December 24, 1942 The Padre of Guadalcanal

1st division Marines soon learned that, to “Padre” Gehring, this was no rear echelon ministry. During a particularly intense fire fight, one Marine dove for a foxhole only to find the Padre, already there. On spotting the crucifix around his neck the Marine asked, “Padre, what are you doing here?”. Where else would I be?”, came the reply.

Since 1775, a military chaplain is an officer who ministers to the spiritual needs of uniformed personnel and their families, and also civilians, working for the military. At first exclusively Christian, chaplains have long since come to represent every faith and denomination while honoring the rights of others, to their own faith traditions.

The first female military chaplain was officially commissioned, in 1973. During World War 2 theirs was a world exclusive to men.

Chaplains are found everywhere there are armed services, up to and including front lines. During the war in Korea, Father Emil Kapaun was captured by Chinese communists while performing last rights, for a dying soldier. This Shepherd in Combat Boots literally spent himself in service to his fellow POWs and died in a North Korean prison camp. In 2013 President Barack Obama awarded Fr. Kapaun the Medal of honor for his life saving ministrations, near Pyoktong.

This stained glass window at the Pentagon remembers the Four Chaplains drowned with the sinking of the USS Dorchester, in 1943.

Many chaplains have been decorated for bravery. In the United Kingdom, five chaplains have received the Victoria Cross, Britain’s highest decoration for gallantry in the line of duty. Nine have received the US’ Medal of Honor.

The Chaplain’s Medal for Heroism was specifically created to recognize the service of military chaplains, killed in the line of duty. To date this special decoration has been awarded only once, to the famous Four Chaplains who gave away their own life jackets, knowing they were about to be drowned.

During World War 2, US Army and Marine Corps chaplains experienced the third highest loss ratio of the war behind infantry, and Army Air Corps.

Sunday, December 7, 1941 dawned bright and clear on the Pacific naval anchorage in Pearl Harbor. Father Aloysius Schmitt was just beginning mass on board USS Oklahoma when the first of nine Japanese torpedoes, slammed home. The attack caused immediate flooding in multiple compartments as Oklahoma began her slow roll, to capsize. Below decks, Fr. Schmitt desperately helped push one sailor after another out of a small porthole, even as the compartment filled with water. 429 crewmen lost their lives on board Oklahoma that morning including Fr. Schmitt, drowned in the desperate act of saving others.

Celebrating mass on Iwo Jima, 1945

The Empire of Japan was all but unstoppable during the early months of WW2. The first major allied offensive began on August 7, 1942, with the objective of taking the Pacific islands of Guadalcanal, Tulagi, and Florida. Some 60,000 men would participate in the 6-month offensive, primarily United States Marines.

Near constant counter-attacks and artillery bombardments joined with tropical disease to make life on this mosquito infested jungle island…a living hell. Fully two-thirds of casualties in those early months resulted from malaria, and other tropical disease. All the while, Marines were forced to subsist on captured food rations of worm and maggot infested rice so paltry that even these already-thin children of the depression lost some 40-odd pounds…per man.

The national museum of WW2 museum website describes one such bombardment over the night of October 14:

“At 0133 hours, the battlewagons opened fire and for the next 83 minutes hurled 970 heavy naval shells at Henderson Field and the surrounding area. Two-ton shells as large as a Volkswagen Beetle smashed into the Marine positions, shaking everything from dental fillings to the emotions of the men themselves. The explosions sucked air from lungs and the concussion blew over trees and collapsed coconut log dugouts with ease. Men were buried alive in what they thought were safe shelters. While physical casualties were light as a result of the battleship shelling, mental casualties were high. Men emerged from their dugouts shaking violently, eyes wide, ears bleeding, unable to hear anything or see straight. Blast concussion rendered many men helpless and disoriented for hours and even days after an attack. Veterans of the Tenaru River and Bloody Ridge battles—who had stared death directly in the face—all recalled the night of October 14 to be the most frightening night of the entire campaign”.

Ordained as a priest on May 22, 1930, Father Frederic Gehring spent 1933 to 1939 laboring on missions to China enduring bandits, Chinese communists and Japanese occupation. One time under aerial strafing in 1938, Fr. Gehring ran out waving a large American flag to show Japanese fighter pilots this was a mission, of the then-neutral United States. Father Gehring was pleased when the pilots did in fact fly away. Until someone at the mission informed him. It was probably because they had run out of bullets.

The United States declared war on the Empire of Japan the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor. The following day Father Frederic enlisted as Navy chaplain. In September 1942 he joined the 1st Marine Division, the “Old Breed”, on Guadalcanal.

“Before Guadalcanal the enemy advanced at his pleasure. After Guadalcanal, he retreated at ours”.

Admiral William “Bull” Halsey

1st division Marines soon learned that, to “Padre” Gehring, this was no rear echelon ministry. During a particularly intense fire fight, one Marine dove for a foxhole only to find the Padre, already there. On spotting the crucifix around his neck the Marine asked, “Padre, what are you doing here?”. Where else would I be?”, came the reply.

That’s Father Gehring with his hat on, next to Barney Ross. The names of the parrots if any, have been lost to history.

Gehring routinely held masses so close to the fighting, Marines came to believe he would hold a mass in hell. So long as he could get his jeep there.

The Padre’s work wasn’t just on the lines where men were injured and dying but sometimes, behind enemy lines. With the help of Solomon Island natives, Fr. Gehring went deeply into enemy held territory no fewer than three times to rescue trapped missionaries on the island, mostly Marist priests and Sisters. By the time he was done 28 had been extracted, from Japanese occupied territory.

For this feat Father Gehring received the Legion of Merit from the President of the United States, the first Navy chaplain so decorated.

One day, islanders found a young Chinese girl at the bottom of a ditch. Only five or six years old and sick with malaria she’d been beaten and bayonetted by Japanese soldiers, and left for dead. The imprint of a rifle butt was clearly visible on her smashed skull. The examining physician said she wouldn’t make it through the night and yet, she did.

How a little girl apparently orphaned wound up that far from home, is a tale unto itself. As is the way an old China hand named Frederic Gehring nursed her to health in an active combat zone, along with the help of battle hardened Marines.

If such a feat was a small miracle, Christmas mass that year on Guadalcanal was not, though there may have been a wee bit of chuckling, divine intervention. With his first tent blown to bits by enemy artillery, some 700 Marines gathered at the new chapel tent on December 24, for Christmas mass.

In a world of hard men Barney Ross stood out, as a man not to be trifled with. An Orthodox Jewish kid from the streets of Chicago, Ross was a professional prize fighter, and three time champion. It was inevitable that the boxer and the priest from Brooklyn, would hit it off. they were two peas in a pod. Earlier that month, Ross and a group of Marines found themselves surrounded. The only man not wounded, Ross kept up a hail of gunfire and grenades keeping an unknown number of Japanese at bay. All…night…long. By morning, the only other man left alive was a single wounded Marine. Ross tossed the man on his back and carried him back to base.

So back to that Christmas mass…Ross had ambled up to the Padre and asked “who plays”, pointing to a small pump organ. Gehring was himself an accomplished violinist, but the answer was…no one knew how to play that thing.

Except…for Barney Ross.

So it is a Jewish kid from Chicago joined in on Catholic mass that night, learning the Christian canon by ear as 700 marines, hummed along. He ended the concert with a rousing rendition of “My Yiddishe Mama” in Yiddish no less, and there wasn’t a dry eye in the place.

