You may observe a painting located at the first station of the cross in St. Mary's Church. Here is the story behind that painting and why it hangs in our church. On a snowy Sunday in January 1951, an historic ceremony took place in a crowded Winchester High School auditorium. As church bells rang out all over town, ten clergymen stood together on a platform, each holding up an ancient oil painting depicting one of the Stations of the Cross.
Dr. Albert Navez, consul of Belgium, presented the treasured works of art to the representatives of Winchester’s ten churches. These paintings are a token of friendship from the Mayor and citizens of Hemroulle, Belgium "to the citizens of Winchester with whom they have been bound by deep affection, through events of the Second World War." The friendship began during the crucial "Battle of the Bulge."
It was snowing heavily on December 22, 1944, in the small Belgian village of Hemroulle. Defending the area were the paratroopers of the 502nd Airborne Infantry Regiment led by Lt.Col. John D. Hanlon, of Bridge Street, Winchester. Cut off from their supply lines, they were desperately in need of winter camouflage equipment. Aided by Mayor Victor Gaspard, Lt.Col. Hanlon rang the Hemroulle Chapel bell and notified the villagers of the great need for white bed sheets to cover the troops’ dark uniforms and heavy armor.
The citizens responded generously with all they had - 48 sets, which were lost or destroyed as Hanlon’s battalion fought its way into Germany. It wasn’t until after the war that "Jack" Hanlon was able to try and replace the bed linen. A drive was organized in Winchester, and sheets were collected locally and nationwide.
A "Sheets for Hemroulle" day was held on Sunday, November 23, 1947. The festivities began when two squadrons of Navy planes from Squantum Naval Air Base flew over Winchester in salute. As the roar of the planes subsided, church bells began tolling all over town and music from the chimes of the Winchester Unitarian Church filled the air.
Residents made their way to the high school auditorium bearing gifts of clean white sheets for the citizens of Hemroulle. Altogether about 740 sheets were collected. Reporters and photographers from LIFE magazine and the Boston newspapers were there to record the day’s events, which were also carried far and wide by radio.
On February 21, 1948 "Jack" Hanlon returned to Hemroulle with the hundreds of donated sheets. Once again, as he had on that December day in 1944, Hanlon rang the chapel bell and the villagers gathered, waving small American flags in celebration of "Winchester Day." He then handed each family several sets of sheets as a smiling Mayor Gaspard looked on.
So deeply touched were the citizens of Hemroulle by the generosity of Winchester residents and the strong support given by the town’s ten churches that they wanted to give each church a lasting memento. Their most precious possessions were the Stations of the Cross paintings, which had been hanging in their chapel since 1906. Before that, the paintings had been the property of the Sisters of Notre Dame in Bastogne, Belgium and have been traced back to 1820. Four of the paintings had been badly damaged or destroyed during the war.
Ten paintings, some pierced by Nazi bullets, were sent to Winchester and presented to the representatives of the churches at the high school auditorium, on January 7, 1951. A snowstorm prevented an envoy from the Belgian Embassy in Washington, D.C. from reaching Winchester that day. In his place, the consul, Dr. Navez, read a telegram from Ambassador Baron Silvercruys, which ended as follows. - "These Stations, which endured the siege of Ardennes, may well reflect the sufferings we share in common. Let them remain in your churches as a token of our faith as well as our memories."
Reverend John P. O'Riordan, pastor of St. Mary's from 1940 to 1952, was one of the clergy present in the high school auditorium that Sunday in 1951 and received the ninth station, now hanging on the wall at the left front sidewall of our church. The painting in St. Mary's was restored in July 1998 under the pastorate of Rev. Richard Messina.
Write-up and photos of Hemroule, Belgium chapel courtesy of Ruth Stevens, long time parishioner and faithful parish volunteer.