St Augustine's Church in Londonderry hosted an "almost unique" service last Sunday at which a Roll of Honour Memorial for parishioners who served in the First and Second World Wars was dedicated by the Bishop of Derry and Raphoe, Rt Rev Ken Good.
It was, the Rector Rev Canon Malcolm Ferry said, a “special day” for his parish. “This little church sent 110 men and women off to the First World War, and 175 men and women to the Second World War – this tiny church – so we gather in their name today and we certainly are so proud.”
Gathered with them was Rev Dr Jim Francis MBE CF, Deputy Assistant Chaplain-General of the British Army, who helped conduct the Service and preached the sermon. Dr Francis said it was unusual to come to a church where it wasn’t just the fallen who were commemorated but the sacrifice of “everyone who left hearth and home to go and fight in the cause of this country”. So, he said, St Augustine’s was “unique, almost” in having that kind of commemoration.
Seated at the very front of the church – proudly wearing his medals and accompanied by his beaming daughter – was 93-year-old Jack Sterling, a Second World War veteran whose name is among those gracing the plaque on the back wall. Sitting in the very back row, immediately below the Roll of Honour, were the Heatley brothers, whose father and uncles also feature.
In church, too, were other relatives, many wearing their loved ones’ war medals: members of the Miller family, “a great name connected with our church”, the Rector said, and the Musselwhite family who had both a father and daughter on the Roll of Honour. The daughter, Maud Musselwhite BEM, had been in the Auxiliary Territorial Service before joining the Royal Ulster Constabulary. “Maud has a special place in the history of policing in Northern Ireland,” Canon Ferry said. “On the 24th May 1957 – just over six months after the outbreak of an IRA campaign that was to last six years – Sgt Musselwhite became the first policewoman in the province to be decorated for gallantry.”
Paying tribute to the sacrifice of all those parishioners from 'the Wee Church on the Walls' who had fought in the two conflicts, Canon Ferry said: “They’re not simply names on a board; they’re families, they’re people, they’re blood of our blood.”
As they dedicated the memorial of those who had gone before them, Dr Francis told the congregation they were confronted by an inescapable fact: that they had behind them in their nation’s history an enormity of sacrifice which they could not help but remember with pride—a pride tinged with sorrow. “But that memory brings an immediate realisation of another inescapable fact: looking forward, we have an enormous challenge – a challenge of building a world worthy of the sacrifice of those who left hearth and home, those of our home, of our flesh, of our love, those who didn’t come back, those who came back for ever changed. We must build a world worthy of that sacrifice.”
That required moral and spiritual courage, the preacher said, a courage to see the world in a different way, to imagine it as a better place and work towards that. Dr Francis said Jesus’s words and actions should compel us to shift our focus in a radical way and to respond with radical action – putting other people’s interests at least equal to our own.
“So as – on a day like this – we rightly take pride in our distinguished history, let’s try and locate that history in an even greater and more glorious history that we are part of: the history and the ongoing story of Jesus at work in our world, Jesus at the crossroads of our world, and let us pray for the courage to go there too. If we do, we might just see the day when – in the words of Isaiah – people shall beat their swords into ploughshares, their spears into pruning hooks, a day when nation shall not lift up a sword against another nation. It won’t be easy, but we – the people of Jesus – in this place, at this time, we are called to try.”
During the Service of Morning Prayer, the choir and congregation sang ‘A Victory Hymn’ which was discovered only recently but had been written by Canon Ferry’s grandmother, Annie, around 1918 – the year the First World War ended. “I don’t think she ever thought her hymn would be sung in such a setting, especially in front of the Assistant Chaplain General of the British Army,” the Rector said, “so it’s a special day for me, too.”