Columnist Jimmy Breslin recalled: “There was a Jewish kid playing an organ and singing in Yiddish about his mama and a Catholic priest standing next to him with a violin trying to help it sound nice, and all around there were guys who came from every religion and some of them didn’t even have one, but they were all crying and thinking about the same thing.”

Many years later, Gehring typed up a paragraph reflecting on the war and that Christmas, in Guadalcanal. For years he would insert the piece in his Christmas cards of which he sent and received, many: “Our heroes, who gave their lives for their country and now lay beneath the white crosses that mark their final place, do not see the dark clouds of war hovering overhead in various parts of the world. The peace they fought and died for seems but temporary.”

In time that little Chinese girl who wasn’t supposed to make it through the night…did. Fr. Gehring called her Patsy Lee. In 1950, he brought her home to the US. Ms. Lee went to school and became a nurse. She met a man, and they married. Later on, Gehring even helped her find her own mother. Gehring himself tells the story of that little girl if you want to learn more in his 1962 memoir, “Child of Miracles”.

Fr. Frederic Gehring died in 1998, at the age of 95. Let his New York Times obituary, have the last word on this man of faith: “At Father Gehring’s funeral on Thursday at St. Vincent’s Seminary in Philadelphia, where he was ordained in 1930, she was there as was a Marine honor guard, reminders of a time when Guadalcanal was a name to reckon with and a little girl was a miracle of war”.

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Chaplain deaths while on active duty (hat tip Wikipedia)
Death during service (combat and non-combat):

American Revolution: 25
War of 1812: 1
Mexican–American War: 1
Civil War
Union: 117
Confederacy: 41
World War I: 23
World War II: 182
Korean War: 13
Vietnam War: 15
Iraq and Afghan Wars: 1 (as of September 2010)

November 18, 1978 Drinking the Koolaid

The Jonestown murder/suicide of November 18, 1978 produced the largest loss of civilian life in American history. Until the Islamist terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

Those who knew him as a child remembered a “really weird kid“, obsessed with religion and death. He’d hold elaborate, pseudo-religious ceremonies at the house, mostly funerals for small animals. How Jim Jones got all those dead animals was a matter for dark speculation.

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This was depression-era rural Indiana, in the age of racial segregation. Father and son often clashed over issues of race. The two didn’t talk to each other for years one time, after the elder Jones refused to allow one of the younger Jones’ black friends, into the house.

Jim Jones was a bright student, graduating High School with honors in 1949. He was a voracious reader, studying the works of Stalin, Marx, Mao, Gandhi and Hitler and carefully noting the strengths and weaknesses, of each.

Jones married Marceline Baldwin in 1949 and moved to Bloomington, Indiana, where he attended Indiana University and later Butler University night school, earning a degree in secondary education.

A long-standing interest in leftist politics heightened during this period, and Jones became a regular at Communist Party-USA meetings. There he’d rail against the McCarthy hearings, and the trials of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.

Jones recalled he later asked himself, “How can I demonstrate my Marxism? The thought was, infiltrate the church.”

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“Reverend” Jim Jones got his start as a student pastor at the Sommerset Southside Methodist Church but soon left, over issues of segregation.  He was a Social Justice Warrior in the age of Jim Crow.

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The New York Times reported in 1953, “declaring that he was outraged at what he perceived as racial discrimination in his white congregation, Mr. Jones established his own church and pointedly opened it to all ethnic groups. To raise money, he imported monkeys and sold them door to door as pets.”

Jones witnessed a faith-healing service and came to understand the influence to be had, from such an event.  He arranged a massive convention in 1956, inviting the Oral Roberts of his day, as keynote speaker. Reverend William Branham did not disappoint.  Soon, Reverend Jones opened his own mission with an explicit focus on racial integration. 

Thus began the Peoples Temple of the Disciples of Christ.

Jones’ integrationist politics did little to ingratiate himself in 1950s rural Indiana.  Mayor and commissioners alike asked him to tone it down, while he received wild applause at NAACP and Urban League conventions with speeches rising to a thundering crescendo:  “Let My People GO!!!”

Jones spoke in favor of Kim Il-sung’s invasion of South Korea, branding the conflict a “war of liberation” and calling South Korea “a living example of all that socialism in the north has overcome.

Jim and Marcelline adopted three Korean orphans, beginning what would become a family of nine including their only biological child, Stephan Ghandi.  The couple adopted a black boy in 1961 and called him Jim Jr., the Jones’ “rainbow family” a reflection of the pastor’s congregation.

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An apocalyptic streak began to show, as Jones preached of nuclear annihilation. He traveled to Brazil for a time, in search of a safe place for the coming holocaust. He even gave it a date: July 15, 1967. On returning from Brazil, the “Father” spoke to the flock. The “children” would have to move. To northern California, to a new and perfect, socialist, Eden.

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Jim Jones preaching, 1971

For Jim Jones, religion was never more than a means to an end. ”Off the record” he once said in a recorded conversation, “I don’t believe in any loving God. Our people, I would say, are ninety percent atheist. Uh, we— we think Jesus Christ was a swinger…I must say, I felt somewhat hypocritical for the last years as I became uh, an atheist, uh, I have become uh, you— you feel uh, tainted, uh, by being in the church situation. But of course, everyone knows where I’m at. My bishop knows that I’m an atheist.

Faith healing.  The California days

Jones referred to himself as the reincarnation of Gandhi. Father Divine. Jesus, Gautama Buddha and Lenin. “What you need to believe in is what you can see…. If you see me as your friend, I’ll be your friend. As you see me as your father, I’ll be your father, for those of you that don’t have a father…. If you see me as your savior, I’ll be your savior. If you see me as your God, I’ll be your God.”

The years in California were a time of rapid expansion from Temple Headquarters in San Francisco to locations up and down the “Golden State”.  Jones hobnobbed with the who’s who of Democratic politics, from San Francisco Mayor George Moscone to Presidential candidate Walter Mondale. Even First Lady Rosalynn Carter.

“If you’re born in capitalist America, racist America, fascist America, then you’re born in sin. But if you’re born in socialism, you’re not born in sin.”

California Assemblyman Willie Brown called Jones a combination of Martin Luther King, Jr., Angela Davis, Albert Einstein and Mao Tse Tung. Harvey Milk wrote to Jones after one visit: “Rev Jim, It may take me many a day to come back down from the high that I reach today. I found something dear today. I found a sense of being that makes up for all the hours and energy placed in a fight. I found what you wanted me to find. I shall be back. For I can never leave.

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Humanitarian award from Pastor Cecil Williams, 1977” H/T Wikipedia

Meanwhile, Jones was building the perfect socialist utopia in the South American jungles of Guyana, formally known as the “Peoples Temple Agricultural Project”.  Most simply called the place, “Jonestown”.

San Francisco Chronicle reporter Marshall Kilduff wrote in the summer of 1977, telling a grotesque tale of physical and sexual abuse, of brainwashing and emotional domination. Chronicle editors balked and Kilduff published the piece in the New West Magazine.

That was when Jones and his congregation left town and fled.  To Guyana.

A long standing drug addiction became more pronounced in Jonestown where the preacher spoke of the gospel of “Translation”, a weird crossing over from this life to some other, finer plane.

Some 68% of Jonestown faithful were black at this time, congregants who felt they got something from this place, they couldn’t get at home. Inclusion. Fulfillment. Acceptance. Whatever it was, the cult of Jonestown was mostly, a world of willing participants.

