February 21, 1431 The Maid of Orléans

A National Heroine to the French, Joan of Arc was canonized a saint of the Roman Catholic Church, in 1920.  The only figure in history, to be both condemned and canonized by the church.  It was small consolation for this child who was set up for a fall by her enemies, and abandoned to be incinerated alive, by her friends.

The Hundred Years’ War began as a succession dispute over the French throne, pitting an alliance of Burgundians and English on one side, against a coalition of Royalists led by the Armagnacs on the other.

At this time Europeans were not far removed from the latest outbreak of the Black Death, as the scorched earth tactics of the English army laid waste to the countryside and devastated the French economy.

Charles, Dauphin and heir apparent to the French throne was up against a wall, when a teenage peasant girl approached him in 1429.

For the 14-year-old boy-king, even listening to her was an act of desperation, borne of years of humiliating defeats at the hands of the English army. Yet this illiterate peasant girl had made some uncanny predictions concerning battlefield successes.  Now she claimed to have had visions from God and the Saints, commanding her to help him gain the throne. Her name was Jeanne d’Arc.

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Siege of Orléans

The siege of Orléans was six months old at this time, when the Dauphin decided it couldn’t hurt to let her take part. Jeanne dressed herself in borrowed armor and set out, arriving on the 29th of April, 1429.

History has repeatedly demonstrated the truth of Taylor Owen’s admonition, on the subject of leadership: “An army of donkeys led by a lion is better than an army of lions led by a donkey.” So it was in the days following Jeanne’s arrival at Orléans.

Though repeatedly excluded from war councils, Jeanne managed to insert herself anyway, putting the French back on the offensive and handing them one victory after another.

Nine days after her arrival, Orléans turned into an unexpected victory for the French, despite Jeanne’s being shot through the neck and left shoulder by an English longbow, while holding a ladder at the siege of Tourelles.

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After the Dauphin granted her co-command of the army with Duke John II of Alençon, the French army enjoyed a string of successes, recovering Jargeau on June 12, Meung-sur-Loire on the 15th, and Beaugency two days later, leading to a humiliating English defeat at the battle at Patay on the 18th.

Several more Armagnac victories followed.  On July 17, 1429, Charles was consecrated King Charles VII of France, fifth King of the House of Valois, with Jeanne d’Arc holding her standard over his head.

Despite her loyalty to the King, court favorite Georges de La Trémoille convinced Charles that Jeanne was becoming too powerful.  The King’s support began to waver.  She was pulled from her horse during the siege of Compiègne in May, 1430, and her allies failed to come to her aid.  Left outside as town gates were closed, she was captured and taken to the castle of Bouvreuil.

Joan_of_arcSome 70 charges were made against her by the pro-English Bishop of Beauvais, Pierre Cauchon, including witchcraft, heresy, and perjury.

Representatives of the judge were dispatched to Jeanne’s home village of Domremy, to ascertain the prisoner’s virginity, character, habits and associations.

Nicolas Bailly, the man responsible for collecting testimony, reported that he “had found nothing concerning Joan that he would not have liked to find about his own sister”. This Bishop Cauchon character must have been some piece of work.  The report so angered the man, that he called Bailly “a traitor and a bad man” and refused to pay him for his work.

Jean Le Maistre, whose presence as Vice-Inquisitor for Rouen was required by canon law, objected to the proceedings and refused to appear, until the English threatened his life.

Interrogation of the prisoner began on February 21, 1431. The outcome was never in doubt. Transcripts were falsified and witnesses intimidated.  Even then, trial records reveal this illiterate peasant girl to be brighter than all her inquisitors, combined.

One example from her third interrogation, was the Question: “Do you know whether or not you are in God’s grace?”. The question was a trap.  Church doctrine stated that no one could be certain of being in God’s grace, yet a “no” answer would have been held against her.  “If I am not”, she said, “may God put me there; and if I am, may God so keep me. I should be the saddest creature in the world if I knew I were not in His grace.”

Joan_of_arc_interrogationAfter fifteen such interrogations her inquisitors still had nothing on her, save for the wearing of soldier’s garb, and her visions. Yet, the outcome of her “trial” was already determined.  She was found guilty of heresy, and sentenced to be burned at the stake.

On May 24, Jeanne was taken to a scaffold.  Threatened that she would be immediately burned alive if she didn’t disavow her visions and abjure the wearing of soldier’s clothing, Jeanne agreed to sign such an abjuration, but recanted four days later.

The death sentence was carried out on May 30, 1431, in the old marketplace at Rouen. She was 19.

When the fire burned down, the coals were raked back to expose her charred body.  No one would be able to claim she’d escaped alive. Her body was then burned twice more – there would be no collection of relics.  Her ashes were cast into a river.

Guillaume Manchon, one of the court scribes, later recalled of the maid’s incarceration: “[S]he was then dressed in male clothing, and was complaining that she could not give it up, fearing lest in the night her guards would inflict some act of [sexual] outrage upon her; and she had complained once or twice to the Bishop of Beauvais, the Vice-Inquisitor, and Master Nicholas Loiseleur that one of the aforesaid guards had tried to rape her.”

