NAVARRE — A local historian and U.S. Army veteran has become part of an effort to set a Roman Catholic chaplain who parachuted into France on D-Day during World War II on the road to sainthood.
John Dabrowski, a retired colonel and Department of Defense historian who is now an adjunct history professor at Northwest Florida State College, was asked recently by his mother's former Pennsylvania parish priest, the Rev. Robert Berger, to do some research on the Rev. Ignatius Maternowski, who died in the early hours of the D-Day invasion. Berger is the founder of the WW II Chaplains Memorial Foundation, a nonprofit organization that preserves the stories of World War II chaplains. Like Maternowski, Berger was an Airborne-qualified chaplain.
Dabrowski, who attends St. Sylvester Catholic Church in Gulf Breeze, had not heard of Maternowski before Berger's request.
"Maternowksi was an unknown to me," Dabrowski said. "I started delving into it and found out, wow, this guy was an Airborne chaplain. ... As a historian and as a former military officer, I thought that we really need to recognize this priest, a man who gave up his tomorrows so we could have our todays."
Maternowski, a Massachusetts native, joined the Franciscan religious order in 1932 and was ordained as a priest six years later. He enlisted in the Army in 1942, leaving his work as a parish priest to serve in World War II. He volunteered for the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the Army's 82nd Airborne Division. Although he was only 32 years old at the time of his death, he was much older than the American infantry personnel in the war, whose average age was around 20.
"He was 'the old man,' " Dabrowski said, and likely became a father figure to some of the troops in his spiritual care, whether they were Catholic or not.
On the early morning of D-Day, June 6, 1944, Maternowski was among a large number of troops who parachuted into the German-occupied French hamlet of Guetteville. A number of paratroopers were injured, as were occupants of an American glider that had crashed nearby. As he ministered to the wounded troops, Maternowski realized that the house serving as an aid station was getting crowded with soldiers needing medical treatment.
"That entire area saw heavy fighting in the invasion," Dabrowski said, and Maternowski "was looking for a larger building where they could house the wounded."
So, wearing his chaplain insignia and a Red Cross armband, Maternowski walked unarmed between the battle lines to ask a German medic if the two sides could arrange for a suitable space to treat the wounded from both sides. The German medic came back with him, Dabrowski said, and Maternowski made his case for treating the wounded from both sides in a single place. According to Dabrowski, American troops were storing ammunition in the aid station, which the German medic saw. Maternowski walked the German medic halfway back to the German lines, and turned around to return to the American side.
While walking back, Maternowski was shot in the back by a German sniper, becoming what is believed to be the only American chaplain to die on D-Day.
"Whether it was an accident — a sniper with an itchy finger — we don't know," Dabrowski said. "The French had tried to dissuade Maternowski from going to the German lines, but he felt that he needed to do something to ease the suffering of both sides."
Dabrowski was able to add some additional details to fill out Maternowski's story and forwarded them to Berger.
"Once I had submitted that, I thought, 'OK, I've done my job,' " he said.
But late last year, Berger asked Dabrowski to go to France for this year's 75th anniversary D-Day celebration, as a representative of the WW II Chaplains Foundation.
Dabrowski accepted, and delivered a speech in Guetteville on June 8 at a memorial just a few yards from where Maternowski was shot.
In his speech, Dabrowski noted that Maternowski "and hundreds of chaplains like him, voluntarily left the relative comfort of their civilian ministry callings to care for the spiritual needs of more than 12 million men and women who served in the U.S. armed forces during World War II."
Dabrowski added that Maternowski's story "truly demonstrates that he was not only concerned about the health and welfare of wounded American soldiers, but he saw the need to also treat wounded German troops as well. For his compassion, he paid the ultimate price."
The commemoration in Guetteville also included a wreath-laying by some Franciscans and by the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
"Very moving, I thought," Dabrowski said. "It was a very, very nice ceremony."
While in France, Dabrowksi and others with him met 92-year-old Louis Marion, who as a 17-year-old in 1944 was among the last people to see Maternowski alive. Through interpreters, Dabrowski said, he and the others learned that on D-Day, Marion "was pretty much huddled down with the other inhabitants in Guetteville," but he was able to confirm the details of Maternowski's death.
In fact, Dabrowski said, Marion wrote down his recollections several years ago, and that document — of which Dabrowski has a copy — now is part of the evidence being included in the process to move Maternowski toward sainthood.
Dabrowski now is part of the effort being spearheaded by the Franciscans and the WW II Chaplains Memorial Foundation.
One of the people with whom Dabrowski is working is Joe Hamilton, director of mission advancement for the Our Lady of the Angels Province of the Franciscan Friars Conventual in Ellicott City, Maryland. According to Hamilton, the effort to seek sainthood for Maternowski, a process that could take years, is in the very earliest stage.
"We're moved by his story," Hamilton said. "We've known about it for a very long time."
At present, Hamilton said, he and others interested in seeing Maternowski elevated to sainthood are gathering information for submission to the Franciscan order's postulator general in Rome and to the local bishop in the United States. From there, Hamilton said, it's possible that the postulator general and the bishop could request more information to consider whether to move Maternowski's case forward.
A next step for Dabrowski and Hamilton could be talking to a World War II veteran living in Fayetteville, North Carolina, possibly as soon as this fall.
"I think he had some direct contact with Father Maternowski prior to the priest's death," Dabrowski said. "He would be certainly someone we would have to talk to before it's (the opportunity to talk with him) lost."
"We can only gather up the information and sent it up the chain of command, so to speak," Dabrowski said. "I've kind of been drawn into this web, and we're all sort of part of it now. ... I think he's a role model, not only to other chaplains, priests or clergymen, but I think for all of us. You don't really hear about clergymen being killed in combat."
Dabrowski said it's important to realize that chaplains experience the same human emotions as other soldiers in combat, like boredom, fear, loneliness and homesickness.
"That doesn't change just because they wear a crucifix or a Star of David on their lapel," he said. "They're human beings."
Looking ahead at the work to have Maternowski declared a saint, Dabrowski said, "I hope in my lifetime, that it does come to fruition. I'm certainly going to do everything I can to help move this along."