Mostly, but not entirely. Those who entered Jonestown were not allowed to leave. Those who did escape told outlandish tales of abuse: mental, physical and sexual.

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Jonestown compound, Guyana

Former members of the Temple formed a “Concerned Relatives” group in the Fall of 1977, to publicize conditions afflicting family members, still in the cult.

Concerned Relatives produced a packet of affidavits in April 1978, entitled “Accusation of Human Rights Violations by Rev. James Warren Jones“. Jones’ political support began to weaken as members of the press and Congress, took increasing interest.

California Congressman Leo Ryan led a fact-finding mission that November, to see things for himself. The Congressional Delegation (CoDel) arrived at the Guyanese capital on November 15, with NBC camera crew and newspaper reporters, in tow.

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Congressman Ryan arrives at Jonestown

The delegation traveled by air and drove the last few miles by limo, to Jonestown. The visit of the 17th was cordial at first, with Jones himself hosting a reception in the central pavilion. Underlying menace soon came to the surface as a few Temple members expressed the desire, to leave with the delegation. Things went from bad to worse when temple member Don Sly attacked Congressman Ryan with a knife, the following day.

Ryan’s hurried exit with fifteen members of the Temple met no resistance, at first. The CoDel was boarding at the small strip in Port Kaituma, when Jones’ “Red Brigade” pulled up in a farm tractor, towing a trailer.   The new arrivals opened fire, killing Congressman Ryan and four others.  One of the supposed “defectors” produced a weapon, and wounded several more.

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NBC photographer Bob Brown took this shot, of the shooters

Back at the compound, Jones lost an already tenuous grasp on reality.

Fearing assault by parachute, lethal doses of cyanide were distributed along with grape “Flavor Aid” for 912 members of the People’s Temple. 276 of those, were children.

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This wasn’t the first time the Jonestown flock believed they were ingesting poison for The Cause. It was about to be the last.

Jones spoke with an odd lisp which seemed to grow more pronounced, at times of excitement. You can hear it in the 45 minute “death tape“ below, his words sometimes forming a perfect “S“ and at other times, lapsing into a soft “TH” or some combination, of the two.

You can hear it clearly, in the recording.  Heads up dear reader.  If you care to listen, it’s 45-minutes of tough sledding.

Jonestown “Death Tape”. November 18, 1978

Babies and children were brought up first, the poisonous punch poured down their throats. Then came the mothers., and then the others. Should any be reluctant to die there were guards there with guns and crossbows, to help them along.

Each person thus poisoned at the compound, took five minutes to die. When it was over some 918 souls lay dead, either at the compound, or the air strip.

The murder/suicide of November 18, 1978 produced the largest loss of civilian life in American history, until the Islamist terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

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“A lot of people are tired around here, but I’m not sure they’re ready to lie down, stretch out and fall asleep”. Jim Jones
Jones: How very much I’ve loved you. How very much I’ve tried, to give you the good life…We are sitting on a powder keg…I don’t think that’s what we wanted to do with our babies…No man takes my life from me, I lay my life down…If we can’t live in peace, then let us die in peace.
Christine [Miller]: Is it too late for Russia?
Jones: Here’s why it’s too late for Russia. They killed. They started to kill. That’s why it makes it too late for Russia. Otherwise I’d said, “Russia, you bet your life.” But it’s too late.
Unidentified Man: Is there any way if I go, that it’ll help?
Jones: No, you’re not going. You’re not going.
Crowd: No! No!
Jones: I haven’t seen anybody yet that didn’t die. And I’d like to choose my own kind of death for a change. I’m tired of being tormented to hell, that’s what I’m tired of.
Crowd: Right, right.
Jones: Tired of it.
Unidentified Man: It’s over, sister, it’s over … we’ve made that day … we made a beautiful day and let’s make it a beautiful day … that’s what I say.

June 24, 1535 The Cages of Münster

Jan van Leiden ruled over the city as the new King David, according to his own prophesy.  He seemed to think he had a direct line “upstairs” and could conjure up fresh prophesy at a moment’s notice.  The seventy-five hundred inhabitants of Münster, believed so as well.

A popular legend depicts the Augustinian monk Martin Luther nailing a parchment to the door of the Wittenberg Palace Church in 1517, his “ninety five theses” a direct challenge to the authority of the pope, and the Catholic church. It likely never happened that way. Luther had no intention of confronting the Church. Subsequent events would harden Luther’s attitudes toward the Church but for now, this was but ninety-five propositions, framed and submitted for scholarly debate.

Luther enclosed his “ninety five theses” in a letter to the Archbishop of Mainz on October 31, the date now regarded as the beginning, of the Protestant Reformation.

Major Christian Denominations

H/T Wikipedia

To the modern reader, theological issues such as the “moral bank account” of saints or the transubstantiation of the body and blood of Christ, may seem mere doctrinal interpretations. In the late middle and early modern ages, such issues were matters of life and death. The Czech theologian Jan Hus was burned at the stake for such heresy, in 1415. The English philosopher John Wycliffe, dead some forty-four years by this time was dug up and burned, his ashes cast upon the waters of the River Swift.

The European Reformation exploded with startling intensity, spawning a “peasant rebellion” in 1524 in which about a third of 300,000 poorly armed farmers, were slaughtered.  There were any number of reformers, few more radical than the baker turned Anabaptist prophet, Jan Matthias.

Münster was a divided city in 1530, made even more so when the evangelical Lutheran minister Bernard Rothmann, began preaching against Catholic doctrine.  Rothmann was tireless, vitriolic, a relentless stream of anti-Catholic invective both from the pulpit, and from a series of pamphlets financed and printed by his ally, the wealthy wool merchant Bernard Knipperdolling.

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Word got back to Matthias and his followers, who came to see Münster as the “New Jerusalem”.  Jan Matthias and his Anabaptist followers were radicals even among their fellow “protestants”, and Rothmann was happy to come along.  Theirs was an extreme, radical egalitarian ideology with no use for childhood baptism.  They believed that Jesus Christ would descend to earth that Easter and bring about the End of Time.  The Apocalypse was nigh. All good Christians needed to prepare, and only adult baptism held the key to salvation.

Four years earlier, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V ordered that every Anabaptist “shall be brought from natural life to death with fire, sword, or the like.”  Now Anabaptists poured into Münster, baptizing some 1,400 adults in the first week after their arrival, about 20 percent of the adult population.

Equal numbers fled the city, amid “share-the-wealth” economic policies that would make the most fervent communist, blush.  Armed city employees warned those who refused adult baptism to flee:  “Get out of here, you godless. God will punish you!

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Matthias demanded the execution of all Catholics and Lutherans, warning that “Everywhere we are surrounded by dogs and sorcerers and whores and killers and the godless and all who love lies and commit them!”  Catholics and moderate Protestants were expelled from the city, about 2,000 of them, as equal numbers of Anabaptist radicals poured in from the countryside.

Matthias ordered every contract, account and ledger in town destroyed in a vain attempt to abolish all debt.  Rothmann preached from the pulpit of St. Lambert’s: “Everything that Christian brothers and sisters have belongs to the one as well as to the other.”

Prince-Bishop of Münster Franz von Waldeck looked on with increasing alarm. Before long a mercenary army was assembled outside the city walls of Münster.  The place was now under siege.

