by Rene Jamieson
Why is a wooden plaque and its cross made of 800 year old nails the Cathedral’s greatest treasure?
On May 26th and 27th, the annual Doors Open Winnipeg brought several visitors to St. John’s. Doors Open is an opportunity for Winnipeggers to explore buildings around the city, buildings that aren’t usually open to the public or that people wouldn’t visit otherwise. The majority of Doors Open visitors to St. John’s aren’t Anglicans and would not come through our doors to worship with us, but they all agree that St. John’s Cathedral is one of the best kept secrets in Winnipeg.
The visitors marvel at the beauty of our stained glass windows, and the stateliness of the cathedral interior. They are intrigued by the intricately carved pulpit and fascinated by Big Bird, our lectern. On the cemetery part of the tour, they enjoy learning about some of the interesting people who occupy the graves that surround our doors, and they are entertained by our stories of the history of St. John’s, its role in the growth of our city and province, and the people who made that growth possible.
One of the last things that I tell the tourists about is the piece that I consider to be the greatest treasure of the Cathedral, and yet so many of us in the congregation don’t even know that it’s there! It’s the Coventry Cross of Nails on a simple wooden plaque, and its is mounted on the wall beneath the Anglican Communion window in the south transept. When I tell the story behind that plaque, many of our visitors are moved to tears (and so am I!).
On November 14th, 1940, the city of Coventry in the West Midlands of England was the target of the Luftwaffe. One of the major casualties of that dreadful night was the 14th century Gothic cathedral of St. Michael.
On November 14th, 1940, the city of Coventry in the West Midlands of England was the target of the Luftwaffe. Wave after wave of bombers unloaded their deadly incendiary cargo on the industrial city, knocking out utilities, utterly destroying the city centre, wiping out 4,000 homes, killing hundreds of people, and injuring thousands more. One of the major casualties of that dreadful night was the 14th century Gothic cathedral of St. Michael. (There is no truth, by the way, to the story that’s been handed down about Winston Churchill “sacrificing” Coventry so that the Nazis wouldn’t find out that the Enigma code had been cracked. Churchill and his advisors believed that London was the target that night, and were totally unprepared for the devastation of Coventry.)
From the rubble of the devastated cathedral, work crews salvaged hundreds of nails used by the builders of the beautiful mediaeval building. They weren’t nails as we know them today, but solid spike-like iron pins, measuring between eight and ten inches. The nails were made into crosses, and after the war, dignitaries from Coventry Cathedral carried them on their travels around the world and gave them to cathedrals in dioceses they visited. Such a recipient of a Coventry Cross of Nails is St. John’s Cathedral.
teams came from Germany as volunteers to help to build the new cathedral. In the same spirit, teams of Britons went to Germany to help to rebuild churches that the Allies had destroyed.
The story doesn’t end there. The ruins of the mediaeval cathedral in Coventry still stand as a memorial, but alongside the ruin is the new Coventry Cathedral. Designed by Sir Basil Spence, the modern Coventry Cathedral was begun in 1956. It took six years to build, and the Cathedral was consecrated in May, 1962. During the building period, teams of young men and women came from Germany as volunteers to help to build the new cathedral. In the same spirit, teams of young Britons went to Germany to help to rebuild churches that the Allies had destroyed in bombing raids.
For me, the Coventry Cross of Nails at St. John’s is a symbol of repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation, echoing the words carved on the wall of the ruined sanctuary of the 14th century cathedral in Coventry. They read: “Father Forgive”, and that’s why I consider the wooden plaque and its cross made of 800 year old nails to be the Cathedral’s greatest treasure.