Jeanne’s executioner, Geoffroy Therage, later said that he “Greatly feared to be damned”.

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Blessed Sacrament-St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church, New Orleans, Louisiana, LA

An inquisitorial court authorized by Pope Calixtus III re-examined the evidence, 25 years later. The court exonerated her of all charges, pronouncing her innocent on July 7, 1456, later declaring her to be a martyr.

A National Heroine to the French, Joan of Arc was canonized a saint of the Roman Catholic Church, in 1920.  The only figure in history, to be both condemned and canonized by the church.  It was small consolation for this child who was set up for a fall by her enemies, and abandoned to be incinerated alive, by her friends.

 

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February 3, 1943  Greater Love Hath No Man Than This

As the ship upended and went down by the bow, survivors floating nearby could see the four chaplains.  With arms linked and leaning against the slanting deck, their voices offered prayers and sang hymns for the dead and for those about to die.

The Troop Transport USAT Dorchester sailed out of New York Harbor on January 23, 1943, carrying 904 service members, merchant seamen and civilian workers.  They were headed for the  the Army Command Base at Narsarsuaq in southern Greenland, part of a six-ship convoy designated SG-19, together with two merchant ships and escorted by the Coast Guard Cutters Comanche, Escanaba and Tampa.

Built as a coastal liner in 1926, Dorchester was anything but graceful, bouncing and shuddering her way through the rough seas of the North Atlantic.

German U-Boats had already sunk several ships in these waters.  One of the Cutters detected a submarine late on February 2, flashing the light signal “we’re being followed”.  Dorchester Captain Hans Danielson ordered his ship on high alert that night.  Men were ordered to sleep in their clothes with their life jackets on, but many disregarded the order.  It was too hot down there in the holds, and those life jackets were anything but comfortable.

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Some of those off-duty tried to sleep that night, while others played cards or threw dice, well into the night.  Nerves were understandably on edge, especially among new recruits, as four Army chaplains passed among them with words of encouragement.

They were the Jewish rabbi Alexander David Goode, the Catholic priest John Patrick Washington, the Reformed Church in America (RCA) minister Clark Vandersail Poling, and the Methodist minister George Lansing Fox.

At 12:55am on February 3rd, the German submarine U-223 fired a spread of three torpedoes.  One struck Dorchester amidships, deep below the water line.  A hundred or more were killed in the blast, or in the clouds of steam and ammonia vapor billowing from ruptured boilers.  Suddenly pitched into darkness, untold numbers were trapped below decks.  With boiler power lost, there was no longer enough steam to blow the full 6 whistle signal to abandon ship, while loss of power prevented a radio distress signal.  For reasons not entirely clear, there never were any signal flares.

druidartThose who could escape scrambled onto the deck, injured, disoriented, many still in their underwear as they emerged into the cold and darkness.

The four chaplains must have been a welcome sight, guiding the disoriented and the wounded, offering prayers and words of courage.  They opened a storage locker and handed out life preservers, until there were no more.  “Padre,” said one young soldier, “I’ve lost my life jacket and I can’t swim!”  Witnesses differ as to which of the four it was who gave this man his life jacket, but they all followed suit.  One survivor, John Ladd, said “It was the finest thing I have seen or hope to see this side of heaven.” Rabbi Goode gave his gloves to Petty Officer John Mahoney, saying “Never mind.  I have two pairs”.  It was only later that Mahoney realized, Rabbi Goode intended to stay with the ship.

size0Dorchester was listing hard to starboard and taking on water fast, with only 20 minutes to live.  Port side lifeboats were inoperable due to the ship’s angle.  Men jumped across the void into those on the starboard side, overcrowding them to the point of capsize.  Only two of fourteen lifeboats launched successfully.

Private William Bednar found himself floating in 34° water, surrounded by dead bodies and debris. “I could hear men crying, pleading, praying,” he recalled. “I could also hear the chaplains preaching courage. Their voices were the only thing that kept me going.”

As the ship upended and went down by the bow, survivors floating nearby could see the four chaplains.  With arms linked and leaning against the slanting deck, their voices offered prayers and sang hymns for the dead and for those about to die.

images (17)Rushing back to the scene, coast guard cutters found themselves in a sea of bobbing red lights, the water-activated emergency strobe lights of individual life jackets.  Most marked the location of corpses.  Of the 904 on board, the Coast Guard plucked 230 from the water, alive.

The United States Congress attempted to confer the Medal of Honor on the four chaplains for their selfless act of courage, but strict requirements for “heroism under fire” prevented it from doing so.  Congress authorized a one time, posthumous “Chaplain’s Medal for Heroism”, awarded to the next of kin by Secretary of the Army Wilber M. Brucker at Fort Myer, Virginia on January 18, 1961.

chaplains_medalJohn 15:13 says “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends”.  Rabbi Goode did not call out for a Jew when he gave away his only hope for survival, Father Washington did not ask for a Catholic. Neither minister Fox nor Poling asked for a Protestant.  Each gave his life jacket to the nearest man.