Easter Sunday arrived, April 5, 1534. Jesus, did not. With his apocalyptic prophesy thus shattered, Matthias claimed to have a new, divine vision. He would ride forth from the city walls and personally break von Waldeck’s siege of the city. So it was that the Anabaptist prophet saddled up and rode forth with an entourage of twelve, only to be run through with a spear, his head mounted on a pike for all the town to see.

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Up stepped the dead prophet’s right-hand man, the charismatic twenty-five year old tailor Jan van Leiden, who delivered a speech reinterpreting the day’s events, and postponing doomsday.

Münster became heavily militarized as Waldeck’s besieging force cut off all access to the city.  Jan van Leiden ruled over the city as the new King David, according to his own prophesy.  He seemed to think he had a direct line “upstairs” and could conjure up fresh prophesy at a moment’s notice.  The seventy-five hundred inhabitants of Münster, believed so as well.

The siege dragged on through 1534 and into the following year.  In May 1535, the Anabaptist carpenter Heinrich Gresbeck attempted to escape, only to be caught.  In exchange for his life, Gresbeck agreed to show Waldeck a lightly defended gate.

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The prince-bishop’s forces fought their way through the streets of Münster on the evening of June 24, and into the early morning hours, killing some 600 Anabaptists before the city surrendered.

Jan van Leiden, “viceroy” Bernhard Knipperdolling and Anabaptist leader Bernhard Krechting were taken to the public square some six months later, chained to posts and literally torn to pieces with white-hot pliers.

Imagine the scene. The sentences encompassed precisely sixty minutes of such treatment. Two executioners and four sets of tongs lest the other two be out of the coals for too long. Leiden endured an hour of such treatment as first his flesh and then sinew, was torn from his frame. He never made a sound.

Knipperdolling struggled frantically against the spiked collar which held him fast for he knew, he was next. Finally it was Krechting’s turn. Should a man pass out from the agony the clock would be stopped and the prisoner, revived. Then the process would begin, anew. Sixty minutes with those white-hot tongs and not a moment, less.

Finally a dagger was thrust into each man’s heart to end his appointed hour. Three hideously mutilated corpses were placed in cages and hanged from the steeple of St. Lambert’s Church, as a warning to others.

Some fifty years later their bones were removed, but not those cages.  In 1880 the old steeple was torn down and a new one built in its place. The cages were reinstalled.

On November 18, 1944, British bombs hit St. Lambert’s church, knocking the highest cage, van Leiden’s, to the ground. Another fell into the organ loft, leaving the third hanging only by a thread. The church rebuilt the tower, four years later.  Workers repaired and replaced the cages, commenting favorably on their sturdy construction.

Three decades ago, St. Lambert’s church installed a small yellow bulb in each of those cages, a small concession “in memory of their departed souls.”  The cages of Münster remain there, hanging from the steeple at St. Lambert’s, to this day.

May 6, 1951 Father Wears Combat Boots

Father Kapaun once lost his Mass kit to enemy fire. He earned a Bronze Star by running through intense enemy fire to rescue a wounded soldier. This was no rear-echelon ministry.

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, he spent much of the 30s in theological seminary, becoming an ordained priest of the Roman Catholic faith on June 9, 1940.

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

Father 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.

Kapaun’s unit entered combat at the Pusan perimeter, moving steadily northward through the summer and fall of 1950. He would minister to the dead and dying performing baptisms, hearing first confessions, offering Holy Communion and celebrating Mass from an improvised altar set up on the hood of a jeep.

Father Kapaun once lost his Mass kit to enemy fire. He earned a Bronze Star in September that year, when he ran through intense enemy fire to rescue a wounded soldier. This was no rear-echelon ministry.

A single regiment was attacked by the 39th Chinese Corps on November 1, and completely overrun the following day. For the 8th Cav., the battle of Unsan was one of the most devastating defeats of the Korean War. Father Kapaun was ordered to evade, an order he 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 Lt. Michael Dowe was among the prisoners, it’s 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 fellow prisoners.

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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 him 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.

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Starving, suffering from a blood clot in his leg and a severe eye infection, Father Kapaun led Easter services in April, 1951. A short time later, he was incapacitated. Chinese 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.”

In the end, Father Kapaun was too weak to lift the plate holding the meager ration the guards had left for him. United States Army records report that Fr. Kapaun died of pneumonia on May 6, 1951.

His fellow prisoners will tell you that he died on the 23rd, of malnutrition and starvation. He was only 35.

Scores of men credit their survival to Chaplain Kapaun. In 2013, President Barack Obama presented Kapaun’s family with the Medal of Honor, posthumously, 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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Pope John Paul II named Father Kapaun a “Servant of God” in 1993, the first step toward Roman Catholic 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 and delivered a unanimous decision on June 21, 2016, approving the petition.

In January 2022  it was announced, that the Vatican is considering a declaration of martyrdom for the Catholic faith. If granted it’s an important step on Father Emil Kapaun’s continuing road, to canonization.

March 13, 1925 Trial of the Century

What began as a publicity stunt quickly became an overwhelming media event. 200 newspaper reporters from all over the country arrived in Dayton. Two come all the way from London. Twenty-two telegraphers sent out 165,000 words a day over thousands of miles of telegraph wires, specifically hung for the purpose.

On January 28, 1925, a measure prohibiting the teaching of evolution or denying the biblical account of the origin of man, passed the Tennesse House of Representatives, 71 to five. The Tennessee senate passed the so-called “Butler bill” named after Representative John Washington Butler on March 13, the measure signed into law that same month by Governor Austin Peay.

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It was now illegal to teach the theory of evolution in Tennessee public schools, colleges and universities.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) immediately announced an intention to sue, offering to defend anyone accused of violating the act. Local businessman George Rappleyea arranged a meeting with the county superintendent of schools and local attorney Sue Kerr Hicks, possibly the inspiration for Shel Silverstein’s “A Boy Named Sue” everyone remembers from the Johnny Cash song, of 1969.

The three met at Robinson’s Drug Store and agreed their little town of Dayton could use the publicity. The trio summoned 24-year-old High School football coach John Scopes, asking the part-time substitute teacher to plead guilty to teaching the theory of evolution. Scopes replied he couldn’t recall if he had done so or not, but he’d be more than happy to be the defendant if anyone could prove that he had.

Scopes stepped into legal history barely two months later. According to charging documents Scopes had used the textbook “Civic Biology” to describe the theory of evolution, race and eugenics. The prosecution brought in William Jennings Bryan to try the case. The defense hired Clarence Darrow. 

Two of the heaviest of jurisprudential heavy hitters of the day were now lined up in what promised to be, the “Trial of the Century”.

scopesBryan complained that evolution taught children that humans were no more than one among 35,000 mammals. He rejected the idea that humans were descended from apes. “Not even from American monkeys, but from old world monkeys”. The ACLU wanted to oppose the Butler Act on grounds that it violated the teacher’s individual rights and academic freedom, but it was Darrow who shaped the case, taking the position that theistic and evolutionary views were not mutually exclusive.

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What began as a publicity stunt quickly became an overwhelming media event. 200 newspaper reporters from all over the country arrived in Dayton. Two come all the way from London. Twenty-two telegraphers sent out 165,000 words a day over thousands of miles of telegraph wires, specifically hung for the purpose.

Trained chimpanzees performed on the courthouse lawn. Chicago radio personality Quin Ryan broadcast the nation’s first on-the-scene coverage of a criminal trial. A specially constructed airstrip was prepared from which two movie cameramen had their newsreel footage flown out, daily.

