Brother Berrell and Father Langlois rushed from their air raid shelter
to fight the blaze, but "it was too late, we could not even approach the
doors to save anything, it was a blazing mass by that time. We then rushed
through the falling tiles and sparks to get at the school… and helped the firemen
the best we could… All the while, the son of a bitch was roaring above us, waiting
for a chance to take a potshot at us by the light of the fire."
On the night of October 29, 1940, the Society of Saint Edmund felt the full force of the
Second World War when a bomb hit the parish church, leaving only four charred walls
standing once the fire was extinguished. "The Church disaster was a heart-breaker," Oliva
Langlois wrote, "I am not ashamed to say that I cried."
If Langlois cried, Louis Cheray was devastated.
For five hard years, since 1935, Father Cheray had toiled building the church and Edmundite
mission in Whitton, southwest of London, Britain. Now, "in the matter of seconds," all seemed
lost. "I'm too exhausted and preoccupied to write," a downcast Cheray admitted in a letter to
the Society leadership back in Vermont the day after the bombing.
For the next two weeks, the church school and parishioners came under near constant
attack from German bombers. The normally upbeat and humorous Langlois, a native of
Swanton, Vermont, who had volunteered to remain in England despite the outbreak of
war in 1939, found this time especially trying. When a bomb hit a house three doors down
from the parish house, Langlois rushed to save the residents, but found six dead, and "one
sight that made me violently sick." He found himself "despondent and exhausted" after this.
Nonetheless, he kept his faith, "God is not dead and He will see us through somehow." Within
the week, parishioners began a drive to rebuild the church, and eight months later, on July 8,
1941, Mass was said once again in the church.
When the bomb destroyed the Edmundite church that fateful night in October, the Blitz had
been raging for nearly two months. It would continue, night after night with no interruption,
until the end of the year. The Germans continued their devastating nighttime air raids on
London and the rest of the country until May 1941. Though the air raids would die down after
this period, London and the southeast of Britain was never out of danger from bombings, as
unmanned V1 and V2 rocket bombs took thousands of lives from 1943 until the last civilian
casualty on Easter, 1945.
Last fall, honors
students in HI425,
Europe During World
War II, researched the
wartime past. In the
archives, students discovered
the day-to-day realities and
horrors of life in England
and France during World War
II through the correspondence
of Edmundites living in
Whitton, England at the time.
Even though the students had
prepared for the archival work
by reading numerous accounts of
the war in Europe, no textbook
or dramatic retelling of the war
on the home front could ever
approach the poignancy of holding
the letters of the Edmundites in
their hands and reading the story
of the war as it happened. Many of
the students were excited to get to
know Father Cheray, the namesake
of the science building on campus,
in these letters. Others were surprised
at the warmth, charm, and wit of
lesser known Edmundites like Fathers
Langlois and Berrell. And all of us
were intrigued, and sometimes amused,
by the generational struggle that played
out between the young Father Johnston
and the much older Father Cheray. Some
students tried out their French translation
skills and through the correspondence of
Edmundites living in Pontigny, learned
more about life under Nazi occupation.
The letters, pictures, and archival
ephemera breathed life into the war and
connected the students with the founders of
Saint Michael's College in a profound and
unique way. Over the course of the semester,
students forged a personal relationship with
the individuals—more than one said that they
felt they were friends with the person they
Here, the students tell the stories of those Edmundites
in wartime, and the postwar personal and church histories.
Father Oliva Langlois
On September 1, 1937, Fr. Oliva Langlois arrived in
Whitton from Swanton,Vermont, to take up his duties
at Whitton as the third priest. A native of New Bedford,
Massachusetts, and a student at Saint Michael's College,
Langlois planned to study at King's College in London,
which was paid for by
Saint Michael's. The
London University was
evacuated to Bristol
in 1939, so Langlois,
who had to stay in
Whitton, was forced to
interrupt his lectures.
In an October 4,
1939, letter to Fr.
Nicolle, based at Saint
Michael's at the time,
several reasons why he
might stay in Whitton: Fr.
Johnston was thinking about joining the Royal Air Force,
but even if he decided to stay, there was still a conflict
between Johnston and Fr. Cheray that could potentially
create disaster; Fr. Cheray was quite ill, so Langlois might
be needed to take over Fr. Cheray's position; and though
Langlois was not indispensable to Whitton, he could still
Fr. Langlois did not have to be in England during
World War II. However, he volunteered to stay at the
Church in Whitton, and stayed there through the church
bombing until a few years after the war. In 1947, he was
appointed Rector in place of Fr. Cheray, who had offered
his resignation due to poor health. In 1949, Langlois
officially left Whitton, and served in Edmundite churches
in Vermont, Canada, North Carolina and Alabama before
retiring to St. Michael's in 1985. He died June 6, 1986.
