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Thanksgiving frontal returns

08 August 2014


Creative: the Precentor of St Paul's, wearing a chasuble, puts a chalice on an altar dressed with the restored frontal

Creative: the Precentor of St Paul's, wearing a chasuble, puts a chalice on an altar dressed with the restored frontal

NOT much is known about Walter Conway. He lived at 127 Duckett Street in Stepney, east London, and in February 1914, aged only 14 or 15, he enlisted in the Royal Irish Rifles. Conway was soon thrown into the maelstrom of the Great War, but was wounded in 1918 and discharged. Then, he retreats back into obscurity. But an altar frontal, unveiled last week in St Paul's Cathedral to commemorate the centenary of the beginning of the First World War, has ensured his place in history.

While convalescing in hospital, Conway was drafted into a group of 137 injured soldiers, sailors, and airmen, scattered throughout Britain. Along with many others, they were being taught how to embroider as part of their rehabilitation; but their work would form a new altar frontal for the cathedral.

The servicemen spent 18 months sewing small pieces of intricate needlework - golden palm branches, small birds, flowers, and tangled foliage. These were then stitched together to form the complete frontal, which was first unveiled in July 1919 at a national service of thanksgiving for peace, held in St Paul's.

The veterans, including a number from the Commonwealth, created different panels with elaborate bird, flower, and palm designs. But the centrepiece of the frontal is a chalice studded with red gems. Contemporary newspaper reports said that the idea to place a chalice at the heart of the design came from a 19-year-old rifleman. Although it cannot be known for sure who this unnamed soldier was, Conway was the only 19-year-old rifleman who worked on the frontal. Now, after spending seven decades in storage, and after six months of painstaking restoration, the frontal, replete with his chalice, can be seen at the cathedral again. The Precentor of St Paul's, Canon Michael Hampel, said on Friday last week that the frontal was much more than just an altar dressing.

"[The soldiers] felt that this frontal would be a memorial to their comrades who had died . . . something that was being used in the context of worship, particularly in the eucharist. The cup of suffering, which is also the cup of salvation, sits at the heart of the design."

Besides being a fitting tribute to fallen friends, the embroidery was an active part of the soldiers' therapy. Canon Hampel said that, since the Crimean War, wounded servicemen had been taught to sew while recovering, to focus their damaged bodies and minds on something creative.

A member of the team who restored the frontal, Anita Ferrero, said that she had been impressed by the men's efforts. "It's very fine and very good, beautifully done," she said. "The therapy was doing something creative and beautiful when they had come out of these scenes of destruction. One would hope it would have restored their minds a little bit: the injuries were mental as well as physical."

Canon Hampel said that St Paul's wanted the frontal to encourage prayer and reflection during the four years of the centenary. Besides carefully restoring the embroidery, the cathedral has also spent months tracking down the families of the men who made it.

"Some of the [relatives] who are coming to see this over the next few days knew nothing about it," he said. "I think it will be a very poignant and moving thing for them to see something their father, grandfather, uncle helped to make.

"The same hands that clung to life [in the trenches] are the ones that pick up needle and thread and go and do something beautiful like this, and what that says to me is that, despite everything, there is hope."

'Memorialise responsibly'

CREATING memorials in the aftermath of war had both dark and positive sides, but, for the Christian, commemoration brought responsibilities, the Archbishop of Armagh, Dr Richard Clarke, said at a service in St Anne's Cathedral, Belfast, on Monday, to mark the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, writes Gregg Ryan

"We cannot spiritually separate the violence, the carnage, and the suffering of the innocent that is under our gaze today - whether in Gaza, in Israel, in Syria, in Ukraine, or in Iraq - from our memorialising of the beginnings of the First World War. War must always represent the abject failure of the human spirit and of humanity itself."

Monuments to hatred were easily built, he said, but the Christian choice offered the more painful option of restoring beauty, and even relationships. "It requires faith, courage, and patience."



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