Carl Sandburg once said that “Valor is a gift.  Those having it never know for sure whether they have it until the test comes.”  If I were ever so tested, I hope that I would prove myself half the man, as any of those four chaplains.

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January 28, 1521 A Scholarly Debate

A popular story has Martin Luther nailing his “95 theses” to the door of the Wittenberg Palace Church, but it likely never happened that way. Luther had no intention of confronting Church authorities. This was intended to be an academic work, 95 topics offered for scholarly debate. 

Hans Luder sent his son Martin to a series of Latin schools beginning in 1497, where the boy learned the so-called “trivium” – grammar, rhetoric, and logic. He entered the University of Erfurt in 1501 at age 19, receiving his master’s degree in 1505. The elder Luder (“Luther”) intended that his son become a lawyer, but the boy wanted none of it.

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Hans & Margarethe Luder by Lucas Cranach, the Elder

Years later, the younger Luther described his Latin school education as time spent in purgatory, and his University as a “beerhouse” and a “whorehouse”.  Martin Luther was cut out for different things.

Luther entered Law School in 1505 and dropped out, almost immediately.  His father was furious over what he saw as a wasted education. Martin entered an Augustinian cloister that July, saying “This day you see me, and then, not ever again.”

16th century Church doctrine taught that the Saints built up a surplus of good deeds, over a lifetime.  Sort of a moral bank account.  Like “carbon credits” today, positive acts of faith and charity could expiate sin. Monetary contributions to the church could, it was believed, “buy” the benefits of the saint’s good works, for the sinner.

Luther came to believe that the church had lost sight of the central truths of Christianity. The Grace of God wasn’t a medium to be exchanged, he believed.  Rather, such grace was attained through faith in Jesus Christ, as the Messiah. “This one and firm rock”, he wrote, “which we call the doctrine of justification, is the chief article of the whole Christian doctrine, which comprehends the understanding of all godliness”.

Papal “Commissioner for Indulgences” Johann Tetzel came to Wittenberg in 1516, selling expiation to raise money to rebuild St. Peter’s Basilica, in Rome. A saying attributed to the Dominican friar went “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.”

0531f24949Martin Luther wrote to Archbishop Albrecht on October 31, 1517, objecting to this sale of indulgences. He enclosed a copy of his “Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences”, a document which came to be known as his “95 Theses”.

A popular story has Martin Luther nailing the document to the door of the Wittenberg Palace Church, but it likely never happened. Luther had no intention of confronting the Church.  This was intended to be an academic work, 95 topics offered for scholarly debate.

Martin Luther’s ideas would rock the Christian world.

What seems to the modern mind as mere doctrinal differences, were life and death matters in the late middle and early modern ages. Archbishop Albrecht forwarded Luther’s note to Pope Leo X, who responded slowly and “with great care as is proper”.

Three theologians drafted heresy cases against Martin Luther.  In 1520, the Papal Bull (edict) “Exsurge Domine” commanded the Professor of Theology to recant under pain of excommunication.

Luther stood on dangerous ground. In 1415, the Czech priest Jan Hus had been burned at the stake for such heresy.  Pope Martinus I called for a crusade against his followers, the “Hussieten”, five years later.

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King Henry VIII’s famous break with the church over his divorce from Catherine of Aragon was still years in the future in 1521, the year Pope Leo X named Henry “Fidei Defensor”.  “Defender of the Faith”. Nine years later, French theologian Jean Calvin was forced to flee for his life, from a deadly outbreak of violence against Protestant Christians.

Anabaptists Jan van Leiden, Bernhard Knipperdolling and Bernhard Krechting were tortured in the public square for their heresies, with white-hot pliers.  Their corpses were placed in cages and hanged from the steeple of St. Lambert’s Church, in Münster. The bones were removed some fifty years later, but those three cages remain there, to this day.

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The Papal edict had the effect of hardening Luther’s positions, and he publicly burned the document. Twenty-four days later, Martin Luther was excommunicated.

On this day in 1521, Emperor Charles V convened the Diet, the deliberative assembly of the Holy Roman Empire, in the upper-Rhine city of Worms.  Luther was summoned to defend himself in April.

With copies of his writings laid before him on a table, Luther was asked if the books were his, and if he stood by their contents.  He affirmed that yes, they were his, but asked time to consider his second answer.

The following day, Luther gave his response.  “Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the Pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen”.

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Martin Luther testifies before the Diet of Worms, 1521

The “Edict of Worms” of the following month declared Luther an outlaw, ordering that he “be apprehended and punished as a notorious heretic”.  Anyone who wished to do so was now permitted to kill the monk, without legal consequence.