- Elizabeth Murray '13 and Adam Shemory '13
Born on March 29, 1910 in Manchester, UK,
Augustine Gerard Berrell became a devout Catholic
living a life in pursuit of doing God's will. At a young age
he felt called to the priesthood. He spent his time as a
novitiate in Pontigny, France training and preparing to
take his first vows on October 30, 1937. In a letter to
Fr. Nicolle, he states his desire to join the Society of St.
Edmund: "I feel that I am called to the religious state.
Therefore I respectfully request that you permit me to
take vows in the society of St. Edmund. I make this
request spontaneously believing it to be the will of God."
From reading his correspondences to Fr. Nicolle during
World War II while he was in England, it is clear that he
was comical, patriotic and optimistic.
He was supposed to receive his perpetual vows at St.
Edmund's Church in Whitton on October 30, but the
church was destroyed the night before by a bomb, and thus,
the ceremony was moved to another chapel in the area.
Throughout most of the war, Berrell studied
theology at St. John's Seminary in Surrey, England. He
volunteered for the fire service and Air Raid Precautions
organization. Becoming a "fully fledged 'Father' of the
Society" on June 19, 1943, Berrell was ordained a priest.
He was temporarily assigned to work at St. Edmund's
church in Whitton. From there he went on to be an
assistant priest at St. Mary's in Suffolk and later at Our
Lady of Walsingham in Corby. He eventually made it back
to Whitton, where he stayed for a year from 1946–47.
The next year, he moved to the U.S. and worked in
Swanton as an instructor for St. Edmund's Juniorate. In
the following year, 1948, he was assigned to be in charge
of St. Edmund's Mission at St. Michael's College and a
chaplain for Fanny Allen Hospital. From there he moved
back to England and worked in Whitton once again.
After much soul-searching and deliberation, however, he
decided that he did not belong in the Edmundites and
requested to leave the Society. In 1964 Berrell was fully
released from his vows to the Society of St. Edmund
but continued serving God as a priest in the Diocese of
Northampton until his death in March 1995.
- Tracy Peterka '13 and Molly Spillane '14
Father Louis Cheray
Louis Cheray was born in Brittany, France, in 1879.
After receiving his bachelor's degree, he travelled to
Winooski Park, Vermont,
where he received his
novitiate and co-founded
the Saint Michael's
Institute. In 1906, he
was officially ordained in
Montreal, Quebec, to the
Society of Saint Edmund.
During his time in
Vermont, Fr. Cheray
taught and studied
At the outbreak
of the First World
War, Fr. Cheray
was called home to
France where he served in the French armed services. After completion of
his tour of duty, Fr. Cheray returned to the Society of Saint
Edmund where he served in both England and Vermont
before becoming the resident pastor in Whitton, England.
In 1939, Father Cheray and his fellow Edmundites opened
the doors to a new church and parochial school.
The start of the Second World War ushered in a period
of hardship for Fr. Cheray. On October 29, 1940, the
Whitton congregation was dealt a severe blow when a
German oil bomb decimated the parish church. Amongst
the utter confusion of war, Cheray was fighting a losing
battle for his health. A 1943 bout with arteriosclerosis
confined Cheray to weeks of bed rest and rendered him
handicapped for the duration of the war. Despite his
failing health, Cheray vehemently labored to raise funds
to replace his ruined church. Unfortunately, rest did not
provide the solution to his health woes. Immediately
following the war, in 1946, Cheray underwent an invasive
oral procedure to remove a tumor in his mouth. Multiple
additional surgeries followed, effectively removing Cheray
from the day to day activities of the Whitton Chapter of
In 1947, Father Cheray resigned from Whitton to
return to Vermont for medical reasons. It was hoped with
a lighter workload, Cheray's health would be restored.
Unfortunately, after undergoing multiple surgeries at
Fanny Allen Hospital, the tumor continued to spread.
The last efforts of the doctors proved futile, as Cheray's
illness could not be contained. Weakened by painful
and exhausting medical procedures, Cheray finally
succumbed to pneumonia on March 30, 1949. It is said
that Fr. Cheray spent a great deal of time watching the
construction of the building on campus that now bears
his name before he died March 30, 1949.
- Lea Gipson '14 and Colby MacDonald '13
Father David Johnston
Born September 8, 1908 in England, David Johnston
did not follow the typical path of an Edmundite priest.
After joining the Society of Saint Edmund in September
1928 and his ordination in 1934, Johnston was always
on the move. Johnston went to Saint Michael's College
where he attended for two years, thriving in his theology
classes. At the onset of the Second World War, Johnston
volunteered to join as a chaplain in the British Royal Air
Force. After personal conflicts with Fr. Cheray, Johnston,
who had a troubled upbringing, found his chaplaincy in
the R.A.F. to be his true vocation.
