Father Martin Kobos, OFM Conv., was among the thousands of people in Normandy, France, in early June to commemorate the 75th anniversary of D-Day and remember the men who gave their lives to liberate Western Europe from Nazi Germany in 1944.
The pastor of Mother Cabrini Parish in Shamokin is not a World War II veteran, but his solemn visit to France still carried symbolic weight: to honor the life, service and sacrifice of a fellow Conventual Franciscan, Father Ignatius Maternowski.
Capt. Maternowski, Catholic chaplain of the 82nd Airborne’s 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, was the only U.S. military chaplain killed on D-Day, June 6, 1944. On June 8 of this year, the town of Gueutteville, France, honored him with a memorial service attended by delegates from the United States and France.
Father Kobos was among the speakers at the ceremony, representing the Minister Provincial of the Conventual Franciscans, who was attending the order’s General Chapter in Rome. Father Kobos was joined by Dr. John Dabrowski, representing the WWII Military Chaplains Foundation and its founder, Father Robert Berger, a retired colonel from the U.S. Army Chaplain Corps and a priest of the Diocese of Harrisburg.
During the ceremony, Father Kobos presented a Congressional citation on Father Maternowski’s sacrifice, an American flag, and the flag of the 508th regiment to Daniel Briard, president of the U.S.-Normandy Memory and Gratitude Association.
“He had to brush away tears when I made the presentation, with the whole notion of symbolic gifts,” Father Kobos said. “The people of the region are tremendously grateful for the sacrifice of the Allied Soldiers, and Father Maternowski is well honored here.”
Dr. Dabrowski, in his remarks, said “The lot of the U.S. soldier was equally the fate of his chaplain. Both endured the same perils in combat, the same long stretches of boredom, and the same homesickness. The chaplains traveled over battlefields under fire. They did so for two reasons: it was their duty; and they were genuinely and sincerely concerned for the safety of their flock: the American GI.”
Life for Liberty
On June 6, 1944, some 150,000 Allied Troops invaded Normandy in Operation Overlord. Paratroopers descended inland to deflect German troops from the swarm of soldiers storming the beach.
Upon landing in Normandy, Father Maternowski came upon a number of wounded paratroopers whose glider had crashed. He and a medic brought them to a café/grocery store that had been converted into a small aid station.
Realizing the troops required more extensive medical care than what the small station provided, Father Maternowski entered German territory to propose a combined aid station in a house the Germans had overtaken in Gueutteville. A German medic accompanied the chaplain to assess the situation in Allied territory, and agreed to the proposal. The two returned to the German-occupied medical station for preparations. As Father Maternowski began his walk back to the wounded Allied troops, he was shot and killed by a German sniper.
Father Maternowski’s body remained on the road in Gueutteville for several days until American soldiers from the 90th Infantry Division recovered him. His body was buried on Utah Beach, and several years later was reinterred at the Conventual Franciscan Friar Cemetery in South Hadley, Mass.
The Franciscan Friars Conventual of Our Lady of the Angels Province and the WWII Chaplains Memorial Foundation have begun promotion of Father Maternowski’s cause for canonization.
Keeping the Memory Alive
In Gueutteville in early June, Father Kobos celebrated Mass in memory of Father Maternowski, who is memorialized in the small town with a monument depicting the chaplain administering last rites.
The house that had been overtaken as the German medical station Father Maternowski proposed for combined aid is still standing. In 1948, the family, whose descendants still live there, created a shrine to the Blessed Mother. Father Kobos visited the home and blessed the shrine. He also met Louis Marion, who, at age 17, witnessed Father Maternowski’s death.
“From this experience in Normandy and in Gueutteville, walking where Father Maternowski walked, he has become more real to me,” Father Kobos said. “I can claim that I have a brother who came in on D-Day and sacrificed his life for liberty.”
“His story is taking on a life of its own. The U.S. military is interested in his story. The Franciscans have an interest because he is a brother priest. The people of Normandy continue to pay respect to him. Each one of these groups have a hand in keeping his memory alive,” he said.
“France gave the United States the Statue of Liberty in 1886, representing freedom and fraternity. Fifty-eight years later, we returned a gift to France, in the treasure of our youth,” Father Kobos said. “Father Maternowski was one of those who carried the torch of liberty back to the French people, bringing light to their land darkened by war.”
(Read more about Father Maternowski at www.olaprovince.org/2018/09/26/in-memoriam-fr-ignatius-maternowski/. Learn about the WWII Military Chaplains Foundation at www.wwiichaplains.com.)
By Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness