D-Day hero: Holyoke native honored as only chaplain killed during initial days of Normandy invasion

Father Cpt. Ignatius Maternowski, a Holyoke native who died 80 years ago on D-Day, June 6, 1944, was remembered at a ceremony at Mater Dolorosa Cemetery in South Hadley. Maternowski was the only chaplain killed in the initial invasion of D-Day.

Father Cpt. Ignatius Maternowski, a Holyoke native who died 80 years ago on D-Day, June 6, 1944, was remembered at a ceremony at Mater Dolorosa Cemetery in South Hadley. Maternowski was the only chaplain killed in the initial invasion of D-Day. U.S. ARMY

Brian Willette, an Afghanistan veteran and commander of South Hadley American Legion Post 260, standing alongside the grave   of Father Cpt. Ignatius Maternowski, a Holyoke native who died 80 years ago on D-Day, June 6, 1944.  Maternowski was the only chaplain killed in the initial invasion of D-Day, and he buried in Mater Dolorosa Cemetery in South Hadley

Brian Willette, an Afghanistan veteran and commander of South Hadley American Legion Post 260, standing alongside the grave of Father Cpt. Ignatius Maternowski, a Holyoke native who died 80 years ago on D-Day, June 6, 1944. Maternowski was the only chaplain killed in the initial invasion of D-Day, and he buried in Mater Dolorosa Cemetery in South Hadley FOR THE GAZETTE/SAMUEL GELINAS

Cpt. John Smegal sharing reflections about Father Capt. Ignatius Maternowski, a Holyoke native who died 80 years ago on D-Day, June 6, 1944.  Maternowski was the only chaplain killed in the initial invasion of D-Day.

Cpt. John Smegal sharing reflections about Father Capt. Ignatius Maternowski, a Holyoke native who died 80 years ago on D-Day, June 6, 1944. Maternowski was the only chaplain killed in the initial invasion of D-Day. FOR THE GAZETTE/SAMUEL GELINAS

An exact replica of Father Cpt. Ignatius Maternowski’s Airborne Division uniform was represented at a Wednesday vigil at Mater Dolorosa Cemetery in South Hadley.  Maternowski was the only chaplain killed in the initial invasion of D-Day.

An exact replica of Father Cpt. Ignatius Maternowski’s Airborne Division uniform was represented at a Wednesday vigil at Mater Dolorosa Cemetery in South Hadley. Maternowski was the only chaplain killed in the initial invasion of D-Day. FOR THE GAZETTE/SAMUEL GELINAS

By SAMUEL GELINAS

For the Gazette

Published: 06-07-2024 5:04 PM

Modified: 06-07-2024 5:54 PM


SOUTH HADLEY — “No greater love.”

That phrase stands out prominently at the grave of the Rev. Capt. Ignatius Maternowski, a Holyoke native who died 80 years ago on D-Day, June 6, 1944. The Purple Heart recipient and candidate for sainthood was the only chaplain killed in the initial days of the invasion of Normandy 80 years ago.

Maternowski was honored at a Wednesday night ceremony featuring a vigil and traditional rites of military honor at Mater Dolorosa Cemetery in South Hadley, hosted by the South Hadley American Legion Post 260, South Hadley VFW Post 3104, and Holyoke Auxiliary Traffic Division.

At the ceremony, Holyoke Mayor Joshua Garcia read a proclamation honoring Maternowski as “ever desirous to answer a higher calling” for volunteering to be a chaplain at the outset of the Second World War — and who would become “the only chaplain killed on D-Day.”

Maternowski’s story is one of heroics. On the morning of June 6, 1944, the chaplain, a member of the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 82nd Airborne Division, parachuted into Guetteville, a commune in northwestern France.

This division was responsible for securing roads, high terrain, bridges and canals to stop German reinforcements from reaching the shore.

An American glider had crashed nearby, resulting in heavy casualties.

“Realizing that a suitable aid station would be needed, Father Maternowski calculated a risky strategy, attempting to negotiate with his German counterparts, combining their wounded in a common hospital,” said Brian Willette, commander of South Hadley American Legion Post 260, who presided over Wednesday’s ceremony.

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“Walking between enemy lines, unarmed, he bravely went to meet the head German medic,” Willette, an Afghanistan War veteran, related. “As he returned back to the American side he was shot in the back by an enemy sniper, becoming the only U.S. chaplain to be killed on D-Day.”

The young priest, 32, had spent the night before celebrating Mass and giving general absolution to the Catholics of his battalion.

It was not until three days later that his corpse would be retrieved.

“On June 9, his remains were recovered by the 90th Infantry Division and he was buried near Utah Beach (in France). In 1948 his remains were returned to ... Mater Dolorosa Cemetery in South Hadley — right here. That’s the significance of us being here,” said Willette, emphasizing the sacred honor and obligation of remembering the fallen.

Born in Holyoke on March 28, 1912, Maternowski was an alumnus of Mater Dolorosa Parochial School in Holyoke. After attending St. Francis High School in Athol Springs, New York, he began studying for the Catholic priesthood, entering the religious order of the Conventual Franciscan Friars. He was ordained in the Chapel of St. Hyacinth, at what was formerly St. Hyacinth Seminary in Granby.

The Franciscan Friars Conventual of Our Lady of the Angels Province and the World War II Chaplains Memorial Foundation began promoting Maternowski’s cause for canonization several years ago.

The people of Guetteville, where Maternowski landed on D-Day, raised a memorial plaque to him in 2016.

Capt. John Smegal, chaplain for the Massachusetts State Militia, provided reflections at the vigil, highlighting the words that decorate Maternowski’s grave: “No greater love.”

He opened prayer in the same Polish tongue that allowed Maternowski to converse with the Germans in his attempt to set up a joint hospital with them.

Smegal quoted the words of Archbishop Timothy Broglio of U.S. Military Services, who stated in his D-Day reflections that, “Father Maternowski’s heroic service is an outstanding example of Christian love in practice, even in the face of great evil and adversity.”

Painting the picture of Maternowski as “energetic” and as a “man’s man,” Smegal also described the chaplain as “extremely liked by men of his regiment.”

He closed his address by inviting the 60 gathered to “keep a vigil on what you say, and what you do.”

Ron Dietrich, a parishioner of Our Lady of the Cross parish in Holyoke and division commander of the Holyoke War Memorial, was asked 13 years ago to organize a yearly observance to honor Maternowski’s legacy. He seemed almost in tears as he was handed a copy of the Holyoke mayor’s proclamation, marking June 6, 2024, as a day of memorial to honor the slain chaplain.

“Tempus fugit — time flies,” said Dietrich, who shared said he felt “blessed” for this to have happened in his lifetime.

Additional information on Maternowski is available through Dietrich at the Holyoke War Memorial.