Five years earlier, Erasmus of Rotterdam had expressed the wish that the holy text should be available in every language, “so that even Scots and Irishmen might read it”.  Luther went into hiding at Wartburg Castle.  It was there that he translated the New Testament from Greek into German, laying the foundation for other vernacular translations and, for the first time, making the bible accessible to the common man.

Radical sects took Luther’s teachings far beyond his intentions, and Luther found himself in the odd position of defending the faith against more radical reformers. The Zwickau Prophets rejected holy scripture in favor of direct revelations from the Holy Spirit. The Anabaptists took the “equality of man” in radical egalitarian directions, sounding very much like the principles Karl Marx would write about, in 1848.

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The Protestant Reformation launched by Martin Luther plunged Europe into a series of wars. The Peasant’s War of 1524-’25 alone killed more Europeans than any conflict prior to the 1789 French Revolution. The established church would respond with counter-reformation, but the idea that Christian faith was more than the exclusive province of a special, segregated order of men, was here to stay.

On October 31, 1999, 482 years to the day from Martin Luther’s letter to Archbishop Albrecht, leaders of the Roman Catholic and Lutheran Churches signed the “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification”, ending the half-century old doctrinal dispute, once and for all.

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it too. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

January 10, 1869 The Mad Monk of Tobolsk

What the Tsar and Tsarina saw as a pious and holy man, the Russian nobility saw as a foul smelling, sex-crazed peasant with far too much influence on decisions of State. Alexandra believed Rasputin had the power to make her boy better. Many around her openly spoke of the man ruining the Royal Family, and the nation.

Traditionally, the line of succession to the Imperial Russian throne descended through the male line. By 1903 the Tsarina Alexandra had delivered four healthy babies, each of them girls.  Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia. In 1904, the Tsarina labored to deliver her fifth.

That August, the country waited and hoped for an heir to the throne. All of Russia prayed for a boy.

The prayers of the nation were answered on August 12 (July 30 Old Style calendar), with the birth of a son. The Tsarevich Alexei Nikolayevich. The happy news was announced with a 301-gun salute from the cannons of the Peter and Paul fortress, and all of Russia rejoiced.

Those hopes would be dashed in less than a month, when the infant’s navel began to bleed. It continued to bleed for two days, and required all the doctors at the Tsar’s disposal, to stop it.

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Alexei Nikolaevich, 1904

The child suffered from hemophilia, an hereditary condition passed down from his Grandmother British Queen Victoria.  She’d already lost a son and a grandson to the disease, both at the age of three.

The early years of any small boy are punctuated by dents and dings and the Tsarevich was no exception. Bleeding episodes were often severe, despite the never-ending efforts of his parents, to protect him. Doctors’ remedies were frequently in vain, and Alexandra turned to a succession of quacks, mystics and “wise men”, for a cure.

Born on this day in 1869, Grigori Efimovich Rasputin was a strange man, a Siberian peasant wanderer and self-proclaimed “holy man”, a seer of the future claiming the power to heal.  Rasputin would leave his home village of Pokrovskoye for months or even years at a time, wandering the countryside and visiting holy sites.  It’s rumored that he once went as far Athos in Greece, at that time a center of monastic life in the Orthodox church.

RasputinThe precise circumstances are unknown, but the monk came into the royal orbit, sometime in 1905.  “We had the good fortune”, Tsar Nicholas wrote to his diary , “to meet the man of God Grigori from the province of Tobolsk”.

Alexei suffered an internal hemorrhage in the spring of 1907, and Grigori was summoned to pray.  The Tsarevich recovered the next morning.   The royal family came to rely on the faith-healing powers of Rasputin.  It seemed that he alone was able to stop the boy’s bleeding episodes.

The Tsarevich developed a serious hematoma in his groin and thigh in 1912, following a particularly jolting carriage ride. Severely in pain and suffering with high fever, the boy appeared to be close to death. Desperate, the Tsarina sent a telegram, asking the monk to pray for her son.  Rasputin wrote back from Siberia, “God has seen your tears and heard your prayers. Do not grieve. The Little One will not die. Do not allow the doctors to bother him too much.” The bleeding stopped, within the next two days.

The British historian Harold Shukman wrote that Rasputin was “an indispensable member of the royal entourage”.

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Romanov family, colorized by the Russian artist Olga Shirnina, also known as ‘klimbim’

As the royal family became more attached to the monk Rasputin, scandals followed the peasant holy man like the chains of Jacob Marley.  Rumors abounded of sexual peccadillos, involving society ladies and prostitutes alike.  Gossip describing trysts between the “Mad Monk” and the Tsarina herself were almost certainly unfounded, but so widespread that pornographic postcards were openly circulated, depicting these liaisons.

What the Tsar and Tsarina saw as a pious and holy man, the Russian nobility saw as a foul smelling, sex-crazed peasant with far too much influence on decisions of State. Alexandra believed the man had the power to make her boy better. Those around her openly spoke of Rasputin ruining the Royal Family, and the Russian nation.

