The year was 1939 and England was preparing for war. I lived in Birmingham, England with my family. The beautiful park by our home had already been turned into an Army barracks with some pretty powerful large anti-aircraft guns. By the end of the war we did not have a window left in our house and my mother’s crystal and cut glass was shattered. My Father and Uncle built a bomb shelter by digging in an Anderson Shelter at the bottom of our garden, two thirds in the ground, covered in corrugated iron metal sheets and then earth to cushion the explosions that might come. Of course a direct hit wouldn’t have been stopped by this strange hump at the bottom of the garden. My family and I spent many a night in that shelter. In fact, I learned my ABC’s in those cramped quarters with the condensation running down the walls. I have tried to think of its dimensions - it had two-tiered bunk beds and just enough space to crawl into them. When the sirens sounded we all went down the garden path to the shelter to stay there until the “All Clear” siren sounded.
In those early years we spent all night in the shelter. My Mother couldn’t stand the confinement so she would go back up to the house and do the ironing or other such chores. As we learned to recognize the type of siren we also learned to recognize the sound of the engines of the bombers. The enemy bombers had a very distinct droning sound. Long after the war my Mother, when she heard what would be a commercial plane in the 1950’s and 60’s, would stop and listen and say, “Is it one of ours or one of theirs?” I would reply, “Mom, if its one of theirs, we are in trouble.”
One night in particular, November 14th, 1940, there seemed to be many more planes flying over our part of Birmingham, and I think my parents knew that Coventry was the target that night, that wonderful city with its medieval Cathedral, and the myth about Lady Godiva. Much later that night we felt the earth shudder and we knew that something very close by had been hit. In the morning when the “All Clear” siren had sounded and we went back up to the house to get ready for school we saw the devastation at the end of the street. Five homes had been hit and only partial walls were left standing amid the piles of rubble. Luckily none of my friends had died, but some of our neighbours did. Later that day we learned of the devastation of Coventry and the loss of its Cathedral. The newspaper headlines read, “Horror beyond words, Coventry pile of ruble. Thousands lose homes, but Spirit unbroken.”
Today to stand in the ruins of the old Coventry Cathedral, is to stand in one of the most evocative places in England. For people from all over the world, the remains of that building, its noble tower and spire still standing proud on the skyline of a modern industrial city, are a reminder of our human condition. They speak of life, and of death, a place of martyrdom. The Provost of the Cathedral says, “To move from the bombed ruins into the new Cathedral building is to walk from Good Friday to Easter, from death to new life, from jagged reminder of man’s inhumanity to the soaring architecture that lifts the heart to say ‘Thank you, God.’” From the old ruins to the splendour of the new building, from Good Friday to Easter, it is an icon of a suffering God through whose death and resurrection come life, light and love. To the Glory of God the Cathedral burnt, but became a place not only of forgiveness but of reconciliation for all humankind. Most of the great ruined churches in England are the outcome of violence of an earlier age, the dissolution of the monasteries. But the ruins of St. Michael’s Cathedral in Coventry are the consequences of our own century.
Coventry was the only British city to lose its Cathedral. It would not have been surprising if, following the raid, another kind of flame were to have been fanned into being … the fire of bitterness and hatred. But a different spirit prevailed. The day after the raid, in the smoldering ruins, three 14th century hand-forged nails were found. They were bound together in the shape of the cross and later became a symbol of the Cathedral’s ministry of reconciliation, the Community of the Cross of Nails. That morning it was decided that the Cathedral would be rebuilt - not out of an act of defiance, but rather as a sign of faith, trust and hope for the future of the world.
Despite many, many more months of bombing and many years of rationing, and despite the fact that the enemy never managed to hit the school !!!! I was proud to grow up in those times, to watch my parents deal with the rationing the water and gas shortages, never once showing fear. What didn’t destroy us strengthened us.