Following the war, Johnston remained in the R.A.F.
instead of returning to Whitton or Vermont with his fellow
Edmundites. He often wrote that he felt he was doing his
best work in the R.A.F., and that they needed him there
more than at Whitton. When he was 61 and after many
years of distant correspondence with the Society of Saint
Edmond, Johnston chose to leave the Society to join a
parish in Kirtling, England, in 1969. Johnston remained at
Kirtling until his death in 1979 at the age of 71.
- Meg McNulty '13 and Derick Logan '14
Letters to Vermont
Fr. Oliva Langlois provided some of the most
detailed and constant descriptions of air raids in his
correspondence to Fr. Nicolle, who was based in Vermont
during the war. In September 1939, descriptions of air
raid drills and bombings in and around London began to
frequent Langlois's letters to Nicolle.
"I was singing Mass in Ashford," Langlois wrote on
September 7. "I was just intoning the first syllable of 'Credo'
when the siren, just across the street began wailing. Frankly
my stomach touched the floor three times."
As the war continued, the bombings became fiercer
and much closer to the church. Many things changed,
and Langlois described even the most trivial changes in
"At night we have to crawl about in the dark—and I am
forced to resume the practice wearing pajamas,
which I had discarded almost three years
ago," he continued in his September 7
letter. "It is most annoying!"
The bombs also became more and
more destructive, as Langlois
explains incendiary bombs,
no whistle on
their way down
when people least
On the night of October 29, 1940, an oil bomb struck
the church in Whitton, and destroyed it in the process.
Everything was lost. Langlois and Brother Berrell helped
the A.R.P. (Air Raid Precaution) get the blaze under
control, but only the four walls of the church remained
standing when the fire was extinguished. Langlois was not
able to report the news to Nicolle until November 11.
"The Church disaster was a heart-breaker," he wrote in
his letter. "I am not ashamed to say that I cried... It was a
matter of seconds. But even then, it was too late, and we
could not even approach the doors to save anything, it was
a blazing mass by that time."
- Elizabeth Murray '13 and Adam Shemory '13
The general diffusion of political and social instability
in Europe during the early half of the 20th century and
the clamor which it generated throughout the continent
and beyond did not spare the Edmundites living in
Pontigny, Burgundy, France. For the Edmundite Fathers
living alongside the relics of Saint Edmund, the financial
strain of an expanding order combined with the constant
fear of escalating conflict, or worse even, the prospect
of German invasion, posed significant threats to the
survival of the order in Pontigny. Thus, when the Germans
invaded France in the summer of 1940, with Paris both as
a key city for capture and less than 200 kilometers from
Pontigny, the days were long and anxieties were high.
Shortly after the fall of Paris, most
of Burgundy, including Pontigny,
were taken under German
"Life in France did not improve whatsoever, for food was increasingly difficlt to come by, all of the fruit crops in the fields had frozen in the spring, vegetables were nonexistent, and flour was becoming a luxury."
Although Pontigny itself was
too small a village to warrant direct
occupation or stationing of German
troops, the effects of occupation
were nonetheless both apparent
and pressing for the Edmundites.
As one Burgundian Edmundite
somberly recorded in February
1941, life under occupation was
not only difficult and disagreeable
but, more darkly, the shadow of the
flag of the Nazi party flying in place
of the flag of the Republic plunged
all of Pontigny and the surrounding
area into a deep sense of darkness.
Challenges were not just
psychological. Even after the liberation of France, the
Edmundites in Pontigny faced trying times. Rev. Joseph
Couture wrote in July 1945: "Life in France does not
improve whatsoever," for food was increasingly difficult to
come by, all of the fruit crops in the fields had frozen in the
spring, vegetables were nonexistent, and flour was becoming
Because many parish priests in France were called or
volunteered to be chaplains in the military or were even
drafted as soldiers, the Edmundites at Pontigny took their
places, struggling alongside their parishioners during the
Fr. Couture took on eight parishes in Chablis, which
was usually the job of three priests. After narrowly
escaping death in an air raid, he fled the burning city
with his parishioners. In the chaos of flight, their train
collided with another, and they were forced to make their
way on foot. When he finally settled back in Chablis
under German occupation, everything was censored: the
radios, newspapers, postal service. Even church bells and
sermons were prohibited. One day, Fr. Couture was saying
Mass and as he took his place at the pulpit, three German
soldiers walked in, preventing him from delivering the
The struggles brought on by German occupation and
its aftermath were not, however, the greatest concern
for the Edmundites in Pontigny during and after the
conflict. When, in 1943, a trainload of military munitions
stationed in downtown Pontigny was accidentally set fire
and exploded a few meters from the Abbey and monastery
in which the Fathers lived and worshipped, the damages
were enormous. Compounded by the aforementioned
consequences of German occupation, the damage caused
by the explosion posed a dire financial quandary for the
order in France, something which not only caused them
concern for the future of an increasingly indebted order
in France, but also resulted in increasing pleas from
Pontigny to the order in Vermont for financial assistance.
