Filed Under 1944

Sainte Mère-Église

Where Faith and the 82nd Airborne Met

Located in the French Cotentin peninsula, approximately twenty-three and a half miles from the port of Cherbourg lies the small village of Sainte Mère-Église. The town's landscape denotes the traditional architecture and culture known throughout the Normandy region. Setting this community of approximately three thousand apart from others is the significance of one war-torn morning in 1944. Distinguishing itself also is how it has chosen to commemorate this history through a church's stained glass windows.

Situated in the center of the village of Sainte Mère-Église is an 11th-century church that shares the same name. Roads leading in and around the town have a theme in accordance with France's liberation made possible by the Allied D-Day landings in June of 1944. The streets flanking the church find their names after World War II French and American Generals Koenig and Eisenhower. As one approaches the church, it quickly becomes apparent the church itself had a significant role in the Second World War. For all to see, hanging from one of the spires is a mannequin depicting the realities of a vulnerable American paratrooper caught and held prisoner by his parachute.

At approximately 1:30 am on June 6, 1944, the town held captive by German Nazis for nearly four years found hope in a sky filled with American paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne Division. Members of its 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment (PIR) found themselves easy prey for German firepower as they descended through a sky illuminated by fire from a house set ablaze by an incendiary weapon. One thousand two hundred eighty-two members of the 82nd Airborne Division lost their lives during the Normandy invasion. Some of whom perished in this first of the small towns liberated as Allied forces pressed the German military into retreat.

When the war ended, like many other cities and towns across the globe, Sainte Mère-Église began to pick up the pieces in an attempt to reinvent itself. Now free from the looming threat of Nazism, the residents faced the additional challenge of coming to terms with the aftermath of war. As they rebuilt their village, many people incorporated portions of their lived memories into their new normal. American flags flew with pride. Monuments indicated appreciation to the liberators and God. Local women like Simone Renaud tended the graves of foreign sons who died so theirs might live. These traditions continued year after year as others evolved. A progression of memorialization took on varying forms of memory, each based upon differing perspectives.

It is not uncommon for places of worship to include conflict within their colorful panes of commemoration and glorification. The Washington National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., created its War Memorial Chapel in 1952 and 1953 with the specific purpose of memorializing "its nation's heroes as it seemed necessary and appropriate after World War II." Within three stained glass windows are renderings depicting the D-Day invasion, the Battle of Iwo Jima, the liberation of Europe, and the Battle of Midway. At the centerpiece of this sanctuary, displayed above the altar, is a powerful sculpture of an agonizing Christ. Implied is the comparativeness of the Allied soldiers' suffering as they fought and died for the oppressed, as did Christ as He sought to save the world from evil. Exhibited also is the acknowledgment of a righteous plight and a justification for war against the forces of evil.

In 1969, the first of two stained glass windows combining 'saviors' found its place of homage in the Church of Sainte Mère-Église, located in the town's square. Two years after the liberation, at age sixteen, Paul Renaud designed the window, entitled "Paratroopers," based upon what he witnessed the night the 82nd Airborne fell from the sky. The mayor of Sainte Mère-Église, Renaud's father, worked fervently with the parish to replace the windows destroyed by nearby bombing during the war. The glass details show the Virgin Mary, surrounded by planes and parachutes, holding baby Jesus while looking over the paratroopers as they descend upon a fiery town. Evident is the perception of Christ, the Savior, watching over the saviors of Sainte Mère-Église as they land in the flames of hell and war. A French inscription positioned at the bottom of the window translates, "This stained glass was completed with the participation of Paul Renaud and Sainte Mère, for the memory of those who, with their courage and sacrifice, liberated Sainte Mère-Église and France."

The idea for another window arose at the first window's dedication ceremonies in 1969, coinciding with the twenty-fifth D-Day landings anniversary. Renaud also immortalized the actions of the 82nd Airborne Division in his design for the second window. Appropriately named "82nd Airborne," it received sponsorship from the veterans' group of the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment (PIR). This stained glass found its position in the same chapel in 1972. Forever enshrined within the glass are emblems representing the 82nd Airborne Division, the lion of Normandy, and the Sainte Mère-Église insignia. Also present are symbols for each of the division's combat jumps during World War II. This French inscription translates: "To the memory of those who through their sacrifice liberated Sainte Mère-Église."

The focal point of this window is Saint Michael, the patron saint of paratroopers, a symbol of a spiritual warrior "who stands ready to fight on behalf of the good." Michael, known as God's archangel (chief messenger), leads a battalion of angels in a victorious war over Satan and his demons in the Book of Revelation, signifying Christ's victory over all evil in the end times. Within this window, it is clear the battalion of angels are the paratroopers descending around and supporting the head spiritual warrior as he stands in victory over the defeated enemy dragon (the Nazis).