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Influential people approached Nicholas and Alexandra with dire warnings, leaving dismayed by their refusal to listen.  Rasputin was indispensable according to the Royal Couple.  He was the only man who could save the Tsarevich.

Rasputin_listovkaBy 1916 it was clear to many in the Nobility. The only course was to kill Rasputin, before he destroyed the monarchy.

A group of five Nobles led by Prince Felix Yusupov lured Rasputin to the Moika Palace on December 16, 1916, using the possibility of a sexual encounter with Yusopov’s beautiful wife Irina, as bait. Pretending that she was upstairs with unexpected guests, the five “entertained” Rasputin in a basement dining room, feeding him arsenic laced pastries and washing them down with poisoned wine. None of it seemed to have any effect.

Panicked, Yusupov pulled a revolver and shot the monk.  Rasputin went down, but soon got up and attacked his tormentors. He tried to run away, only to be shot twice more and have his head beaten bloody with a dumbbell. At last, with hands and feet bound, Grigory Efimovich Rasputin was thrown from a bridge into the icy Malaya Nevka River.

Police found the body two days later, with water in the lungs and hands outstretched. Poisoned, shot in the chest, back and head, with his head stove in, Rasputin was still alive when he hit the water.

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Poisoned, shot in the chest, back and head, with his head stove in, Rasputin was still alive when he hit the water.

In the end, the succession question turned out to be moot. A letter attributed to Rasputin, which he may or may not have written, contained a prophecy. “If I am killed by common assassins and especially by my brothers the Russian peasants, you, Tsar of Russia, have nothing to fear for your children, they will reign for hundreds of years in Russia…[I]f it was your relations who have wrought my death…none of your children or relations will remain alive for two years. They will be killed by the Russian people…”

The stresses and economic dislocations of the Great War proved too much to handle.  The Imperial Russian state collapsed in 1917.  Tsar Nicholas II abdicated the throne within three months of the death of Rasputin.   Members of the Ural regional Soviet shot, bludgeoned and bayoneted the Russian Imperial family to death:  Tsar Nicholas, his wife Tsarina Alexandra, all five children, the Grand Duchess Olga, the Romanov family physician, their footman, maid, and their dogs.

A coded telegram was sent to Lenin’s secretary, Nikolai Gorbunov.  “Inform Sverdlov”, (Communist party administrator Yakov Sverdlov ) “The whole family have shared the same fate as the head. Officially the family will die at the evacuation”.

January 6, 1929 Saint from the Gutter

Mother Teresa was once asked about the overwhelming nature of her work. ‘Never worry about numbers, she said. “Help one person at a time and always start with the person nearest you”.

In Albanian, “Gonxhe” means “Rosebud”.   Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu was born August 26, 1910, in what is now Uskup, the capital of Macedonia, then Skopje, part of the Ottoman Empire. Her mother raised the girl in the Roman Catholic faith after her father died in 1919.  By age 12, she was committed to a religious life.  “Agnes” had always been fascinated with the lives of missionaries, joining the Sisters of Loreto at the age of 18 to become one.  Though she would live to 87, Agnes would never again see her mother, or her sister.

The Sisters taught English to school children in India, a language she learned in the Loreto Abbey in Rathfarnham, Ireland.

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She arrived in India on January 6, 1929, beginning her novitiate in Darjeeling, near the Himalayas. There she learned to speak Bengali, teaching at St. Teresa’s School, near her convent. Agnes took her first religious vows as a nun in 1931, choosing the name Thérèse de Lisieux, after the patron saint of missionaries. Another nun in the convent had already chosen the name, so Agnes adopted the Spanish spelling, becoming Sister Teresa on May 24.

Teresa would take her solemn vows six years later, while teaching at the Loreto School in Entally, eastern Calcutta, a position she would hold until 1944.

Today, about 10% of the world’s Muslims live in India, making up close to 15% of the population. The number was much higher in 1944, as much as 2/3rds in some regions. The idea of the Muslim population breaking off India and forming an independent Pakistan had come up as early as 1930, and become a major force with the breakup of British rule over the Indian subcontinent, the “British Raj”, at the end of WW2.

Tensions spilled over in the province of Bengal in August 1946, as violence between Muslim, Hindu and Sikh mobs left thousands dead. Violence was particularly bad in Calcutta, where the massive riots of August 16-19 left over 4,000 dead and more than 100,000 homeless.

India would be partitioned the following year, and Pakistan declared an independent nation in August. For now, the violence of 1946, following on the heels of the Bengal famine of 1943, left Calcutta in a state of despair.

MOTHER TERESASister Teresa was looking out from the train carrying her from Darjeeling to Calcutta on September 10, when she heard the call. “I was to leave the convent and help the poor while living among them. It was an order. To fail would have been to break the faith.”

No one knew it at the time, but “Sister Teresa” had become “Mother Teresa”.