H.L. Mencken, writing for the Baltimore Sun, mocked the prosecution and the jury as “unanimously hot for Genesis.” Mencken labeled the town’s inhabitants “yokels” and “morons”. Bryan was a “buffoon” he claimed, his speeches “theologic bilge”. It was Mencken who dubbed the proceedings, “Monkey Trial”. The defense, on the other hand, was “eloquent” and “magnificent”.

Or so he claimed. Not the least little bit of media bias, there.

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After eight days of trial, the jury took only nine minutes to deliberate finding Scopes guilty on July 21. The gym teacher was ordered to pay a $100 fine, equivalent to something like $1,300, today. Scopes’ conviction was overturned by the Tennessee Supreme Court, on the basis that state law required fines over $50 to be decided by a jury, and not by the judge presiding.

To this day you can find American creationists who believe that media reports turned public opinion, against the religious view.

Today, the Evolution vs Creation debate has faded to the background, but never really ended. Such discussions may be reasonably expected to continue. Neither view seems supportable by anything more than the faith, of its own adherents.

March 10, 1748 A Story of Redemption

“I am not what I ought to be, I am not what I want to be, I am not what I hope to be in another world; but still I am not what I once used to be, and by the grace of God I am what I am” ― John Newton

It was the Golden Age of Greek history, a time when “[Men] lived like gods without sorrow of heart, remote and free from toil and grief…” according to the Greek poet, Hesiod. A time of Confucius and the Buddha in the east while the Olmec peoples ruled over much of South and Central America, a time when the Italian city-state of Rome overthrew a Monarch, to form a Republic.

Ancient Greece Costume - circa 500 BC2,500 years ago, Bantu farmers on the African continent fanned out across the land as the first Africans penetrated the dense rain forests of the equator, to take up a new life on the west African coast.

The Islamic crusades of the 7th and 8th centuries turned much of the Maghreb (northwest Africa) to Islam and displaced the Sahelian kingdoms of the sub-Saharan grasslands.   The hunters, farmers and traders of Coastal Africa remained free to make their own way, isolated by those same rain forests from the jihads and other violence of the interior.

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Sahelian Kingdoms of Sub-Saharan Africa

The first European contact came around 1462 when the Portuguese explorer Pedro de Sintra mapped the hills surrounding modern Freetown Harbour, naming an oddly shaped formation Serra Lyoa (Lioness Mountain).

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Home to one of the few safe harbors on the surf-battered “windward coast”, Sierra Leone soon became a favorite of European mariners, some of whom remained for a time while others came to stay, intermarrying with local women.

From the 6th century to a peak of around 1350, Arab slave traders conducted a rich trans-Saharan trade in human beings.

According to the Guyanese historian Walter Rodney, slavery among and between the African peoples of Sierra Leone appears to be rare at this time. Portuguese mariners kept detailed records and would have described such a thing though there was a particular kind of “slavery” in the region: “A person in trouble in one kingdom could go to another and place himself under the protection of its king, whereupon he became a “slave” of that king, obliged to provide free labour and liable for sale“.Arabslavers (1)While this type of “slave” retained rudimentary rights at this time, those unfortunate enough to be captured by Dutch, English and French slavers, did not.

It wasn’t long before coastal kidnapping raids gave way to more lucrative opportunities.  Some chieftains were more than happy to “sell” the less desirable members of their own tribes while others made a business out of war, taking prisoners to be traded for a fortune in European goods, including muskets.

While slave “owners” were near-exclusively white and foreign at this time, the late 18th century was a time of rich and powerful African chieftains, many of whom owned large numbers of slaves, of their own.1_bUM2OMXstOAZukyNAc8oFgThis was the world of John Newton, born July 24 (old style) 1725 and destined for a life, in the slave trade.

The son of a London shipmaster in the Mediterranean service, Newton first went to sea with his father at age 11 and logged six such voyages before the elder Newton retired, in 1742.

His was a wild youth, the life of a sailor bent on drinking and raising hell. That was all brought up short in 1743, when Newton was captured and “pressed” into service with the 50-gun HMS Harwich and given the rank, of midshipman.

The teenager hated everything about the naval service and tried to desert, earning himself a flogging for his trouble.

Eight. Dozen. Lashes. Imagine for a moment, enduring something like that.

Reduced to the rank of common seaman Newton was disgraced, wounded and humiliated. He vowed to murder the captain and hurl himself overboard but it wasn’t meant to be. The wounds healed over in time and, with the Harwich enroute to India, Newton transferred to the slave ship Pegasus, bound for West Africa.

Pegasus would trade goods for slaves in Sierra Leone to be shipped to colonies in the Caribbean and North America.maxresdefault (28)Newton hated life on the Pegasus as much as his shipmates, hated him. In 1745 he was abandoned in West Africa with a slave trader, named Amos Clowe. Newton was now himself a slave, given by Clowe to his wife Princess Peye of the Sherbro tribe, of Sierra Leone.  Peye treated Newton as badly as she treated any of her other slaves, treatment as wretched as that meted out to the human beings who had fallen into his own hands, as a slave trader. Newton himself later described these three years as “once an infidel and a libertine, [now] a servant of slaves in West Africa”.

Rescued in 1748 by his father’s request, Newton was returning to England aboard the merchant ship Greyhound when he experienced a spiritual awakening. Caught in a dreadful storm off Donegal, Greyhound seemed doomed when a great hole opened in her hull. Newton prayed for the mercy of God when a load somehow shifted, party blocking the hole. With pumps operating around the clock, the storm died down. Greyhound made port in Lough Swilly, Ireland, four weeks later.

With this conversion, John Newton had come to accept the doctrines of Evangelical Christianity.  On March 10, 1748 he swore off liquor, gambling and profanity.  For the rest of this life he would regard this day, as a turning point.

March 10, 1748 Amazing Grace

There’s a popular story that Newton’s life was changed then and there but it didn’t work out that way. Those hours of despair on board the Greyhound were an awakening, yes, but Newton would return to the slave trade. Even after the 1754 stroke which ended his seafaring career, he still invested in slaving operations.

His was a gradual conversion.  “I cannot consider myself to have been a believer in the full sense of the word” he later said, “until a considerable time afterwards.”

While working as tax collector in the Port of Liverpool, Newton studied Greek, Hebrew and Syriac, preparing himself for serious religious studies. In 1757 he applied to become an ordained minister, of the Anglican Church. Seven years would come and go when the lay minister applied with Methodists, Independents and Presbyterians.  He was ordained a priest of the Anglican church on April 29, 1764.

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Moving to London in 1780 as the Rector of St. Mary Woolnoth church, Newton became involved with the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade.

In 1788 he broke a long silence on the subject to take a forceful stand, against the “peculiar institution“. 

In his Thoughts Upon the African Slave Trade, Newton writes: “So much light has been thrown upon the subject…for the suppression of a traffic, which contradicts the feelings of humanity; that it is hoped, this stain of our National character will soon be wiped out.”

Newton apologized for his past in “a confession, which … comes too late … It will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me, that I was once an active instrument in a business at which my heart now shudders.

The tract went on to two printings, describing the hideous conditions on board the slave ships and leading to an act of Parliament abolishing the slave trade, in 1807.67452William Cowper was an English poet and hymnist who came to worship in Newton’s church, in 1767.  The pair collaborated on a book of Newton’s hymns including “Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken,” “How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds!,” “Come, My Soul, Thy Suit Prepare” and others.

