Pippa FitzGerald-Finch lovingly shakes snow off of dozens of crocheted and knitted poppies laying artfully on the grass at the west side of the Cathedral Church of the Redeemer in downtown Calgary. It’s a moving scene.
Thousands more of the intricate poppies sweep up above her attached by garden mesh to the graceful roof of the sandstone cathedral, looking very much like a colourful flock of birds in flight.
It’s evident that this installation of more than 8,000 hand-knitted and crocheted poppies, adorning both the inside and exterior of the 1905 Anglican church, is a labour of love for FitzGerald-Finch.
The 68-year-old parishioner says the idea to decorate the church for the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War was seeded in her native England during a trip there more than a year ago, when she saw knitted poppies streaming down from the tower of a church in Sussex.
“It was very moving to see it, so it got me thinking,” said FitzGerald-Finch.
Her church knitting group, which normally makes blankets for new mothers and their babies, loved the idea of adorning the Anglican cathedral to mark this special Remembrance Day commemorating the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War.
So, more than a year ago, the eight women of the knitting group started making the blood-red poppies and little-by-little word got out until many dozens of women from all across Canada, a few from the United States and even one in New Zealand have been creating poppies as unique as each soldier who went off to war.
FitzGerald-Finch says she knitted more than 500 of the poppies herself, which took about 40 minutes each to make.
As she knitted or crocheted, she said she was mindful of the incredible sacrifice made by so many mostly young men — some of them really just boys — who fought and died against tyranny.
“My father (Keith Moore) was in Burma for five years during the Second World War and my step son was in Afghanistan, he was a bomb disposal expert with the British Army,” she says.
“I had someone from Seattle send one poppy for a family member who died in the war. What is interesting is all of the stories that came in with their poppies. It’s obviously caught peoples’ imaginations and they feel it’s a wonderful way of remembering their relatives.”
Sitting in one of the back pews, FitzGerald-Finch points to two thin streams of poppies hanging from tiny horizontal flag poles high on two stone pillars.
“Those are all from a woman from Pincher Creek, who sent in a box of 66 poppies and a note.” The note explained that the cenotaph in that southern Alberta town of just 3,600 people lists the names of the 60 men from there who died in the First World War. The other six poppies represent the six Indigenous men from the Peigan Nation nearby who also died in the war that was supposed to end all wars.
“It’s an astonishing loss for such a small town,” marvelled Rev. Leighton Lee. “It boggles the mind.”
Stepping outside, Rev. Lee says the display has drawn a lot of attention from all over.
As if on cue, Janice and Dan Wile, a couple visiting from Nova Scotia, stop in front of the church to take pictures.
“We saw a story about this on the TV in Halifax and we were coming out here to visit our son and his family and I said, ‘I have to come and see this when we get here,’” said Janice.
“It’s simply breath-taking,” she added.
The display is made all the more poignant for the Wiles since their son, Maj. Evan Wile, 38, fought in Afghanistan with the elite JTF2 (special forces) and is on a battlefield tour in Belgium with his wife and the military reserve unit he commands.
While the poppy display will be taken down on Monday, as is proper, inside the historic building, there are two permanent large plaques containing the names of about 150 of the cathedral’s congregants who died in the Great War.
Exactly 60,661 Canadian soldiers died in the First World War, at a time when the entire population of Canada was barely eight million. Almost 43,000 Canadians perished in the Second World War in a country of just 11.5 million.
Rev. Lee points out the meaning behind the word remember.
“I shouldn’t give away my sermon on Sunday but the word remember is actually re-member. It’s the idea of making whole something that is broken, torn or destroyed.”
“So from our Christian point of view, remembrance is about not forgetting but it’s also about bringing the past into the future in a vital way that things can be re-made, re-membered. The whole point of remembrance for us is not just to recall what happened and to commemorate those who died and fought for us, but to pledge ourselves to re-member — to make whole — our society which has been broken and torn by strife and conflict, war, evil and injustice,” says Rev. Lee.
“That’s our Christian vocation, to work for the restoration of the world and to strive, truly, to make our communities and our world places of real justice, lasting peace, absolute inclusion, all of those things that were fought for.”
Rev. Lee invites everyone to take part in the 10:30 a.m. Sunday service when at two minutes before the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, a bugle will sound and two minutes of silence will be held for all the men and women who paid the ultimate price for our freedom.
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