Mother Teresa spent a few months at Holy Family Hospital receiving medical training, venturing into the slums of Calcutta to begin her missionary work in 1948. A small group of women joined in her ministry to the “poorest among the poor”, as she wrote in her diary of begging for food and supplies. The hardships were severe, as was the near-constant temptation to return to the ease and comfort of the convent.

Teresa received permission from the Vatican on October 7, 1950, to start the diocesan congregation which would become the Missionaries of Charity.  With only 13 members in Calcutta, their mission was caring for “the hungry, the naked, the homeless, the crippled, the blind, the lepers, all those people who feel unwanted, unloved, uncared for throughout society, people that have become a burden to the society and are shunned by everyone.”

Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, Mother Teresa refused the traditional honor banquet, requesting instead that the $192K cost be given to help the poor of India.

With the help of Indian officials, Teresa opened the Kalighat Home for the Dying in an abandoned temple, where dying Muslims were read from the Quran, Hindus received water from the Ganges, and Catholics were read the Last Rites. “A beautiful death,” she said, “is for people who lived like animals to die like angels—loved and wanted”.

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Mother Teresa was once asked about the overwhelming nature of her work. ‘Never worry about numbers, she said. “Help one person at a time and always start with the person nearest you”.

By the time of her death on September 5, 1997, Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity had over 4,000 sisters, and an associated brotherhood of 300 members. They operated 610 missions in 123 countries, including hospices and homes for victims of HIV/AIDS, leprosy and tuberculosis. There were soup kitchens, children’s and family counseling programs, personal helpers, orphanages, and schools.

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Mother Teresa was canonized on September 4, 2016 in Vatican City, becoming Saint Teresa of Calcutta.  The ceremony at St. Peter’s Square was attended by over 1,500 homeless.

Even saints have critics, in her case usually the warm and well-fed likes of Christopher Hitchens, the “New Left Review” and the German magazine Stern.  Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu once said “Spread love everywhere you go.  Let no one ever come to you without leaving happier”.  Let that be the woman’s answer to the critics.

November 2, 1950 A Shepherd in Combat Boots

Reporting on Kapaun’s Medal of Honor, the NY Times wrote “The chaplain “calmly walked through withering enemy fire” and hand-to-hand combat to provide medical aid, comforting words or the last rites of the Roman Catholic Church to the wounded, the citation said. When he saw a Chinese soldier about to execute a wounded comrade, Sgt. First Class Herbert A. Miller, he rushed to push the gun away. Mr. Miller, now 88, was at the White House for the ceremony with other veterans, former prisoners of war and members of the Kapaun family”.

image (1)Emil Joseph Kapaun was the son of Czech immigrants, a farm kid who grew up in 1920s Kansas. Graduating from Pilsen High, class of 1930, Kapaun spent much of the 30s in theological seminary, becoming an ordained priest of the Roman Catholic faith on June 9, 1940.

Kapaun served as military chaplain toward the end of WWII, before leaving the army in 1946 and rejoining in 1948.

Chaplain Kapaun was ordered to Korea a month after the North invaded the South, joining the 8th Cavalry Regiment of the 1st Cavalry Division, out of Fort Bliss.

The 8th Cav. entered combat at the Pusan perimeter, moving steadily northward through the summer and fall of 1950.  Father Kapaun would minister to the dead and dying, performing baptisms, hearing first confessions and offering holy communion.  He would celebrate mass from an improvised altar, set up on the hood of a jeep.Kapaun2

Kapaun once lost his mass kit to enemy fire. He earned a Bronze Star in September that year, running through intense enemy fire to rescue a wounded soldier. His was no rear-echelon ministry.

A single regiment was attacked by the entire 39th Chinese Corps on November 1, and completely overrun the following day.  For the US 8th Cavalry, the battle of Unsan was one of the most devastating defeats of the Korean War. Father Kapaun was ordered to evade, an order he deliberately defied. He was performing last rites for a dying soldier, when he was seized by Chinese communist forces.

Prisoners were force marched 87 miles to a Communist POW camp near Pyoktong, in North Korea. Conditions in the camp were gruesome. 1st Lieutenant Michael Dowe was among the prisoners.  Through him that we know much of what happened there. Dowe later described Father Kapaun trading his watch for a blanket, only to cut it up to fashion socks for the feet of prisoners.

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Fr. Kapaun holds a pipe, shot out of his mouth by an enemy sniper

Father Kapaun would risk his life, sneaking into the fields around the prison compound to look for something to eat. He would always bring it back to the communal pot.

Chinese Communist guards would taunt Kapaun, during daily indoctrination sessions, “Where is your god now?” Before and after these sessions, he would move through the camp, ministering to Catholic and non-Catholic alike. Kapaun would slip in behind every work detail, cleaning latrines while other prisoners argued over who’d get the job. He’d wash the filthy laundry of those made weak and incontinent with dysentery.

