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 Edmundite's dramatic 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 were studying.
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, Langlois explained 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 be useful.
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
Father Augustine Berrell
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 both mathematics and theology.
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 the Edmundites.
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 his letters.
"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, pictured right, and later parachute time bombs, which made no whistle on their way down and exploded when people least expect it.
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
Pontigny under Nazi Occupation
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 occupation.
"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 a luxury.
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 occupation.
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 homily.
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 would intercede.
- 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 of conversation.
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 (1945–1988)
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