Just Like the Ardennes

March 20, 2019

If a picture is worth a thousand words, there’s also a story behind every picture. You may have seen the now-famous photograph of FSSP Coeur d’Alene pastor Fr. Dennis Gordon celebrating Mass in the snowy wilderness of northern Idaho. Kneeling in the snow and serving Mass is a small, uniformed boy who does not seem to be over-bothered by the cold, and summed up by all aspects of the image is the idea that there is something going on here that transcends cold, hardship and the privations of a wilderness encampment that, while not being so far from home (Farragut State Park is about 30 minutes from the parish), might give you a good taste of such a life. The occasion of the Mass was a frigid campout of the FSSP Couer d’Alene detachment of the Troops of St. George, a Catholic scouting group that has, during the last few years, offered Catholic families an alternative to the Boy Scouts. Parishioner Travis Rawlings, leader of the parish’s Troops, was present at the campout with his young son and he snapped the photos of the snowy morning Mass, which Fr. Gordon celebrated on a portable altar after it had snowed most of the night. Crafted by parishioner and local carpenter Rick Murphey and dubbed the “Wilderness Altar” by Fr. Gordon, the altar was the first of its kind produced by Mr. Murphey’s St. Joseph’s Apprentice workshop and the model has kept the name ever since. After Mass, when Fr. Gordon attempted to pour out the Lavabo water, it was no longer a liquid but ice, frozen to the bowl!

Fr. Gordon, himself a former member of the Coast Guard, mentioned that the conditions were reminiscent of what Allied troops may have faced during the Battle of the Bulge in World War II. Also known as the Ardennes Counteroffensive, the Battle of the Bulge took place during the winter of 1944-45 in the dense forests of the Ardennes region of eastern Belgium, Luxembourg and France and successfully repelled a German attempt to break through weak spots in the advancing Allied lines. It was a victory for the Allies and would be the last major German offensive on the Western Front.

Men of the 82nd Airborne hear Mass during the Battle of the Bulge

But victory came at a cost; what was named “undoubtedly the greatest American battle of the war” by Winston Churchill was also the deadliest for US forces. Soldiers spent Christmas far from their families and homes, and many of them, some 19,000 Americans, lost their lives in a battle made all the more brutal by the vicious winter weather. Yet for them, as for the diminutive Troops who emulated them a few weeks ago in Idaho, the Blessed Sacrament was a light in a dark place. Black and white photographs bear testament to the faith and courage of chaplains who celebrated Mass on jeeps, in warehouses or on the battlefield itself and of the men, many of them not much older than the Troops in Idaho, who knelt down in a world of death to draw strength from the Bread of Life.

In an age where masculine role models are becoming increasingly hard to come by, there was something eminently fitting about what happened in Idaho that frosty day and the comparisons it evoked. Though separated by several generations, the young Troops and the wartime troops of yesteryear were united in the Faith they professed, and in the fortitude that made the challenges of the winter wilderness small things to bear for its sake. Not all of us are called to fight physical battles, but all are called to the spiritual battle, and as time continues to pass and we gradually say goodbye to those who heard Mass gathered around jeeps in the Ardennes and Iwo Jima, may new generations of young men rise up to imitate their courage, their spirit of sacrifice, and their undying faith.

We leave you with the words of a Belgian immigrant who commented on the Idaho photo on Facebook: “I am a native Belgian who immigrated to the U.S. at age 15 – 35 years ago. When I first saw this picture on my news feed, I exclaimed, “It’s just like the Ardennes in WWII!!” I am keeping this picture!”

We’re keeping it too. +