A church and a chaplain in wartime
This article appeared in the Ely Ensign in July 2005 on page 12.
Tens of thousands of overseas visitors flock to Cambridge every year. Many stop to take a look around some of our churches and college chapels, and some stay to join in the worship.
Usually there’s no way of knowing if their short visit has influenced their lives in any way. But just occasionally, years later, the word gets back.
Simon Brook and Owen Spencer-Thomas tell the story of a Canadian Forces Chaplain who visited St Paul’s Church, Cambridge, in the aftermath of severe bomb damage during World War II.
1941 was for most British civilians, perhaps, the most unsettling and hazardous year of World War II.
St Paul’s Church, Cambridge, began the year in a self-assured frame of mind by issuing an encouraging motto card for its members. It simply read, “In Quietness and in Confidence shall be your strength” – a quote from the Old Testament prophet Isaiah.
The Vicar, Gerald Gregson, was away serving as a Senior Chaplain in the RAF, and the parish records recount the Curate in charge, Bill Lee, wishing the congregation God’s blessing throughout the new year.
But their confident optimism was soon shattered.
On Thursday 16 January, following troop movements on the ground, enemy aircraft launched a sudden bombing raid which left a path of destruction and loss of life in its wake.
Two hundred incendiaries fell on the Gonville Place area. Some penetrated the Perse School for Boys, setting the building ablaze. At that time the school was located oppostie the Catholic Church, whose clock was also hit and put out of action until the end of the war.
The bombing caused mayhem and destroyed buildings along the north end of Hills Road. Miraculously, only three people died during the raid with many bombs falling on open spaces.
The Blantyre Home for the Blind was damaged by a bomb, which is thought to be the same one that shattered the windows in St Paul’s Church. The east window, which depicted the crucifixion scene, was irreparably damaged.
The wrecked building was a shocking sight to all who knew it in its former glory. Overnight the quietly confident mood of the local community had been transformed to one of extreme fear and insecurity.
However, led by Bill Lee, the congregation was determined to continue to worship in the church – now a rather gloomy place because of the boarded-up windows and the limited supply of electricity.
Minds had to be focused on fighting back and winning the war. The Church Council gave consent for the church railings to be given to the war effort and the development of a firewatching team who would work from the church tower. The Firewatchers’ log book from 12 September 1941 until 30 August 1943 is now in the care of the Cambridgeshire Record Office.
Amid all the activity during the clean-up, few people noticed two visitors who dropped in to an evening service shortly after the air raid. Both were Canadian Protestant chaplains, Bob Sneyd and his friend Ray McCleary, who were serving in East Anglia.
Bob was assigned to the Second Canadian Infantry Division. When on leave, he would often visit Cambridge and take the opportunity to see an English church.
Bob had a passion for stained glass and would collect pieces from brain-damaged church windows. Before leaving St Paul’s, he picked up several pieces of brightly coloured glass from the east window and took them away with him. But his visit was to have an even more significant and last meaning for him – something that would come to light only decades later.
Once the war was over, the most important matter was to attend to the memorial. While the city memorial stands within the parish and represents both world wars, the parish decided that the St Paul’s memorial should be outside the building, on the west wall of the tower, for all to see from Hills Road. The former Curate, Bill Lee, was invited back in 1953 to unveil the memorial.
It was not until December 1958 that the War Damage Commission authorised the replacement of the east window. The November 1960 issue of the church magazine voiced its appreciation to those who had negotiated the compensation and to “Mr Wilkinson the artist who has produced such a fine piece of work”.
The new window depicted the ascended Jesus represented by intense light speaking personally to Saul, who after his conversation on the road to Damascus becomes St Paul.
With the church and its congregation having put the war years behind them, the brief visit by the Canadian chaplain and his friend could have been forgotten forever.
But years later, a Canadian television crew turned up at St Paul’s unexpectedly at the end of a morning service, to enquire about the bombing of the eat window.
They were working on a documentary about the Canadian chaplain Bob Sneyd. Bob had taken all those salvaged pieces of broken glass back home with him and they were eventually made up into a new stained glass windows in a Toronto church.
Among them was the had of a figure from the crucifixion scene in the wrecked east window from St Paul’s.
In his writings Bob Sneyd said, “There is a special reason why this particular piece of glass from Cambridge delights me every time I look at it. It brings back early memories of our daughter Joyce.”
Bob and his wife, Ora, had two sons and they had always hoped to adopt an English girl. Back in the 1940’s, about twenty girls from the Cottage Home, which later became a Barnardo Home, used to worship regularly at the evening service in St Paul’s Church.
During his brief visit to St Paul’s Chruch, Bob met the Warden of the Girls’ Home and later that year he and his wife adopted Joyce, then just seven years old. In December 1941, Bob watches his future daughter sail with an escort to Canada where here new family were waiting for her.
People who survived the horrors of World War II may, like Bob, have mementoes that remind them of God’s goodness in comforting them. The pieces of broken glass from a crucifiction scene reminded a father of his adopted daughter.
Bob recalled the words St Paul wrote to the Romans two thousand years ago – those who suffer with Christ are the adopted children of God who are also glorified with him. They are joint heirs adopted with Christ, whose body was broken at the crucifixion.