father Ignatius Maternowski, the only American chaplain killed in the initial days of the invasion of Normandy 78 years ago, continues to gain momentum, especially in three ways:
- First, this June, he received more honors when a new stained-glass window commemorating him and his courageous action was dedicated in a small chapel in Normandy close to the place where he died. Already, the French had erected a memorial to him there.
- Second, when the window was first blessed, new details bolstering his heroism on June 6,1944, came from an actual eyewitness to the events.
- Third, his order, the Maryland-based Our Lady of the Angels Province of the Franciscan Friars Conventual is now in the early fact-finding stage that will hopefully lead to opening his cause for canonization.
As part of the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division, on D-Day eve, Chaplain Capt. Maternowski offered one last Mass and administered general absolution before the men headed to the C-47s that would carry them to Normandy. In the earliest morning hours of June 6, the 32-year-old chaplain parachuted with the troops into German-occupied territory, by the hamlet of Gueutteville, part of the small village of Picauville, where hours later he would give up his life trying to save the wounded and dying. The beautiful new window — installed in October 2021 in the Cauquigny Chapel that is 2 miles from where Father Maternowski was killed — was dedicated at a Mass this June 2, during D-Day commemorations.
Already the previous November, Franciscan Father James McCurry, then minister provincial, had blessed the window, saying in his homily, “This magnificent new stained-glass window in the Cauquigny Chapel will forever remind us that heroic love is possible — love of country, love of humanity, love of God.”
Joseph Beyer of Beyer Studios in Philadelphia was commissioned by the Franciscans to design and make the window in Father Maternowski’s honor. He considered this a double honor because his father, Staff Sgt. Joseph C. Beyer, was in the Army Air Corps, 99th Troop Carrier Squadron of the 9th Air Force.
“He was the radio operator in a C-47, one of hundreds that participated in the parachute and glider operation on that June night,” Beyer told the Register.
As the paratroopers were brought to the planes that very evening, just before their flights, surely Father Maternowski had their welfare on his mind. He certainly had no thought of being honored one day on a window in a chapel.
Yet today, there he is, in the newly installed window in the 800-year-old chapel. He is pictured in his Franciscan habit, rosary at his side, with his right hand raised in blessing. Behind him are depictions of a pair of Douglas C-47 transport planes bringing the paratroopers, some of whom are shown floating to the momentarily peaceful Normandy farmland. Even the cows are Norman cows.
It was important for Beyer to correctly depict Father Maternowski as both a Franciscan friar and Army chaplain, which he did by having the rendering of the chaplain hold his jacket and tuck his helmet under his arm. Plentiful symbols fill out the scene. Beyer pointed out that they appear “in the ‘canopy,’ which is simply a decorative frame surrounding the figural scene.” Olive branches become part of the background. At the top, “angels all dressed in accurate U.S. 82nd Airborne battle dress” hold a chalice. Along the framing there is an image of Our Lady of Częstochowa to honor the chaplain’s Polish heritage; the crown of thorns and nails of Christ’s passion link to the chaplain’s sacrifice; his Purple Heart awarded posthumously; various coats of arms connected to him; and at the bottom two angels depicted accurately as paratroopers symbolize the American forces protecting the Normandy people and display a banner with the dates of Father Maternowski’s birth, death and other particulars.
Importantly, the cross etched on his helmet identifies him as the regiment’s chaplain. The shoulder patch on the jacket identifies him as part of the 82nd Airborne Division. The Red Cross armband on the same sleeve is an international symbol of protection for the wounded and their caregivers.
New Details Revealed
The Red Cross armband that Father Maternowski wore on D-Day is a “key to everything,” said Joseph Hamilton, the director of mission advancement for Our Lady of the Angels Province.
Already known is that Father Maternowski and paratroopers of the 508th landed by Gueutteville. With 80 inhabitants, the only business was a grocery-café, where the U.S. soldiers brought those wounded and dying when a troop-carrying glider crashed nearby.
This residence and small business belonging to the Thouroude family turned into a makeshift hospital. Up to 30 men were wounded or dying, and with more on the way from the crash, Father Maternowski knew they needed an additional place for them.
At this point the story, as long understood by the friars, was that he was going to seek out the German medic or officer in charge to create a common aid station to care for both the American and German wounded.
But new information tells a different story.
When the Franciscans visited Gueutteville in 2019, “the friars received written eyewitness testimony that the French had long known, but that the friars had never seen before,” Hamilton explained. This testimony was from a young teenager at the time and “a son of the owner. He was right there listening to Father Maternowski talking to his dad.” Hamilton realized that the part about “creating a field medical unit for the wounded for both sides” was in need of correction.