“I am still in the land of the dying; I shall be in the land of the living soon”.  His last words

John Newton was a drunk, a carousing sailor and a slave trader who saw the light and left us one of the great hymns, of the last quarter-millennium.

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound,
that saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind but now I see.

August 24, 1855 An Ungainly Old Chimney

193 engraved stones arrived from around the world but none met with half the fuss of that brought forth from the ancient Roman temple of Concordia and engraved with the words, ROME TO AMERICA. The gift of Pope Pius IX. The Catholic haters were aghast.

With a second Catholic president in the White House, it may surprise some to learn. This nation once harbored considerable anti-Catholic bias. Candidate John F. Kennedy tackled the issue head-on, addressing a Houston meeting of 300 Protestant ministers in an effort to separate the “honestly fearful”, from genuine bigots.

The strategy worked. Today, Catholic-issues voters have more in common with evangelical voters, than what separates them. Americans have come a long way but it wasn’t always, thus.

The Popes of the early middle ages were heavily involved in secular affairs. Chosen by predecessors, popular acclaim, family connection or simony (the purchase of ecclesiastical office), many were less than pious men. At one time the papacy itself was as political, as any public office..

The Protestant Reformation began with a series of events in the 16th century, aimed at correcting what were seen as errors and excesses of the Catholic Church.

Proponents of the Reformation strongly opposed the clerical hierarchy and particularly, the papacy. The Church of England broke with Catholicism under Henry VIII but, even then, groups such as Puritans and Congregationalists saw much to dislike in Church of England doctrine, based as it was on Catholic teachings.

So it was some of the earliest emigrants to the New World, harbored deep anti-Catholic bias.

George Washington was a passionate believer in religious tolerance and the importance of Christian virtue, in civil society. As General, Washington banned anti-Catholic celebrations such as Guy Fawkes day. Sensible of the indispensable contributions to independence made by Catholic France and Spain, many abandoned such prejudice for a deep and personal dislike, for British King George III.

Even so, some ideas die hard.

The Native American political party founded in 1844 had nothing to do with first nations. Originally begun as a secret society, the party was anti-Catholic, anti-Irish, anti-immigration, xenophobic and populist. The party held many views considered “progressive” in modern parlance, including opposition to slavery, support for an expansion of the rights of women, regulation of industry and a need for increased government spending. An early forerunner in the American temperance movement, the group’s strong anti-Catholic stance would later form the basis of the American Protective Association, and the Ku Klux Klan.

“The Subtle Conspirator,” a 1926 anti-Catholic political cartoon by former Ku Klux Klan preacher Branford Clarke in the newsletter “Klansmen: Guardians of Liberty.” (Public Domain)

Immigration soared during the first half of the 1850s, to levels five times more than the previous decade. Most were poor Catholic peasants and laborers from Ireland and Germany, spawning conspiracy theories that the Pope was personally selecting these people, in order to exert influence.

Adherents to the self-described “American” party would claim ignorance when asked for specifics, by outsiders. Opponents derided them as “Know Nothings”.

Pierre L’Enfant was a French engineer who served with the Continental army, during the Revolution. In 1791, President George Washington appointed L’Enfant to design a home for the federal government, on the banks of the Potomac. George Washington personally laid the cornerstone, of the new Capitol building.

L’Enfant envisioned a large equestrian statue of the President, but Congress did nothing about it. Private enterprise stepped up to do the job in 1833 with the formation of the Washington National Monument Society founded by Chief Justice John Marshall, Librarian of Congress George Watterston and former President, James Madison.

Fundraising began in 1835 with donations limited to $1 per person, per year.

Architect Robert Mills’ plan was approved in 1845 for a 200-foot flat-topped obelisk, crowned with a statue of Washington in a chariot and surrounded by the 12-foot diameter columns of a “National Parthenon”, dedicated to heroes of the Revolution and signers of the Declaration of Independence.

The original vision of the Washington Monument looks quite different, from what we have today.

On July 4, 1848, the 24,500 pound cornerstone was laid for the now-familiar Washington Monument in the nation’s capital. Inside a carved niche was placed a zinc capsule containing mementoes of the day including copies of the founding documents, currency, newspaper clippings and a long list of donated items.

Know-Nothings briefly emerged around this time, as a major political party. Future President Abraham Lincoln denounced the lot of them on August 24, 1855 in a letter to his close friend, Joshua Speed:

“I am not a Know-Nothing. That is certain. How could I be? How can any one who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favor of degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we begin by declaring that “all men are created equal.” We now practically read it “all men are created equal, except negroes.” When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read “all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and catholics.” When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty-to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocracy”.

A. Lincoln

Peak year for the Know-Nothings came in 1856 with candidates elected to local office, and to the United States Congress. Meanwhile, fundraising continued for President Washington’s monument. It wasn’t just money, either. Engraved tablets came in from around the world, from individuals, Sunday school classes and Indian tribes. Organizations from the Masons to the Sons of Temperance, military units and the Odd Fellows all sent stones. At the 220-foot landing there’s a tablet from a group of Chinese Christians, all the way from Ningo, Chekiang Province, China.

193 engraved stones arrived from around the world but none met with half the fuss of that brought forth from the ancient Roman temple of Concordia and engraved with the words, ROME TO AMERICA. The gift of Pope Pius IX was announced on February 7, 1852 in the Daily National Intelligencer of Washington, D.C., page 4.

The Catholic haters were aghast.

Speeches were made and petitions went around. “This gift of a despot“, read one New Jersey petition, “if placed within those walls, can never be looked upon by true Americans but with feelings of mortification and disgust.

The Pope’s stone arrived in early 1854: 3-feet in length, 18-inches in height and 10-inches thick. It was placed in a shed on monument grounds called a lapidarium, there joining several other gift stones awaiting installation.

In a stunt familiar to anyone ever “fact checked’ on Facebook, Know-Nothings now changed tactics, demanding a “protest stone” be installed directly above the Pope’s tablet, and inscribed with some suitable refutation.

Then came the night of March 5-6. The heist. With night watchman George Hilton inside his guard shack, a group of men tied ropes around the hut, trapping Hilton inside. Newspapers were posted to cover the windows nearest the obelisk as the pope’s stone was wrestled, onto a hand cart.

The Potomac river was much closer in those days, before the land reclamation of the 1870s and ’80s. The stone was rowed out to the middle and splashed, to the muddy bottom.

The Monument Society put up a reward of $500, equivalent to ten times that amount today, but the bad guys were never caught. Hilton was suspected to be in cahoots with the thieves and fired, as he couldn’t explain why he couldn’t have opened the window or why that double barreled shotgun, remained by his side.

Know-Nothings not only destroyed the pope’s stone but now, members insinuated themselves into the Monument Society, itself. Contributions all but dried up particularly from Catholic donors and work ground to a halt, in 1858. For twenty years the thing sat. Incomplete. Mark Twain called the 153-foot stump of Washington’s monument, “An Ungainly Old chimney”.

Work resumed in 1878 but now stone was cut, from a different quarry. If you look closely you can see to this day the slight variation, in color.

It’s tough to get anything out of a bunch of guys, called Know-Nothings. Not until 1883 when an anonymous saloon keeper, probably one of the thieves, talked to the Washington Post. “If the dredges at work in the Potomac strike the right spot, they will fish up something that will create a sensation.” That’s just what happened in 1892 when a diver found a beautifully polished slab of pink marble on the muddy bottom engraved with the words, “Rome to America”. A few souvenir chunks were crudely chopped, out of the side.

