In the Gospel of John, Jesus Christ proclaims: “There is no greater love than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends (John I 5: I 3 ).” These words were literally taken to heart by a young Franciscan priest and US military chaplain, Father Ignatius Maternowski, OFM Conv., who was killed during the Invasion of Normandy, France, on D-Day, June 6, 1944.
Fr. Maternowski was born in Holyoke, Massachusetts on March 28, 1912. After graduation from Mater Dolorosa Parochial School in 1927, he attended St. Francis High School in Athol Springs, NY, where he was a member of that school’s first graduating class in 1931. He entered the religious Order of the Franciscan Friars Conventual, and professed his first vows as a friar in 1932. After pursuing further studies, he was ordained a priest by Bishop Thomas O’Leary of the Diocese of Springfield on July 3, 1938, in the chapel of Saint Hyacinth College and Seminary, Granby, Massachusetts. He began his ministry as a parish priest, and then, once his ability as a preacher was recognized, his superiors assigned him to preach parish missions and retreats.
After the outbreak of World War II, Fr. Ignatius responded to the need for service as a military chaplain. In July, 1942, he enlisted in the U.S. Army, and later volunteered to become a member of the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 82nd Airborne Division. After rigorous training with fellow troops, he attained the rank of Captain, serving God and country loyally for 23 months. Deployed to Ireland and England in readiness for the battles that would re-claim the freedom of Europe, he offered one final Mass for his troops, and administered General Absolution on the eve of the Normandy Invasion.
In the early morning hours of D-Day, Fr. Ignatius parachuted with a large number of troops into occupied territory, the hamlet of Guetteville in the town of Picauville. An American glider had crashed nearby. There were many casualties. Immediately Fr. Ignatius began ministering to the wounded paratroopers and glider victims. Realizing that a suitable aid station would be needed, Fr. Ignatius calculated a risky strategy: attempting negotiations with his German counterpart, in the peaceful hope of combining their wounded together in one common hospital. Walking between enemy lines unarmed, with helmet hanging from his belt, and wearing his chaplain’s insignia and a Red Cross armband, he bravely went to meet with the head Nazi medic. As he returned through the no-man zone to the American side, he was shot in the back by an enemy sniper – becoming the only US chaplain to be killed on DDay. He was 32 years of age, in the 5th year of his priesthood.
His dead body lay visible on the road for three days, because the enemy refused to allow it to be moved. On the 9th of June, US soldiers from the 90th Infantry Division recovered it, and removed it for burial near Utah Beach. In 1948, his remains were returned to Holyoke for a solemn Mass in Mater Dolorosa Church, and interment in the Franciscan Friars’ plot at Mater Dolorosa Cemetery in South Hadley, MA.
In the Franciscan book of memories it is written of him: “He was an exemplary priest, a dynamic preacher, but most of all, he was truly an apostle and friend of the soldiers entrusted to his spiritual care.”
Fr. Ignatius Maternowski, of Holyoke, Massachusetts, stands as the first Polish-American priest to give his life in service to our country in World War II, and as the only US chaplain to die on D-Day in the Normandy invasion. He was posthumously awarded a “Purple Heart” by the US government. His name is commemorated on memorials in Holyoke, MA; Athol Springs, NY; Arlington National Cemetery, VA; London, England, and Normandy, France.
As the world celebrated the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landing on the coast of France, Fr. James McCurry, OFM Conv., the Minister Provincial of the Our Lady of the Angels Province, spoke at a ceremony in the hamlet of Guetteville commemorating the death of Franciscan Friar Father Ignatius Maternowski, OFM Conv.
Reconciliation was 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.
Among the participants in the commemoration of Fr. Maternowski at the Gueutteville ceremony was Monsieur Louis Marion and 3 other villagers, all of whom 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 women 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.
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.
Concluding his remarks in Guetteville, Fr. McCurry recalled that “When he landed on French soil in the village of Guetteville on the 6th of June (D-Day), Fr. Ignatius was not wearing his Franciscan robe, he was garbed in the uniform of a United States Army Captain. Fr. Ignatius had one thing in common with his Franciscan brothers from the 13th century, he was motivated by Charity, Love for freedom, and Love for justice.”
To read the official account of Fr. Ignatius’ heroism on D-Day as it is presented beside his memorial in Guetteville, France, click here.
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