Meet the Friars – The Very Rev. Fr. James McCurry, OFM Conv.

Fr. James at the Normandy American Cemetery at Omaha Beach (Cimetiere Americain de Normandy), where the graves of 9,387 soldiers, a chapel, memorials and garden can be visited to honor the courage, skill and ultimate sacrifice made by those who are laid to rest there.

“I pray you will indulge me a brief reminiscence. The hamlet of Gueutteville in the Norman village of Picauville looks today nearly as it did seventy years ago when paratroopers of the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the US Army’s 82nd Airborne Division landed before dawn on D-Day (or as the French call it Jour-J). It remains a one-lane assortment of ancient stone houses surrounded by hedgerows and farm fields.  Only two differences between then and now are notable.  A large new yellow farmhouse has replaced the café-grocery where the American troops secured their wounded, and which was later destroyed by blasts from a Nazi tank.  The second new element is a Memorial erected in 2012 to honor the Paratroopers’ Chaplain Capt. Father Ignatius Maternowski, OFM Conv.  The Memorial is situated in a clearing across the lane from the spot where the chaplain was gunned down by a Nazi sniper several hours after he had jumped with his comrades from a C-47 on that fateful D-Day.

Fr. Ignatius Maternowski, OFM Conv., the son of Polish immigrants, was born in Holyoke, Massachusetts, in 1912.  Having joined the Franciscan Friars Conventual, he was ordained a priest of that Order in 1938.  At the request of his Franciscan superiors, he and several fellow friars enlisted as chaplains in the US Army in 1942.  Soon after, Fr. Ignatius volunteered for the Parachute regiment.  Eventually deployed to Ireland and England, he celebrated one last Mass for his troops on the eve of D-Day, and gave them General Absolution, appreciating full well the enormous peril awaiting them.  He died on 6th June attempting to negotiate with the Nazi occupiers of Gueutteville for a humanitarian “safe-zone” to be established, where a common hospital could be used for all of the American, German, and French casualties.

Seventy years later. “L’Association U.S.-Normandie ‘Memoire et Gratitude’” organized a commemorative service at the Father Maternowski Memorial in Gueuteville on the 4th of June 2014 at 4:00 PM.  Reconciliation was the theme of the program.  The Lutheran Paratrooper chaplain from the 82nd Airborne, Reverend Cruz, gave the invocation.  Speeches were given by Colonel Michael Dean of the 82nd Airborne and by the President of the U.S.-Normandie Association, Monsieur Daniel Briard.  I myself, in my role as Minister Provincial of the Franciscan Friars Conventual, was invited to speak in French and English on behalf of the religious family of Fr. Maternowski.  Lt. Colonel (ret.) Kelly Carrigg, a teacher at the chaplain’s alma mater St. Francis High School in Athol Springs, New York, gave final remarks on the theme of reconciliation.

Reconciliation was surely on the minds of all as a large contingent of German soldiers laid a wreath beneath the Fr. Maternowski Memorial, during the service.  The German ambassador had already sent a special spray of flowers from the German government.  Further tributes were paid by wreath-layings from the French, British, and US military representatives.  Flag-bearing honor guards of French and US military stood at attention throughout the ceremony.  The largest delegation of military personnel in attendance came from the US Army Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 82nd Airborne.  Members of the US Air Force coordinated a flypast  tribute of C-130s.

The 91-year-old US Army Sergeant Major (ret.) Rock Merritt, a veteran of the 508th PIR, placed a floral tribute in honor of his fallen comrade.  Rock recalled how word of their chaplain’s killing had spread like wildfire among the men of the 508th, inspiring their resolve to press on to victory.  (Interestingly, two days after he attended the ceremony honoring Fr. Maternowski, Rock Merritt would be sitting on the stage at Omaha Beach behind President Francois Hollande of France and US President Barack Obama, who made specific mention of Rock during his formal address.)

Among the participants in the commemoration of Fr. Maternowski at the Gueutteville ceremony was Monsieur Louis Marion and 3 ladies, all of whom were villagers who witnessed the events of D-Day 1944.  The 89-year-old Louis was one of the local eyewitnesses to the shooting of Fr. Maternowski, and he gave testimony about the final moments of the chaplain’s life.   He placed a floral tribute in homage to the “priest whose blood has sanctified our village.“  The other three ladies were teenagers at the time, kept indoors by their frightened mothers as the fighting raged outside their houses.  They recalled their mothers telling them about the dead priest lying in the road.

The paratroopers’ 82nd Airborne Choir from Fort Bragg, North Carolina, sang a cappella the hauntingly beautiful “Last Full Measure of Devotion.”  A tear rolled down the cheek of one of the choir soldiers.  At the ceremony’s conclusion, “Taps” was played by an Army bugler, followed by the national anthems of the United States and France.  Everyone stood at attention, united as one – army, air force, and marines; privates and colonels; American, German, French and British; D-Day veterans; village survivors; civilians of all walks of life.

The humble little friar whose memory was being honored could have never foreseen this extraordinary tribute.  He simply did his duty as a faithful chaplain, a patriot, a friar-priest, a Franciscan peacemaker.  May he rest in peace!  May his example inspire all of us friars towards a sacrificial “love without limits” in the ministries where we are privileged to serve.”

~ Written by the Very Rev. James McCurry, OFM Conv., Minister Provincial of the Our Lady of the Angels Province, upon his return from Normandy June 2014