“Never judge a book by its cover” is one of many oft-repeated phrases we repeat to ourselves and our children. It’s also a message which we can easily forget. When we arrived in Sainte-Mère-Eglise, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I had The Longest Day on my mind and images of paratroopers dotting the sky, not to mention hanging from the church itself. More prosaically, I also knew we were 69 years away from D-Day and the Battle of Normandy. It’s a small village. Without the events which happened in 1944, I doubt most people would stop there at all today. I can certainly give you a long list of “charming” villages to see first. The church sits surrounded by a parking lot in the middle of a square lined with souvenir stores and such. The Musée Airborne (with its neat roof which mimics an open parachute) sits nearby.
There is a parachutist hanging from the church. We looked at him, walked around the building and only decided to go inside at the last second. It was the ten to fifteen minutes we spent in the church that made our trip worthwhile. The stained glass windows commemorate the paratroopers and the towns liberation. The first window shows the Virgin Mary surrounded by paratroopers coming to liberate the village. The image was sketched by Paul Renaud, a boy who lived through the events. The second window (below) depicts Saint Michael, the patron saint of paratroopers. It was a gift from the veterans of the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division on the 25th anniversary of the battle. We stood in the church listening to the religious music in the background and simply looked at the windows in silence. War memorials can be big and impersonal, cold and stone. Memorials come alive to me when they manage to make their subjects personal.
Earlier in the day, we had listened to Brigadier General Kevin McNeely speak at the American Cemetery in Normandy. His speech stayed with me more than the others for the simple reason that he made it personal. Instead of talking about “glorious conflicts” and “dead heroes,” he talked about family–his own (his father served and his daughter is also in the military) and the greater military family. When you think of the dead as individuals with families and give them names and stories, they lose their anonymous status and become alive again, people you can grieve for, relate to and honor. Standing in front of the stained glass in Sainte-Mère-Eglise and looking at the light shining through it, made the moment personal. A private moment of silence for the men who fought and died there before going on to continue our day and the peace they brought.
“To the memory of those who through their sacrifice liberated Sainte Mere Eglise.”