Inscribed on the aluminum cap placed at the apex of the largest obelisk in the world are inscribed the words “Laus Deo”. Latin for “Praise be to God.”

Only two days later the stone was stolen once again, from a construction shack.

Nearly 100 years later a priest from the Other Washington – Washington state, commissioned a second stone.

In 1982, Pope John Paul II sent a white marble tablet bearing the Latin inscription, “A ROMA AMERICAE” – “Rome to America.”

That first stone, was never found. The second was installed at the 340-foot level where it remains, to this day.

July 17, 2004 Christ of the Abyss

Gonzatti’s fellow diver Duilio Marcante conceived an idea to honor his friend. A monument to the world beneath the waves and dedicated to those who had lost their lives at sea.

Man’s desire to enter the underwater world goes back to antiquity. Aristotle tells of Alexander the Great descending into the waters of the Mediterranean in something called a “diving bell”, as early as 332BC. The Italian polymath Leonardo da Vinci designed a similar apparatus, adding a face mask and reinforced supply hoses, to withstand the pressure of the depths.

Diving bell, 1691

The first on-demand underwater breathing valve came about in 1860s France, thanks to the work of inventors Benoît Rouquayrol, and Auguste Denayrouze. British diving engineer Henry Albert Fleuss developed the first commercially viable “rebreather” in 1878, using an air bag and rope fiber soaked in potash to “scrub” carbon dioxide from exhaled air.

The 20th century brought with it new and improved methods of pumping, and storing, compressed gas. By the 1930s every major belligerent of the coming war, had developed its own underwater breathing apparatus.

Dario Gonzatti was the first Italian to use SCUBA gear and paid for it with his life in 1947, near the village of San Fruttuoso, on the Italian Riviera.

Gonzatti’s fellow diver Duilio Marcante conceived an idea to honor his friend. A monument to a world beneath the waves and dedicated to those who had lost their lives at sea. A 2½ meter tall bronze sculpture, Il Cristo degli Abissi. Christ of the Abyss.

There followed a period of collecting the metal. Cannon and other brass objects, retrieved from wrecks. Mothers and sweethearts sent coins and medals given to sailors, who never returned.

Sculptor Guido Galletti created the clay positive from which the mold was cast. A 2.5 meter (8.2 feet) likeness of Jesus Christ weighing in at 260 kg (573 pounds) without the foundation, eyes raised to the heavens and arms outstretched, in supplication. A benediction for untold numbers, lost at sea.

That first “Christ of the Abyss” was lowered in 57-feet of water on August 22, 1954, near the spot where Dario Gonzatti, lost his life.

The Cove of San Fruttuoso

Over the years, crustaceans and corrosion took their toll. A hand was broken off, by an anchor line. The statue was removed after a half-century and repaired, and re-lowered on July 17, 2004 to a newly-built foundation.

Since that first installation in 1954 two other Christ of the Abyss statues have descended into the depths, both cast from the same clay original. The first was a gift of gratitude given by the navy of Genoa, for assistance from the people of Granada in rescuing the crew of the Italian vessel MV Bianca, destroyed by fire in the port of St. George. That one was placed seven years after the original on October 22, 1961.

Italian dive equipment manufacturer Egidio Cressi donated a third to the Underwater Society of America, in 1962. This one was installed after much debate on August 25, 1965 in the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park near Key Largo, Florida, the first underwater park in the United States.

Located in only 25-feet of water with hands but 8 to ten feet below the surface, the site remains a popular destination for underwater selfies, from that day to this.

June 24, 1535 Doctrinal Differences

To the modern reader, theological issues such as the “moral bank account” of saints or the transubstantiation of the body and blood of Christ, may seem mere doctrinal interpretations.


A popular legend depicts the Augustinian monk Martin Luther nailing a parchment to the door of the Wittenberg Palace Church in 1517, his “ninety five theses” a direct challenge to the authority of the pope, and the Catholic church. It likely never happened that way. Luther had no intention of confronting the Church. Subsequent events would harden Luther’s attitudes toward the Church but for now, this was but ninety-five propositions, framed and submitted for scholarly disputation.

Luther enclosed his “ninety five theses” in a letter to the Archbishop of Mainz on October 31, the date now considered to be the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.

Major Christian Denominations

H/T Wikipedia

To the modern reader, theological issues such as the “moral bank account” of saints or the transubstantiation of the body and blood of Christ, may seem mere doctrinal interpretations. In the late middle and early modern ages, such issues were matters of life and death. The Czech theologian Jan Hus was burned at the stake for such heresy, in 1415. The English philosopher John Wycliffe, dead some forty-four years by this time, was dug up and burned, his ashes cast upon the waters of the River Swift.

The European Reformation exploded with startling intensity, spawning a “peasant rebellion” in 1524 in which about a third of 300,000 poorly armed farmers, were slaughtered.  There were any number of reformers, few more radical than the baker turned Anabaptist prophet, Jan Matthias.

Münster was a divided city in 1530, made even more so when the evangelical Lutheran minister Bernard Rothmann, began preaching against Catholic doctrine.  Rothmann was tireless, vitriolic, a relentless stream of anti-Catholic invective both from the pulpit, and from a series of pamphlets financed and printed by his ally, the wealthy wool merchant Bernard Knipperdolling.

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Alarmed at the preacher’s growing influence, church authorities banned Rothmann from the pulpit.  A mob of supporters stormed St. Lambert’s church in February 1532 and installed Rothmann, as its preacher. Conflict escalated and took the form of armed rebellion that December, between nine-hundred armed townspeople and the highest ranking Church official in town, prince-bishop Franz von Waldeck. This time, the conflict was settled peaceably. Waldeck signed a treaty of religious toleration on February 14, 1533, allowing Protestant pastors to preach from the parish churches of Münster.

The next time would be very different.

Word got back to Matthias and his followers, who came to see Münster as the “New Jerusalem”.  Jan Matthias and his Anabaptist followers were radicals even among their fellow “protestants”, and Rothmann was happy to come along.  Theirs was an extreme, radical egalitarian ideology with no use for childhood baptism.  They believed that Jesus Christ would descend to earth that Easter and bring about the End of Time.  The Apocalypse was nigh. All good Christians needed to prepare, and only adult baptism held the key to salvation.

Four years earlier, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V ordered that every Anabaptist “shall be brought from natural life to death with fire, sword, or the like.”  Now Anabaptists poured into Münster, baptizing some 1,400 adults in the first week after their arrival, about 20 percent of the adult population.

Equal numbers fled the city, amid “share-the-wealth” economic policies that would make the most fervent communist, blush.  Armed city employees warned those who refused adult baptism to flee:  “Get out of here, you godless. God will punish you!

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Matthias demanded the execution of all Catholics and Lutherans, warning that “Everywhere we are surrounded by dogs and sorcerers and whores and killers and the godless and all who love lies and commit them!”  That was a bit too much even for the crazies, so Catholics and moderate Protestants were expelled from the city.  About 2,000 of them, as equal numbers of Anabaptist radicals, poured in from the countryside.

Matthias ordered every contract, account and ledger in town destroyed, in a vain attempt to abolish all debt.  Rothmann preached from the pulpit of St. Lambert’s: “Everything that Christian brothers and sisters have belongs to the one as well as to the other.”