To the Christian members of Sainte Mère-Église, the parallels to the apocalypse, as referenced in Revelation, are apparent and serve as an affirmation of the prophesies found in scripture. Noteworthy is the prominent display of violence in a place of sanctity. Finding the intersection of war and peace in a non-secular environment is very telling. Although the act of war is contrary to the teachings of the Gospels, the believer is aware of the battle that awaits. What makes the display justifiable is that battle reflects the necessity of suffering (as did Christ) to obtain a life of freedom and tranquility. The final comparison depicted in the glass is a lone dove. It symbolizes the inevitable peace Michael brings with him to Sainte Mère-Église, bringing to fruition a glimpse of the same peace that will accompany Christ when He returns.

Apparent within each of these commemorative pieces of art is the reverence the natives of Sainte Mère-Église held and continue to have for American paratroopers. The display and placement of mere mortals amidst the sacredness of Mary, Jesus, and Saint Michael speak volumes in terms of gratitude and honor for their liberators.

On the twentieth anniversary of the Normandy invasion, General Dwight D. Eisenhower returned to France to reflect upon its liberation in 1944. While there, he visited Sainte Mère-Église and interviewed Simone Renaud while seated on a bench in the church's square. Considered the "Mother of Normandy," Renaud was also the wife of the village's war-time mayor and mother to the artist who designed the windows. When asked her thoughts on first witnessing the paratroopers' arrival, she responded that "it was a wonderful surprise" and "they dared not hope" for their freedom from the Germans. There was no diminishment of excitement in her voice even after the passing of twenty years. Obvious was her certainty the invasion provided her family a better life.

The memory of the Battle of Normandy is still very close to the hearts of the Norman people, as perceived by local historian and native Pierre-Samuel Natanson. In his thirties, Natanson describes a shift in the perception of the windows by younger generations. "As rural areas tend to be far more religious than larger towns, it made sense the paratrooper memorials found their place in a church rather than a civic building. The locals wanted to thank God for sending their liberators." Gratitude for their liberation remains today, yet how they remember is taking on new forms as those who lived the experience pass away. Although still highly valued, the stained glass artwork now shares equal billing with that of the mannequin paratrooper dangling from the church's spire, made internationally famous by the 1962 film, The Longest Day. For these reasons, memorialization is now more central to the small villages' social and economic security, like Sainte Mère-Église, as tourists make it a "must-see" stop when visiting Normandy.

When reflecting upon the war's history and representations of it for Sainte Mère-Église, one gains a greater understanding of its unique role in remembering the Second World War. The presence of the stained glass windows in the Church of Sainte Mère-Église shares only one facet of the countless experiences of that morning. Collectively, this invasion's memories tell only one element of the complex and seemingly infinite global war. As those pass away who lived this moment in history, we are left only with the tangible reminders found within the monuments and scored into stained glasses like those in this small French village. Nearly eight decades later, scholars continue to dissect and analyze this history, attempting to attain a complete summation of how and why we should remember the Second World War.

Video

Paratrooper Trapped on Spire 82nd Airborne Paratrooper John Steele (portrayed by Red Buttons) hangs helplessly above the town of Sainte Mère-Église as fighting ensues all around him. Movies and literature play a powerful role in historical memory. And, this true event, repeated in Cornelius Ryan's novel, The Longest Day (1959), and repeated in the film of the same name has become a focus of the historical memory of St. Mere-Eglise. Source: The Longest Day, 1962. Creator: Daryl Zanuck Date: 1962

Images

The Road to a Liberated Sainte Mère-Église A paratrooper rests after liberating the town of Ste, Mere-Eglise. Source: An American GI pausing during a march from Ste.-Mère-Église, France, on June 7, 1944. Creator: Bob Landry/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Date: June 7, 1944
Hanging Mannequin Sainte Mère-Église with Paratrooper Mannequin Hanging from the Spire Creator: Photo Courtesy of Laura Bailey Date: September 2019
Paratroopers The first of two commemorative windows. Source: Private Individual Creator: Photo Courtesy of Laura Bailey Date: September 2019
82nd Airborne The second of two commemorative windows. Source: Private Individual Creator: Photo Courtesy of Laura Bailey Date: September 2019
"The Fall of the Rebel Angels" Victory depicted in art form as told in the Book of Revelation. Source: A painting depicting the battle in the end times as Michael, the Archangel, defeats evil. Creator: Luca Giordano Date: 1666
Simone Renaud and General Dwight D. Eisenhower Two leaders in their own right discuss the liberation of France. Source: Renaud and Eisenhower discuss the Normandy invasion on its 20th anniversary.
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Creator: Unknown Date: June 6,1964
"The Longest Day" Darryl F. Zanuck's epic retelling of the D-Day invasion. Source: Original Film Poster for the 1962 Film Creator: Unknown Date: 1962
Musee Airborne The United State Airborne divisions will forever be synonymous with Ste. Mere-Eglise. Source: The museum in Sainte Mère-Église dedicated to the 82nd & 101st Airborne Divisions.
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Creator: Joey van Meesen Date: June 25, 2014

Location

Rue Koenig, 50480 Sainte-Mère-Église, France

Metadata

Laura Bailey, “Sainte Mère-Église,” Global World War II Monuments, accessed March 4, 2024, https://www.worldwariimonuments.org/items/show/11.