Eighty-six years ago, in the village of Belleau, France, a stone church was dedicated. To this day it remains unlike any other church in the country. Its walls are adorned with stunning stained glass windows featuring Saint Michael, Joan of Arc, George Washington, Lafayette, and a French soldier and American doughboy from World War I. During the day these stained glass images are brightly lit, and their subjects appear to come to life — the American soldier standing guard over an honor roll of names. Two thousand seven hundred names are engraved on the church walls, heroes all. And among them, a private named Philip Edwards.
How and why was this remarkable church built? In actuality, it was rebuilt. More on that below.
After the battle of Belleau Wood, the men of the 26th “Yankee” Division relieved the Marines at Belleau, and on July 18, 1918 were to advance and take the village. The German troops were hidden in the village of Belleau and the hill above the town. A five hundred-year-old church stood in the center of the village and its tower became an enemy observation post and machine gun position. Major General Clarence Edwards ordered the 103rd Field Artillery to fire and destroy the village and church. After the battle, he promised to rebuild the church for the people of Belleau.
Ten years after the end of the war, the church was rebuilt at the entrance of the village. The funds for the project came from veterans of the 26th Division. The new church was dedicated on October 10, 1929. At the dedication ceremony, Brigadier General John Sherburne spoke about the men of the 26th Division who died in France and the plans to honor them. He also addressed the special friendship between France and the United States. Some of his words follow. They are taken from the November 1929 issue of Yankee Doings — a publication of the Yankee Division Veterans Association.
“A century and a half ago, your soldiers helped us in our struggle for independence; your blood mingled with our soil and our community is still grateful to France, our friend.
“Eleven years ago, nearly 3,000 New England men gave up their lives in the common cause. We, their comrades, that their sacrifice may not be forgotten have erected this Memorial and upon its walls will inscribe their names, and we have thought it appropriate that this Memorial should stand upon the soil of France where these men still lie.
“By the necessity of war, it was our misfortune to destroy the church which served this parish for five hundred years and we have thought that as well as building a memorial to our own dead, it would be fitting and proper to restore to this town its place of worship.
“We have rebuilt your church, using the old stones and plans, as nearly as possible as it was and it may be interesting to you to know that the money which has made this reconstruction possible has not come from public subscription or State aid but has been given almost to the last dollar by the men of the Division itself. It is to be your church, not ours, and it is given into your custody for your own use in the hope that the record of our sacrifice which it contains may be a permanent and undying pledge of the community of faith and friendship between our two countries.”
Major General Clarence Edwards also gave an address at the dedication of the Yankee Division Memorial Church. His remarks ended with the following words: “Beneath the sign of the cross, the symbol of the complete sacrifice, we, the Veterans of the 26th Division of the American Expeditionary Forces, dedicate here in Belleau, France, on the 10th day of October, 1929, this church. May it stand here for centuries to come as a reminder of our sincere love for France — as a monument to that unity which is ours in Peace — and as a visible evidence to our comrades that we have kept the faith with them so that they can sleep in peace in the “cradle of Victory.”