Altar stone discovery sets Toronto church on the path of a WWI mystery

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“Why did that thing sit in this office for decades, with a lamp on it, and no one knew about it?” Canon Peter Walker asks. “Why did we stumble on that in the spring of 2018?” Photo: Tali Folkins

The chance discovery of a mysterious artifact in the office of a Toronto church has resulted in speeches, songs and tears of gratitude in a Belgian village—and has left the church’s rector pondering the mysteries of providence.

Canon Peter Walker, rector of Grace Church on-the-Hill in Toronto, says research undertaken last year by parishioners and staff at the church revealed that the small, black, marble slab that had been sitting under his old office lamp—which he had taken for the lamp’s base—is actually the altar stone of a Belgian church destroyed in the First World War. He and other members of his church believe the stone was brought to Canada by chaplain and writer Canon F.G. Scott and then forgotten. Its discovery last spring, and the piece-by-piece unravelling of the mystery behind it, allowed church members to bring it home in time for the 100th anniversary of the war’s end.

Walker says his former secretary, Audrey Gizzie, came upon the altar stone after deciding to replace the old office lamps.

“She said, ‘Oh, these are really ugly lamps—we need to get rid of these.’ And then she said, ‘What’s this?’ ” Walker recalls. “She picked it up, and I immediately knew what it was.”

The slab had all the markings of the stone that rests in every altar of a Roman Catholic church, on which the chalice and paten are laid during the preparation of the Mass: crosses at the edges and in the middle, with a recess for holding the relics of a saint. Where was it from, and why was it sitting under a lamp at Grace Church on-the-Hill?

The first clue, Walker says, came when Gizzie turned it over. On the back of the stone, written in orange chalk, read the words “from the altar of La Neuve-Église, Belgium, 1915,” plus the initials “F.G.S.”

Looking up La Neuve-Église on the Internet, Gizzie discovered it was a village in Belgium, now known as Nieuwkerke—and that Canadian soldiers were in the area in 1915. The village is about 14 km southwest of Ypres, site of a series of First World War battles, including the Second Battle of Ypres, which saw the Germans assault French, British and Canadian trenches in April and May of that year.

The altar stone in a box for presentation to the church in Belgium. Photo: Ginny Walker

Canon F. G. Scott connection

A possible explanation of the letters “F.G.S.” came a few days later, when Roy MacLaren, a historian and former federal cabinet minister who worships at the church, walked into Walker’s office.

“Roy, you’ll never guess what we just discovered here in my office,” Walker said, showing him the stone with its mysterious writing. “We can’t figure out what ‘F.G.S’ is.”

Immediately, MacLaren replied, “That’s Canon F.G. Scott.”

Canon Frederick George Scott, an Anglican priest and poet, was one of the best known chaplains of the First World War, and his memoir, The Great War As I Saw It, is widely used by historians researching Canada’s role in the conflict. A staunch imperialist, Scott volunteered as soon as the war broke out in 1914, though he was already in his 50s. Chaplains were expected to stay back from the action, but Scott insisted on living alongside and ministering to the men in the trenches, and earned much respect and admiration from them. He was also seriously wounded by shellfire in the fall of 1918, not long before the war’s end.

To some members of the church who had taken an interest in the altar stone, it remained unclear what connected the altar stone to F.G. Scott, other than the initials. A breakthrough came when Helen Bradfield, archivist at Grace Church on-the-Hill, discovered that a Rev. Elton Scott had served as honorary assistant at the church from 1956–1961; it happens that F.G. Scott had a son named Elton. Looking into the files of the honorary assistant, members of the church found a picture, drawn by hand, of his family’s cemetery plot in Montreal— and, in it, a gravestone bearing the name of Canon F.G. Scott.

This detail seemed to confirm that the writing on the altar stone must have been in F.G. Scott’s hand. But how the stone had found its way from a Belgian village to Toronto remained a mystery—until they took a close look at Scott’s memoir.