Waldeck looked on with increasing alarm and before long, a mercenary army was assembled outside the city walls of Münster.  The place was now under siege.

Easter Sunday arrived, April 5, 1534. Jesus, did not. With his apocalyptic prophesy thus shattered, Matthias claimed to have a new, divine vision. He would ride forth from the city walls, and personally break von Waldeck’s siege of the city. So it was that the Anabaptist prophet saddled up and rode forth with an entourage of twelve, only to be run through with a spear, his head mounted on a spike, for all the town to see.

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Up stepped the dead prophet’s right-hand man, the charismatic twenty-five year old tailor Jan van Leiden, who delivered a speech reinterpreting the day’s events, and postponing doomsday.

Münster became heavily militarized as Waldeck’s besieging force cut off all access to the city.  Jan van Leiden ruled over the city as the new King David, according to his own prophesy.  He seemed to think he had a direct line “upstairs” and could conjure up fresh prophesy at a moment’s notice.  The seventy-five hundred inhabitants of Münster, believed so as well.

The siege dragged on through 1534 and into the following year.  In May 1535, the Anabaptist carpenter Heinrich Gresbeck attempted to escape, only to be caught.  In exchange for his life, Gresbeck agreed to show Waldeck a lightly defended gate.

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The prince-bishop’s forces fought their way through the streets of Münster on June 25, 1535, killing some 600 Anabaptists before the city surrendered.

Jan van Leiden, “viceroy” Bernhard Knipperdolling and Anabaptist leader Bernhard Krechting were taken to the public square six months later, chained to posts and literally torn to pieces, with white-hot pliers.

Imagine the scene. The sentences encompassed precisely sixty minutes of such treatment. Two executioners and four sets of tongs lest the other two, be out of the coals for too long. Leiden endured an hour of such treatment as first his flesh and then sinew, was torn from his frame. He never made a sound.

Knipperdolling struggled frantically against the spiked collar which held him fast for he knew, he was next. Finally it was Krechting’s turn. Should a man pass out from the agony the clock would be stopped and the prisoner, revived. Then the process would begin, anew. Sixty minutes with those white-hot tongs and not a moment, less.

Finally a dagger was thrust into each man’s heart to end his appointed hour. Their hideously mutilated corpses were placed in cages and hanged from the steeple of St. Lambert’s Church, as a warning to others.

Some fifty years later their bones were removed, but not those cages.  In 1880 the old steeple was torn down and a new one built in its place. The cages, were reinstalled.

On November 18, 1944, British bombs hit St. Lambert’s church, knocking the highest cage, van Leiden’s, to the ground. Another fell into the organ loft, leaving the third hanging only, by a thread. The church rebuilt the tower, four years later.  Workers repaired and replaced the cages, commenting favorably on their sturdy construction.

Three decades ago, St. Lambert’s church installed a small yellow bulb in each of those cages, a small concession “in memory of their departed souls.”  The cages of Münster remain there, to this day.

June 21, 1633 The Last Word

Revenge it is said, is a dish best served, cold.

From the time of antiquity, science took the “geocentric” view of the solar system. Earth exists at the center of celestial movement with the sun and planetary bodies revolving around our own little sphere.

The perspective was widely held but by no means unanimous.  In the third century BC the Greek astronomer and mathematician Aristarchus of Samos put the Sun in the center of the universe.  Later Greek astronomers Hipparchus and Ptolemy agreed, refining Aristarchus’ methods to arrive at a fairly accurate estimate for the distance to the moon, but theirs remained the minority view.

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Earth is at the center of this model of the universe created by Bartolomeu Velho, a Portuguese cartographer, in 1568. H/T: NASA/Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris

In the 15th century, Polish mathematician and astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus parted ways with the orthodoxy of his time, describing a “heliocentric” model of the universe placing the sun at the center.  The Earth and other bodies, according to this model, revolved around the sun.

Copernicus wisely refrained from publishing such ideas until the end of his life, fearing to offend the religious sensibilities of the time. Legend has it that he was presented with an advance copy of his “De revolutionibus orbium coelestium” (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres) on awakening on his death bed, from a stroke-induced coma. He took one look at his book, closed his eyes and never opened them again.

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Copernicus’ ‘heliocentric’ view of the universe.

The Italian physicist, mathematician, and astronomer Galileo Galilei came along, about a hundred years later. The “Father of Modern Observational Astronomy”, Galileo’s improvements to the telescope and resulting astronomical observations supporting the Copernican heliocentric view.

Bad news for Galileo, they also brought him to the attention of the Roman Inquisition.

Biblical references such as, “The Lord set the Earth on its Foundations; it can Never be Moved.” (Psalm 104:5) and “And the Sun Rises and Sets and Returns to its Place.” (Ecclesiastes 1:5) were taken at the time as literal and immutable fact and formed the basis for religious objection to the heliocentric model.

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Galileo faces the Roman Inquisition

Galileo was brought before inquisitor Vincenzo Maculani for trial. The astronomer backpedaled before the Inquisition, but only to a point, testifying in his fourth deposition on June 21, 1633: “I do not hold this opinion of Copernicus, and I have not held it after being ordered by injunction to abandon it. For the rest, here I am in your hands; do as you please”.

There is a story about Galileo, which may or may not be true. Refusing to accept the validity of his own conviction, the astronomer muttered “Eppur si muove” — “And yet it moves”.

The Inquisition condemned the astronomer to “abjure, curse, & detest” his Copernican heliocentric views, returning him to house arrest at his villa in 1634, there to spend the rest of his life. Galileo Galilei, the Italian polymath who all but orchestrated the transition from late middle ages to  scientific Renaissance, died on January 8, 1642, desiring to be buried in the main body of the Basilica of Santa Croce, next to the tombs of his father and ancestors. 

His final wishes were ignored at the time, though not forever. His final wishes would be honored some ninety-five years later, when Galileo was re-interred according to his wishes, in the basilica.

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Basilica of Santa Croce, in Florence

Often, atmospheric conditions in these burial vaults lead to natural mummification of the corpse. Sometimes, they look almost lifelike. When it came to the saints, believers took this to be proof of the incorruptibility of these individuals, and small body parts were taken as holy relics.

Such a custom seems ghoulish to us today, but the practice was was quite old by the 18th century.  Galileo is not now and never was a Saint of the Catholic church, quite the opposite.  The Inquisition had judged the man an enemy of the church, a heretic.

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“A bust of Galileo at the Galileo Museum in Florence, Italy. The museum is displaying recovered parts of his body”. H/T New York Times

Even so, the condition of Galileo’s body may have made him appear thus “incorruptible”.  Be that as it may, one Anton Francesco Gori removed the thumb, index and middle fingers on March 12, 1737. The digits with which Galileo wrote down his theories of the cosmos. The digits with which he adjusted his telescope.

The other two fingers and a tooth disappeared in 1905, leaving the middle finger from Galileo’s right hand on exhibit at the Museo Galileo in Florence, Italy. 

Locked in a glass case, the finger points upward, toward the sky.

23galileo2-cnd-popup100 years later, two fingers and a tooth were purchased at auction, and since rejoined their fellow digit at the Museo Galileo. To this day these are the only human body parts, in a museum otherwise devoted to scientific instrumentation.

379 years after his death, Galileo’s extremity points upward, toward the glory of the cosmos.  Either that or the most famous middle finger on earth, flipping the bird in eternal defiance to those lesser specimens who once condemned him, for ideas ahead of his time.

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