Starving, suffering from a blood clot in his leg and a severe eye infection, Father Kapaun led Easter services in April, 1951. He was incapacitated a short time later. Guards carried him off to a “hospital”, a fetid, stinking part of the camp known to prisoners as the “death house”, from which few ever returned. “If I don’t come back”, he said, “tell my Bishop that I died a happy death.”Kapaun1

Scores of men credit their survival at Pyoktong, to Chaplain Kapaun.

In the end, Father Kapaun was too weak to lift the plate holding the meager meal his guards left him. US Army records report that he died of pneumonia on May 6, 1951.  His fellow POWs will tell you that he died on May 23, of malnutrition and starvation. He was 35.

In 2013, President Barack Obama presented Kapaun’s family with a posthumous Medal of Honor for his heroism at Unsan. The New York Times reported that April, “The chaplain “calmly walked through withering enemy fire” and hand-to-hand combat to provide medical aid, comforting words or the last rites of the Roman Catholic Church to the wounded, the citation said. When he saw a Chinese soldier about to execute a wounded comrade, Sgt. First Class Herbert A. Miller, he rushed to push the gun away. Mr. Miller, now 88, was at the White House for the ceremony with other veterans, former prisoners of war and members of the Kapaun family“.

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The naming of a Saint of the Roman Catholic church is not a process taken lightly.  Pope John Paul II named Father Kapaun a “Servant of God” in 1993, the first step toward Sainthood. On November 9, 2015, the Catholic Diocese of Wichita submitted a 1,066 page report on the life of Chaplain Kapaun, to the Roman Curia at the Vatican.

A team of six historians reviewed the case for beatification. On June 21, 2016, the committee unanimously approved the petition. Two days later, the Wichita Eagle newspaper reported that Father Kapaun was one step closer to sainthood.  At the time I write this, Father Emil Joseph Kapaun’s supporters continue working to have him declared a Saint of the Roman Catholic Church, for his lifesaving ministrations at Pyoktong.

Emil Kapaun

September  26, 1965 Rocky

In a July 8, 2002 ceremony in the East Room of the White House, President George W. Bush awarded Captain Humbert Roque Versace the Medal of Honor, posthumously.  The first time the nation’s highest honor was bestowed on a POW, for courage in the face of captivity.

Humbert Roque Versace was born in Honolulu on July 2, 1937, the first son of Colonel Humbert Joseph Versace.  Writer Marie Teresa “Tere” Rios was his mother, author of The Fifteenth Pelican.  If you don’t recall the book, perhaps you remember the 1960s TV series, based on the story.  It was called The Flying Nun.

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“Captain Humbert Roque “Rocky” Versace receives his 90-day combat infantry badge from his father, Colonel Humbert Joseph Versace”. H/T http://www.arlingtoncemetery.net, for this image

Like his father before him, Humbert, (“Rocky”), joined the armed services out of high school, graduating from the United States Military Academy at West Point, in 1959.

Rocky earned his Ranger tab and Parachutist badge the same year, later serving as tank commander with the 1st Armored Cavalry regiment in South Korea, then with the 3d US Infantry.  The “Old Guard”.

Versace attended the Military Assistance Institute, the Intelligence course at Fort Holabird Maryland, and the USACS Vietnamese language Course at the Presidio of Monterey, beginning his first tour of duty in Vietnam on May 12, 1962.

versacekids070302In his spare time, this Green Beret, Army Ranger and Special Forces warrior would volunteer to work in the countless orphanages of South Vietnam.

By the end of October 1963, Rocky had fewer than two weeks to the end of his second tour.  He had served a year and one-half in the Republic of Vietnam.  Now he planned to go to seminary school.

Rocky intended to become a Priest of the Roman Catholic faith, and return to Vietnam to help the nation’s orphaned children.  He’d already received his acceptance letter.

It wasn’t meant to be.

On October 29, Rocky was assisting a Civilian Irregular Defense force of South Vietnamese troops, to remove a Viet Cong command post in the Mekong Delta, when the unit was ambushed by an overwhelming force of  VC .

This was a daring mission in a dangerous place.  It was unusual for anyone to come forward for such a hazardous assignment, particularly one with his “short-timer’s stick”, but Rocky had volunteered.

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POW Rocky Vesace

Under siege and all but overwhelmed, himself suffering multiple bullet and shrapnel wounds, Versace put down suppressing fire, permitting his unit to withdraw from the kill zone.

Another force of some 200 South Vietnamese arrived too late to effect the outcome.  Communist radio frequency jamming had knocked out both main and backup radio channels.

Their position overrun, Captain Versace, Lieutenant Nick Rowe and Sergeant Dan Pitzer were captured and taken to a North Vietnamese prison, deep in the jungle.

For much of the next two years, 2’x3’x6’ bamboo “Tiger” cages would be their home.  On nights when the netting was taken away, the mosquitoes were so thick on their shackled feet, that it looked like they were wearing socks.

Tiger cage
H/T United States Army Heritage and Education Center (USAHEC) at Carlisle Barracks, photographer John Messeder, for this image.

