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 United States 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, Mass., on March 28, 1912. After graduation from Mater Dolorosa Parochial School in 1927, he attended St. Francis High School in Athol Springs, N.Y., 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 St. Hyacinth College and Seminary, Granby, Mass.. 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 reclaim 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 U.S. chaplain to be killed on D-Day. He was 32, in the fifth year of his priesthood.
His lifeless body lay visible on the road for three days because the enemy refused to allow it to be retrieved. On June 9, American 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, Mass.
In the Franciscan book of memories it is written, “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. Maternowski stands as the first Polish-American priest to give his life in service to our country in World War II, and as the only U.S. chaplain to die on D-Day in the Normandy invasion. He was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart. His name is commemorated on memorials in Holyoke, Mass., Athol Springs, N.Y., Arlington National Cemetery, London, England, and Normandy, France.
As the world celebrated the 75th anniversary of D-Day, Friar Martin Kobos, OFM Conv. took a remarkable journey to Normandy representing the Franciscan Friars Conventual at ceremonies commemorating Fr. Ignatius Maternowski’s heroism and sacrifice. The event featured speeches by President Donald Trump and President Emmanuel Macron of France and numerous flyovers. In the course of the day, Fr. Martin expressed his gratitude to the nearly 10,000 soldiers buried in the cemetery, living veterans of the D-Day invasion, as well as blessing numerous active duty soldiers. The day was a time of solemn remembrance of the heroism of our soldiers and the bonds of friendship that forever link the countries of the United States of America and France.
On June 7, 2019, Fr. Martin spent the afternoon at the home of Louis Marion, the only surviving witness of Fr. Ignatius Maternowski’s time the village of Gueutteville. There, Marion participated in conversation, recounting his memories of D-Day and Fr. Ignatius. He and Anne-Marie, his wife of 68 years, were most hospitable hosts. Mr. Marion’s memories of the occupation and liberation of his village have become valuable additions to the story of Fr. Maternowski.
On June 8, 2019, Fr. Martin attended the ceremony commemorating Fr. Ignatius Maternowski at the site of his monument in Gueutteville. Presented by the U.S.-Normandy Memory and Gratitude Association, the event featured numerous speeches including Fr. Martin’s on behalf of the Franciscan Friars Conventual. Kelly M. Carrigg, Lieutenant Colonel, US Army, retired, former teacher at St. Francis High School in Athol Springs, and currently on staff at the U.S. Embassy in Paris, coordinated Fr. Martin’s itinerary and translated at the ceremony. At the conclusion of his speech, Fr. Martin presented Daniel Briard and Eric Labourdette of the Association gifts of a flag flown over the U.S. Capitol with its official citation from the House of Representatives and a 508th PIR flag signed by Rock Merritt, the fellow Normandy veteran who served with Fr. Ignatius.
Immediately following the ceremony in Gueutteville, Fr. Martin was asked to bless a shrine to the Blessed Virgin Mary which is located in a small storage room attached to the site of the former German infirmary during the occupation. It was in this storage room that the Guetteville villagers huddled for safety during the D-Day invasion. Accompanying Fr. Martin on this holy task were two active duty U.S. Army chaplains, Major Daniel King and Lieutenant Colonel Brian Koyn.
Later that morning, about a mile away from Fr. Ignatius’ memorial site, Fr. Martin presided over Mass at Eglise Saint-Ferreol de Cauquigny, a small church which was badly damaged during the fighting. Speaking at Fr. Ignatius’ ceremony as well as providing a reading at Mass was Dr. John Dabrowski, a retired U.S. Army historian and a representative for the WWII Chaplains Memorial Foundation. At the conclusion of Mass, a villager announced that this was, as far as he knew, the first Mass in English in the church’s 800-year history.
Please continue to pray for Fr. Maternowski, all the heroes of D-Day, and all those who faithfully serve our country.
To read the official account of Fr. Ignatius’ heroism on D-Day as it is presented beside his memorial in Guetteville, France, click here.
The Franciscan Friars Conventual invite you to support the Cause of Fr. Ignatius Maternowski towards sainthood by your prayers and support.
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