In The Great War As I Saw It, the chaplain actually describes visiting the Belgian village and its church in 1915, devastated after the Second Battle of Ypres:

Neuve-Église, at the top of the road, had been badly wrecked by German shells. I went up there one night with an officer friend of mine, to see the scene of desolation…My friend and I went down the street of the broken and deserted village, which, from its position on the hill, was an easy mark for shellfire. Not a living thing was stirring except a big black cat which ran across our path. The moonlight made strange shadows in the roofless houses. Against the west wall of the church stood a large crucifix still undamaged. The roof had gone, and the moonlight flooded the ruins through the broken Gothic windows. To the left, ploughed up with shells, were the tombs of the civilian cemetery, and the whole place was ghostly and uncanny.

The church at La Neuve-Église, Belgium, after it was destroyed by shellfire in the First World War. Photo: National Library of Scotland, license: CC-BY-NC-SA

Bringing the stone home

Walker says he and other members of the church trying to unravel the mystery surmised that it was on this visit to the village that F.G. Scott must have come across the altar stone, and—though his memoir doesn’t mention it—picked it up and taken it with him.

“We do our research on Canon F.G. Scott…we put him with La Neuve-Église, and this artifact has got his name on it,” he says. “So he’s obviously gone through the rubble of this church and salvaged this in the debris, put it in his haversack and wrote on the back…and brought it home to Canada as a memento of the war.”

Scott must have eventually handed it over to his son, who perhaps in turn gave it to the church’s rector at the time—who, it seems, kept it in his office, where it would lie forgotten for six decades.

To Walker and his parishioners, the mystery seemed finally solved—but the altar stone’s story wasn’t over.

“We began to think, ‘Really what’s it doing here? This is the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War; we should really determine to give this back to where it came from,’ ” he says. “So then we contacted the parish.”

Members of the church in Nieuwkerke, which was rebuilt in 1925, were both surprised and appreciative to hear about the altar stone—and excited about the prospect of getting it back, Walker says. MacLaren organized a small delegation from Grace Church on-the-Hill to return it in November 2018, and to attend ceremonies at Vimy Ridge, France, and Mons, Belgium—where MacLaren’s own father had fought a century earlier—marking the centenary of the war’s end.

The group arrived in Nieuwkerke on Nov. 9 to a warm, and, Walker says, moving welcome: a service at the church with songs, including “O Canada,” sung by local children (who had been given the day off from school); prayers; and speeches in French and Flemish by church leaders and the mayor. The warden of the Belgian church was moved to tears as he tried to give his speech.

“It was very, very poignant,” Walker says. “They were very appreciative of our effort, that we took the time and the trouble to go over there and give it back to them.”

The members of the Belgian church had created a special place for the altar stone, near the current altar, and a display case telling the story of the stone, F.G. Scott and the role of Canadians in the First World War. On the day of the ceremony, Walker says, a local history teacher spoke to the children about the war, and how it had affected the community. The children, who had made their own Canadian flags, planted them at the nearby grave of a Canadian soldier. Afterward, the delegation was treated to lunch by the mayor.

Planting and remembering

For Grace Church on-the-Hill, Walker says, the discovery of the altar stone has meant that it will end up with a very special tree on its grounds. When he and the others returned from Europe, they gave a series of presentations to interested parishioners, one of whom is involved with the Vimy Oaks initiative—a project to restore oak trees descended from acorns rescued from the devastated ridge during the battle by a Canadian soldier, to Vimy Ridge. Moved by what she heard, the parishioner arranged for one of the oaks to be planted this spring on the church’s property, near its cenotaph.

For Walker, the mystery of what the mysterious object was, and of how it got to Grace Church on-the-Hill, has been solved. But trying to account for the “why” of its story—why it was rescued from a destroyed church and brought back to Canada to lie for decades hidden in plain view, to make its presence known just in time to be brought back a century after it left—leaves him at a loss.

“Just think of the providence, or whatever you want to say. Why did that thing sit in this office for decades, with a lamp on it, and no one knew about it?” he asks. “Why did we stumble on that in the spring of 2018?

“The chances of this happening on the centenary of the armistice is—” Walker breaks off, rendered mute for the moment in bafflement. “I just find that coincidence very interesting. I don’t know what to make of it other than—that’s what happened.”

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Tali Folkins
Tali Folkins has worked as a staff reporter for the Law Times and the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal. His writing has appeared in The Globe and Mail and The United Church Observer.

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