The state of finances following
liberation were so dire that
repairs were only able to be
done sporadically. At one point,
recalled Fr. Couture, "The
buildings of the monastery are
also in a very bad condition
due to the unfortunate
explosion," to the point that,
in the buildings, "there are no
partitions or windows, only the
outside walls and the floors,"
for, "we haven't the money."
Stained glass windows were
shattered and thrown across
the inside of the Abbey, tiles
were destroyed, the cloister was
rendered useless, habitations
were annihilated, and the total
cost of repair began creeping
into the millions of francs, which the Edmundites
borrowed in the hope that either Vermont or divine favor
- Kathleen McNally '14 and Christopher LaBranche '14
Life in London
Like many British cities at the beginning of the Second
World War, London was a complicated place. The "Phony
War" period of the initial months of the conflict was
of both anxiety and normality. Even though the battle
hadn't come to the city, Londoners began living as if it
had. Mandatory blackouts were in place, more and more
young men were enlisting, and daily air raid sirens wailed,
usually turning out to be false alarms. Many families had
their children evacuated in September to more rural parts
of the country to protect them from the "impending"
destruction. In spite of this, London appeared to be a city carrying on as if the nation wasn't at war. People still
enjoyed the leisurely activities of swimming, shopping,
and or just enjoying a daily walk. The early fears that
developed in September eventually waned by the end of
the year. Evacuees slowly returned, and people altered
their lifestyles to meet the challenges of rationing, which
was implemented on a large scale starting in January 1940.
News coming from the rest of the continent was extremely
vague, and the war itself was a divisive subject
Within the general public there were varying levels
of interest in the war. It wasn't until the swift defeat
of France and evacuation from the beaches of Dunkirk
in May 1940 that the British people began to realize
the gravity of the situation. They may have lost faith in
Neville Chamberlin and his government, but they still
had faith in their young men in the service. When "the
show" began between the Royal Air Force and the German
Luftwaffe, Londoners gazed at the dogfights in the skies
as if it were a football match, cheering as German planes
plunged towards the ground in a black trail of smoke.
This jubilation would quickly turn to terror when London
suffered its first bombing raids on the night of September
4, 1940. People gathered into the many air raid shelters
constructed before the fall, only to emerge to the horrible
destruction. The Edmundite Church's investment in a
private air raid shelter followed the pattern of people
preferring the domestic shelter to those set up by the local
authorities. Shelters became a symbol of solidarity for
many in London, a place where camaraderie was fostered
under the obliteration that was occurring above. Hitting
targets with bombs from the air was a difficult task for the
German bombers. It was more important for the German
aviators to unload their bombs than hit any specific target,
as trying to fly back and land with bombs on board was
dangerous. As a result, the bombers would unload on
whatever they thought might be their target and head
home. Places like the Edmundite Church, far outside the
East End, was hit on October 29, possibly as a result of an
errant bomb. The church was far outside of the East End,
which received the bulk of the bombs dropped on London
during the blitz. During October 1940, the deadliest
month in the entire Blitz, 6,340 Londoners were killed and
8,695 were seriously injured.
- Ethan Baldwin '14 and Cori Reichelt '15
Edmundites in England
After the War
After the War, the Edmundites thrived in Whitton.
Despite the Society's small numbers and the distance
from the headquarters in Vermont, they continued to
serve their community proudly. In June of 1963, 23 years
after the destruction and rebuilding of the original St.
Edmund's Hall, the Edmundites broke ground on the
newly christened Church of St. Edmund of Canterbury.
During the construction of the church, the once-small
parish steadily grew, and by the time of the construction's
completion the parish had more than tripled in size;
increasing from 1,000 parishioners in 1950 to a staggering
3,500 in 1975. Because of their popularity amongst the
community and the various services and clubs the Church
offered, the Edmundites soon turned their sights outside
of Whitton, and attempted to start another parish in the
nearby town of Stevenage. In 1988, the Society sought
to consolidate their missions due to the lack of resources
available to sustain them and interest on behalf of local
diocese. As a result, despite the remarkable success of
the mission's 54 years in England, the Church of St.
Edmund of Canterbury was returned to the Westminster
Archdiocese. Though the Society left England almost 30
years ago, they also left a lasting legacy, as the church
itself, as well as the St. Edmund's Catholic Primary
School, continues to support the Whitton community.
- Jonathan Gateley '14