Yesterday was D-Day. Where Phillip II, Napoleon and Hitler had foundered, the Allies succeeded in forcing the Channel, an operation of enormous complexity. Churchill spoke to the House of Commons at noon that day and said: "So far the commanders who are engaged report that everything is proceeding according to plan. And what a plan! This vast operation is undoubtedly the most complicated and difficult that has ever taken place. It involves tides, winds, waves, visibility, both from the air and the sea standpoint, and the combined employment of land, air, and sea forces in the highest degree of intimacy and in contact with conditions which could not and cannot be fully foreseen." Within the first forty-eight hours, almost a quarter of a million men had been landed. Soon, an artificial harbor was built by sinking blockships at Arromanches, facilitating further deployments. The landings were successful, but not without heavy losses. More than 4,000 Allied troops lost their lives that day and thousands more were wounded.
The person who most wished to be on the Normandy beaches that day was not there: General George S. Patton. In fact, the Allies achieved tactical surprise in part by convincing the Germans that another army led by Patton was waiting to attack the Pas de Calais, and that the Normandy landings were a mere diversion for Patton’s attack further north. Shortly after the landings, Patton was sent to Normandy to lead the breakout from St. Lo and it was that thrust that led to one of the happiest, and unexpected, outcomes of D-Day. Churchill has said that the Allied forces would come in contact with conditions that "cannot be fully foreseen" and one of the things I suspect neither Churchill nor Patton foresaw was the Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, Connecticut.
An Abbey from D-Day? Mother Benedict Duss was an American who joined the Benedictine Abbey of Notre Dame de Jouarre, not far from Paris, before the war. She lived there through the occupation. When Patton’s Third Army liberated the Abbey, Mother Benedict determined to return to America to found an abbey in thanksgiving for their deliverance. In 1947, she founded the community at Bethlehem, Connecticut which was elevated to the status of an abbey in 1976 and it is now home to some 40 religious women. It is a miraculous place and they welcome visitors! In a strange twist of fate, one of the grand-daughters of General Patton visited the abbey during college, converted to Catholicism, and is now Mother Georgina Patton.
In Normandy, in the village of Nehou, another of Patton’s grand-daughters, Helen, helped establish the Living Flame memorial which presents cultural events to remember those who lost their lives. The memorial was founded with help from the local government and from the Abbey of Regina Laudis. Helen, a classmate of mine at Catholic University, Class of 1984, has made a career of bringing the arts to war-torn regions and promoting peace. One of my most vivid college memories is of visiting Helen’s home. Her father was also a general. After dinner, we sat in a room filled with war memorabilia and Gen. Patton, sitting before a painting of his more famous father whom he greatly resembled, handed me my first cigar and my first cognac. He was a gracious host and a fascinating conversationalist.
D-Day has been glorified, and in the annals of war, few days have seen more of martial glory. It was an essential step in the liberation of Europe and bringing World War II to a close. That war changed forever – we hope – the way we in the West look at war. The cost is simply too high for all but the gravest reasons. Evil though the Soviet Empire was, we never went to war with them directly, knowing that the evil unleashed by war is so great, too great, to be entertained except for the most existential of threats. But, it turns out that there is something greater and more powerful than war and its weapons. The prayers of the Benedictine sisters at the Abbey of Regina Laudis are stronger than that – or any – evil. May they flourish with more vocations and may their prayers kindle the hearts of all men and women to ensure that future D-Days, for surely there will be, will similarly bring forth not only the bitter fruits of war but holier and more peaceful fruits as well.
Michael Sean Winters