Remembering today’s military heroes

MONTREAL, QC—At a downtown Montreal church an informal tribute to Canada's fallen in Afghanistan has become a place of reflection and solace for soldiers and civilians.

"For many years now we have given a small white ceremonial candle to our visitors [each week] urging them to light it at home as they pray for peace and justice around the world," says Arlen John Bonnar, a minister at St. James United Church. "Our Sunday school also recently became involved, preparing little origami cranes—an oriental symbol of peace—to be given along with the candles."

"As a congregation, we have always done what we could to promote peace," says Bonnar. But when Canada became involved in the Afghanistan conflict the congregation wanted to be sure that its continued prayer for peace did not negate the courage of the military personnel involved.

After several Canadians lost their lives, the church looked for a way to commemorate their sacrifice in a way that would honour them while highlighting the high cost of war.

The church has a history of standing with soldiers.

"This congregation and its building played a pivotal role in supporting the effort in the First World War, even billeting soldiers in training," says Robert Bull, a former CBC correspondent who now helps Bonnar in community outreach efforts. Plaques in the sanctuary list more than 200 men and women from the congregation who served at the front in the First World War.

"The heavy loss of life led to the creation of one of the most unique memorial stained glass windows I have seen," Bull says.

In 1921, the church's struggling, working class congregation managed to raise an impressive $20,000 to erect the stained glass window depicting a tired private walking through a ravaged landscape. Bull says every detail in the window was deliberate. The choice of a private rather than an officer, his combat gear rather than dress uniform and the desolate background providing a poignant reminder of the tragic results of war.

Afternoon sunrays tinted by 86-year-old glass now shine on an improvised Afghanistan memorial near the altar and the large white liturgical candle that burns before it.

An easel holds a plain black board with 70 small white cards affixed to it. Each card bears the name of a life lost.

The congregation has chosen to remember lives lost to suicide near the front as combat casualties.

"We began with a much smaller board," Bonnar says. He is quiet for a moment.

Though none of the families of the fallen attend St. James, many of them have visited the church to reflect. Enlisted men from several provinces have made the trip. For some it's a way to pay tribute to friends whose names are on the board.

Bonnar tells of a uniformed officer who traveled from Toronto to see the memorial, sat staring and then began to weep.

"Since our decision to open our doors to visitors and passerbys throughout the week, we have seen well in excess of 120,000 people a year come though the doors," Bull says. "This sanctuary had already become a place of solace and quiet reflection for many people. It seems that the Afghanistan memorial now makes it even more important."

Several Montreal-area families with members serving in Afghanistan say a place for quiet reflection and prayers of support are what they need most.

One couple, who didn't want to be identified, had recently spoken to their son in Afghanistan a few days after an explosion destroyed a Canadian vehicle. He assured them that he wasn't anywhere near the blast.

"They were at least two jeeps ahead of us in the convoy," he said.
Their son didn't disclose the most disturbing details, and his parents respected his privacy.

They were surrounded by the prayers of friends and a supportive church community.

The fresh ink on the Afghanistan memorial's white name cards, reflecting more Canadian lives lost, will make Remembrance Day more powerful at St. James.

Amidst the debate over Canada's role in the conflict, this simple memorial stands as a reminder that, politics aside, those willing to lay their lives down for the good of others deserve to be remembered.

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