The teenage Thouroude revealed that Father Maternowski realized when the wounded were overflowing their house that “he needed to secure another facility for the Americans. The new testimony is crystal clear — he wasn’t seeking a common aid station but, rather, an additional house for an American infirmary,” explained Hamilton.
He started walking around the village, unarmed, not wearing his helmet, but with his religious insignia and Red Cross armband clearly showing on his jacket. “After his reconnaissance trip in the neighborhood, the teen said his dad said to him, ‘What are you doing? It’s dangerous!’” But Father Maternowski would not be deterred.
“All he had was this Red Cross armband,” Hamilton emphasized. “He knows this Red Cross armband is his primary currency in the field.”
Father Maternowski did get to the Germans and even brought a German major back to the house to show him the wounded and dying, attesting to the fact that this was a noncombat facility.
“No one understands why he was showing the Germans until you see the Geneva Convention,” stressed Hamilton. The 1929 Geneva Convention defined the rights and protections afforded to noncombatants. As a chaplain, a Franciscan priest and an Army captain, he shows the German officer these men are all wounded and dying. “It’s clear the wounded are protected. He wanted to get the belligerent side to agree this is a noncombatant facility. And one of the provisions of the Geneva Convention is also how civilian volunteers need to be recognized as noncombatants, particularly in medical help. He must’ve wanted to get the Thouroude family protected as well as the soldiers.”
With this new information, “the story has changed from looking for a common aid station to using the Geneva Convention to get the Germans to abide by it and recognize the facility as noncombatants,” Hamilton said.
In a reflection he gave in Gueutteville during this year’s D-Day remembrances, Father McCurry made it clear:
With the enemy soldiers headquartered at the other end of the street, Father Ignatius had only one course of action: He would need to impress upon the Germans the rules of the Geneva Convention, guaranteeing that no attacks were allowed against the wounded and the noncombatants. This strategic plan was risky, but it was the only ‘weapon’ left for Father Ignatius to use. He understood the danger, but he knew that he must go to meet with the highest-ranking German officer, to convince him that, according to the Geneva Conventions, Gueutteville must be declared a protected medical zone. Thus, Father Ignatius bravely walked the full length of this street, to meet the German major, and his ultimate destiny.
Hamilton emphasized that Father Maternowski made “a shrewd and courageous move with only the narrowest of options. He might have been thinking, ‘The only chance these people have of surviving are if I do this. At sunup the Germans were certain to attack.’ It was a moment when he had to make this life-threatening decision. He handed his Mass kit to the owner of the house-café for safe-keeping because he might not be back.”
The brave chaplain then walked up the road together with the German major toward German headquarters. As he returned, on Gueutteville’s street, a shot rang out. Shot in the back and mortally wounded, Father Maternowski fell to the ground, close to a ditch, where his body lay for three days as the Germans prevented all attempts to retrieve his earthly remains.
New Links From D-Day to Today
That D-Day, fierce fighting began close to the Cauquigny Chapel, a mile from where Father Maternowski was shot, because the hamlet was located by the La Fière bridge that U.S. forces were to secure and control. Fighting there caused heavy damage to the 800-year-old church. But it was eventually repaired as a chapel — it is no longer a parish church — that seemed to be awaiting this memorial stained-glass window honoring Father Ignatius Maternowski.
When that event finally arrived, at the Mass and blessing of the window last Nov. 12, Father McCurry noted in his homily, “Mr. Thouroude’s testimony clearly showed that Father Ignatius risked his life to persuade the enemy of these principles of human rights and to protect the local populations of this region.”
Then, this June 2, at the official dedication of the window, those filling the small chapel listened to Father McCurry say:
When Father Ignatius was shot to death in Gueutteville, he wore a Red Cross armband to signify the Geneva Conventions, which were in effect since 1929, provisions designed to protect in wartime all the wounded, the dying and the noncombatants. Eyewitness testimony made it clear that Father Ignatius risked his life to persuade the enemy about those principles of human rights. … Father Ignatius died to protect, not only his wounded fellow soldiers, but to safeguard all the innocent noncombatants of the area from the German reprisals. He died in defense of those principles — a martyr of love.
His death gave testimony to the Gospel passage: “No greater love has a man than this: to lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). Perhaps someday Father Ignatius will be declared a saint. He called sanctity “the most perfect form of love.”
“Now, because of this new stained-glass window,” Father McCurry believed, “every person walking into Cauquigny Chapel can contemplate these truths. Every visitor can leave this chapel inspired by the conviction that love for humanity must know no limits, as evidenced by the life and death of Father Ignatius, the pride of the 82nd!”