Years later, President George W. Bush would tell a story, about how Steve Versace described his brother.   “If he thought he was right”,  Steve said, “he was a pain in the neck.  If he knew he was right, he was absolutely atrocious.”

There in the East Wing of the White House, the line was met with great laughter.  In 1964, Vietnamese interrogators were learning what Steve Versace could have told them.  These people were not going to break his brother.

MOH_VersaceRocky attempted to escape four times, despite leg wounds which left him no option but to crawl on his belly.   Each such attempt earned him savage beatings, after which he’d only try harder.

Fluent in French and Vietnamese as well as English, Rocky could quote chapter and verse from the Geneva Convention and never quit doing so.  He would insult and ridicule his captors in three languages, even as they beat him senseless.

Incessant brutalization and repeated confinement in “isolation boxes” earned his tormentors nothing but an invitation to “Go to Hell”, in three languages.

Communist indoctrination sessions had to be brought to a halt in French and Vietnamese, because none of his interrogators could effectively argue with this guy.  They certainly didn’t want villagers to hear the man blow up their communist propaganda in their own language.

Finally, Captain Versace was separated from the rest of the prison population, and placed in an isolation box.  He responded by singing, the lyrics of popular songs replaced by messages of inspiration to his fellow POWs.  He was last heard belting out “God Bless America” at the top of his lungs.

Versace, playing ballRocky was murdered by his captors, his “execution” announced on North Vietnamese “Liberation Radio” on September 26, 1965.  He was twenty-eight.

Versace’ remains were never recovered.  His name is inscribed on panel 1E, line 33 of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.  The headstone bearing his name in memorial section MG-108 of Arlington National Cemetery, stands over an empty grave.

If you’re ever in Alexandria, Virginia, pay a visit to the Mount Vernon Recreation Center. There in the central plaza, a sculpture by artist Antonio Tobias Mendez, depicts a Special Forces warrior.  With hands on their shoulders, he is coaching two Vietnamese kids, how to play ball.

This American hero of Italian and Puerto Rican heritage was nominated for the medal of honor in 1969, an effort which culminated in a posthumous Silver Star.

vietnam-memorial

In a July 8, 2002 ceremony in the East Room of the White House, President George W. Bush awarded Captain Humbert Roque Versace the Medal of Honor.  The first time the nation’s highest honor was bestowed on a POW, for courage in the face of captivity.

Let Rocky’s Medal of Honor citation, tell his story.

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Humbert Roque Versace
Rank and organization: Captain, U.S. Army, Intelligence Advisor, Special Operations
Place:  Republic of Vietnam
Entered service at:  Norfolk, VirginiaBorn:  Honolulu, Hawaii
Citation:

For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while a prisoner of war during the period of October 29, 1963 to September 26, 1965 in the Republic of Vietnam. While accompanying a Civilian Irregular Defense Group patrol engaged in combat operations in Thoi Binh District, An Xuyen Province, Republic of Vietnam on October 29, 1963, Captain Versace and the CIDG assault force were caught in an ambush from intense mortar, automatic weapons, and small arms fire from elements of a reinforced enemy Main Force battalion. As the battle raged, Captain Versace fought valiantly and encouraged his CIDG patrol to return fire against overwhelming enemy forces. He provided covering fire from an exposed position to enable friendly forces to withdraw from the killing zone when it was apparent that their position would be overrun, and was severely wounded in the knee and back from automatic weapons fire and shrapnel. He stubbornly resisted capture with the last full measure of his strength and ammunition. Taken prisoner by the Viet Cong, he demonstrated exceptional leadership and resolute adherence to the tenets of the Code of Conduct from the time he entered into a prisoner of war status. Captain Versace assumed command of his fellow American prisoners, and despite being kept locked in irons in an isolation box, raised their morale by singing messages to popular songs of the day, and leaving inspiring messages at the latrine. Within three weeks of captivity, and despite the severity of his untreated wounds, he attempted the first of four escape attempts by dragging himself on his hands and knees out of the camp through dense swamp and forbidding vegetation to freedom. Crawling at a very slow pace due to his weakened condition, the guards quickly discovered him outside the camp and recaptured him. Captain Versace scorned the enemy’s exhaustive interrogation and indoctrination efforts, and inspired his fellow prisoners to resist to the best of their ability. When he used his Vietnamese language skills to protest improper treatment of the American prisoners by the guards, he was put into leg irons and gagged to keep his protestations out of earshot of the other American prisoners in the camp. The last time that any of his fellow prisoners heard from him, Captain Versace was singing God Bless America at the top of his voice from his isolation box. Unable to break his indomitable will, his faith in God, and his trust in the United States of America and his fellow prisoners, Captain Versace was executed by the Viet Cong on September 26, 1965. Captain Versaces extraordinary heroism, self-sacrifice, and personal bravery involving conspicuous risk of life above and beyond the call of duty were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Army, and reflect great credit to himself and the U.S. Armed Forces.

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