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Bury St Edmunds church touched by the return of wartime gift

Maryann and Bill Christie with Father Alvan Ibeh and the chalice (4337380)
Maryann and Bill Christie with Father Alvan Ibeh and the chalice (4337380)

A historic chalice presented to an American chaplain who was based at an airfield near Bury St Edmunds during the Second World War has been returned to the town’s Catholic church.

Major Joseph (Joe) N Collins was stationed at Rougham Airfield between 1943 and 1945, where he multi-tasked as a counsellor, spiritual adviser and a shoulder to lean on for young American servicemen.

The New Yorker formed a close working relationship with Fathers Frederick Lockyer and Anthony Throckmorton, two priests at the Church of St Edmund King and Martyr in Bury St Edmunds, who presented him with a Flemish/Spanish chalice dating back to about 1600 and a paten (plate) when he left in 1945.

Major Joseph (Joe) N Collins (4316318)
Major Joseph (Joe) N Collins (4316318)

Upon Father Collins’ death in 1984, the items passed to his nephew Bill Christie, who decided it would have been his uncle’s wish for them to return to Bury St Edmunds.

The opportunity came at the end of a cruise when Bill and his wife Maryann stopped off in England and met Father Alvan Ibeh and members of the parish at St Edmund’s Church.

After reading the 1945 letter of appreciation from Fathers Lockyer and Throckmorton in which they highlighted his uncle’s ‘kindly interest in our ancient, if poor parish’, Mr Christie handed over the chalice and paten.

Canon Mark Hackeson, who was absent from the occasion as it coincided with a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, said: “On behalf of the parish, and indeed our bishop, I would like once again to thank Bill and Maryann for their kind donation of this historic chalice.

“It will be used on special days, such as the Solemnity of St Edmund of East Anglia, our parish patron who was once the patron saint of all England.”

Terry Pettitt, Maryann and Bill Christie and Clifford Fullam (4311429)
Terry Pettitt, Maryann and Bill Christie and Clifford Fullam (4311429)

After the presentation, the couple enjoyed a visit to Rougham Airfield, where they saw the disused hut which served as a chapel and the museum in the control tower.

The visit was arranged by Clifford Fullam, tower manager and education officer.

Mr Christie, of Long Island in New York State and Florida, said his uncle 'would sit up in the control tower and pray for the safe return of those who were on flying missions'.

“We really appreciate being able to come up here and see for ourselves the airfield and to see how well Clifford and his team have preserved everything,” he said.

At the airfield, they were introduced to Terry Pettitt, who is a parishioner of St Edmund’s and was an altar server during the time of Fathers Lockyer and Throckmorton.

Now in his 80s, he recalled how as a child he was ‘indebted’ to the Americans for their kindness at times when many residents were suffering extreme poverty.

Mr Pettitt still possesses a prayer book, which the Americans gave to him during Father Collins’ tenure at Rougham.

The Flemish/Spanish chalice dating back to about 1600 (4311435)
The Flemish/Spanish chalice dating back to about 1600 (4311435)

Bill and Maryann also accompanied John Saunders, chairman of the Church History Group, on a tour of the town where he pointed out places that have a connection with the US including Angel Hill, the Athenaeum, the Abbey Gardens, the John Tate Appleby Rose Garden and Cenotaph.

Mr Christie said his uncle ‘would be looking down on us today, smiling with satisfaction as we tread in his footsteps’.

On the rose garden, he added: “John Appleby certainly created a legacy which I am sure people will be proud of .

“It is important that we can come here and be able to see that the people of the town still observe the sacrifices of war.”

They were presented with a copy of Appleby’s book, Suffolk Summer, as well as books about St Edmund’s School and the church.

Arrangements are being made for the chalice and paten to be exhibited at the church, in Westgate Street.

The paten (plate) (4311443)
The paten (plate) (4311443)