The Changi Cross: A symbol of hope in the shadow of death
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I CAN’T remember when I last read a book so beautiful to handle. The production quality of this slender piece of work is a tribute in itself to the prisoners of war who worked on the notorious Thai-Burma Railway, and in particular to Eric Cordingly, an army chaplain who survived to become Bishop of Thetford.
The chapel that he set up in the first camp in which the 55,000 surrendered Allied prisoners were held — in Changi, Singapore — was in a former mosque. Having skilled craftsmen among the prisoners, he designed an altar cross, which he records as "made from the brass of a former 4.5" Howitzer shell case and a few bits of brass from an ordnance gun shop".
The cross went with the men as they moved up country, enduring a starvation diet and ever worsening conditions. Louise Cordingly pieced its story together from her father’s unpublished diaries, identifying its maker as Harry Stogden. He did not survive the war, and his son, Bernard, has been able, through her researches, to discover the father he never knew, and to visit Changi Museum, where the cross now resides.
The story, simply and poignantly told, is illustrated by the sketches and paintings of POWs. Faith shines through adversity, and Cordingly’s description of what a chapel meant to the men says it all:
"Each evening then at nine o’clock, the Church is dimly lit with the Altar candles, and a small floodlight on the Altar cross and the Church is packed with crouching or kneeling forms. It is not a service; we say our own prayers and are occupied with our own thoughts for ten minutes. It is rather wonderful, nothing is planned nor spectacular, merely the real need of the men fulfilled in an atmosphere of quietness which is what they had lacked and desired."