Discover Vintage America - May 2019
Rising from the ashes
by Leigh Elmore
Our feature on the church of St. Mary the Virgin, Aldermanbury, which serves as the focal point of America's National Churchill Museum, became a lot more poignant for me following the tragic destructive fire at Notre Dame in Paris. You could literally feel the world holding its breath as live video showed the cathedral's spire falling, consumed by the flames. That such a symbol of, ahem, civilization could be destroyed by mere fire seemed inconceivable – until it happened.
You don't even have to be a particularly religious person to feel the loss; the great cathedrals of Europe are monuments to human aspiration, as are all structures considered holy by people of all religions. Through them we can see the better angels of our nature.
So, the odyssey that began in 12th century London for St. Mary, Aldermanbury reminds us that good can emerge from tragedy, if we let it. That small church survived in central London for nearly 400 years before it was destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666. Sir Christopher Wren, the royal architect, was charged with designing and building 13 churches that had been destroyed, including St. Paul's Cathedral and St. Mary, Aldermanbury.
Wren's church survived another 240 years until it was destroyed again by fire on Dec. 29, 1940 by a Nazi incendiary bomb during the London Blitz. It sat in ruins for another 25 years until rebuilt on the campus of Westminster College in Fulton, MO, as a memorial to Winston Churchill, the great wartime prime minister of Great Britain. Churchill had warned of the "Iron Curtain" at Westminster College setting the stage of the Cold War to come.
The old church was given new life again. I remember well as a 19-year-old freshman at Westminster attending the re-dedication St. Mary, Aldermanbury in May 1969. Lord Mountbatten gave the keynote address, while Spitfires and Hurricanes, the airplanes that fought the Battle of Britain circled above.
I attended many convocations there during my college years, and covered events there during my first newspaper reporting job on one of Fulton's two daily papers.
My wife and I were married there on Dec. 27, 1980, providing just one more emotional connection to St. Mary's.
Obviously, if the willpower exists to bring St. Mary, Aldermanbury to life three times in the course of its nearly 800-year history, then no doubt Notre Dame will rise again. More than a billion dollars had been raised for that purpose at the time of this writing.
This month does mark the 50th anniversary of St. Mary, Aldermanbury's dedication at Westminster College. Many dignitaries from Great Britain will attend commemorative ceremonies along with some of Winston Churchill's descendants during the weekend of May 3-5. The public is invited.
St. Mary the Virgin, Aldermanbury is a very intriguing travel destination located right in the heart of Missouri. It has risen from the ashes twice. Notre Dame will rise too.
Leigh Elmore can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Leigh Elmore's Refurbished Thoughts Archive past columns