Edinburgh church to hold memorial service commemorating famous World War Two battle

An Edinburgh church with a poignant connection to one of the most well-known battles of World War II will hold a special service of remembrance this weekend.

The cross has been in Blackhall St Columba's in Edinburgh since 1952
The cross has been in Blackhall St Columba's in Edinburgh since 1952.

In 1952 the minister of Blackhall St Columba's brought to his new charge a cross made at the battle of Monte Cassino, which took place between January and May 1944 in Italy, where he had served as a military chaplain.

Rev R.J. Watson Mathewson was part of the Corps Reinforcement Unit, and a fellow soldier, in the Pioneer Corps, made the simple cross which is still central to worship in the church today.

Rev RJ Watson Mathewson
Rev RJ Watson Mathewson

The fighting centred around the strategically important 6th century abbey of Monte Cassino, which was the founding site of the Benedictine order of monks. The historic building was eventually reduced to rubble in February 1944.

More than 75,000 people were killed or wounded across the allied and axis powers involved in the conflict along with more than 2,000 Italian civilians.

Speaking about the cross, which formed part of a makeshift church at the site of the conflict, Mr Mathewson later explained he was initially taken aback by its design.

"When I first saw it, I was disappointed; the crossbar seemed too long and out of proportion," he said.

"Then I realised that this was the only kind of cross the Pioneers were accustomed to make; one to set over the grave of a soldier, the crossbar had to be long enough to accommodate his name, rank and number and unit.

"So, I left it as it was, a perfect symbol of the comprehensive love of God in Christ for the individual."

An article in the Church of Scotland's magazine Life & Work following last year's refurbishment of Blackhall St Columba's mentioned the cross and caught the attention of someone whose father had fought in the campaign.

The current minister, Rev Fergus Cook, was put in touch with the Monte Cassino Society, a group representing veterans of the battle and their families.

Rev Fergus Cook is the minister of Blackhall St Columba's in Edinburgh
Rev Fergus Cook is the minister of Blackhall St Columba's

As a result of this new connection the church will hold an act of remembrance at 4pm on Saturday 15 May 2021, the weekend nearest to the anniversary of the end of the battle.

The covid-compliant service will be attended by those who are able to pre-book a place but will also be livestreamed allowing participation by anyone who wishes.

It is hoped that numerous communities and nationalities including Americans, Polish, Italian, and the Gurkhas will take part.

Rev Fergus Cook said: "It is amazing to think that some of those who may attend, or watch, this service may have worshipped and prayed to God in front of this very cross all those years ago in Italy.

"It helps us to see how eternal God is and how he can use the actions of everyday faithful people, such as the Pioneer who made the cross, to continue to comfort and offer peace to those who seek it."

Anyone wishing to watch the service online can do so through the Blackhall St Columba's Church website or via Youtube at 4pm on Saturday 15 May.