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Christmas Mass During the Battle of the Bulge

Christmas Mass During the Battle of the Bulge
 
(The following article appeared in the Pittsburg Post-Gazette on December 26, 2001 and was written by Vince DiRicco)

The Reverend Joseph A. Nee holds a special place in the hearts and memories of parishioners at St. Therese of Lisieux Catholic Church in Munhall, where he served as pastor for 30 years from 1947 to 1977.

 

He is also fondly remembered by thousands of American soldiers as Army chaplain to the famous 2nd Infantry Division from 1941 to 1946.
 
One such soldier, Colonel Matt F C Konop of Twin Rivers, Wisconsin, left a written remembrance of the Mass that Nee celebrated on Christmas Day 1944 in Belgium during the horribly bloody Battle of the Bulge that raged from December 16 to January 28, 1945.
 
Historians now know that it was Christmas Day when the Allies effectively stopped Germany's last major offensive in what has been described as the largest land battle of World War II.  By January 28, the Germans had been pushed completely out of the Ardennes, but at the cost of 19,000 American lives.
 

Uncertain of his own fate or the outcome of the battle, the colonel had written to his wife, describing the mood and situation at the time.  When Konop learned of Father Nee's death in 1981 from Agnes Majoris, Father Nee's housekeeper during most of his pastorate at St. Therese, he sent her a copy of the letter he had written to his wife.  The following is based on information contained in that letter.

* * *

It was winter in the Ardennes Mountains.  For nine days, Allied forces had been in constant contact with a determined enemy whose armored infantry had pushed deeply into their lines creating a bulge.
 
The snow was a foot deep, and the cold made life miserable for the infantrymen. Many had died and many were missing and wounded.  The living were tired, dirty and hungry but determined to fight.
 
Colonel Matt F C Konop did not think there was a man there without thoughts of home and celebrations of Christmas with the traditional church services and songs like Silent Night.  But the constant zoom of incoming artillery and the crackle of rifles and machine guns made Christmas Eve anything but a silent one.
 
On the day before Christmas, the colonel had given Father Nee, their chaplain, permission to say Christmas Mass and issued a memorandum indicating the time and place -- 10 a.m. in the basement of a bombed-out country tavern. The strong walls and mounds of nearby rubble provided reasonable safety from enemy fire, but about 2 inches of snow slush had accumulated in the basement, and the only light was what filtered through shell holes in the walls.
 
A wooden box served as an altar. Electricity for the one bulb that hung over the altar came from a generator on a truck outside.  Two lighted candles were placed on each side of the cloth-covered box.
 
Nee and Konop stood side by side waiting for soldiers to arrive. Neither had much to say.  There was nothing merry about the situation. Both men had heard and seen a great deal in the past nine days.  They were near an opening to the basement and could see the rolling hills studded with snow-covered evergreen trees, many of which had been blasted by heavy shelling.  They watched as soldiers darted from cover to cover to make their way down to the temporary chapel.
 
Nee remarked: "Doesn't this remind you of the land of the First Christmas when shepherds left their flocks in the hills and went down to the stable in Bethlehem?"   More soldiers arrived in twos and threes, each carrying a rifle or pistol with a grenade or two hanging from his shoulder.  They were all dirty, with about a nine-day growth of beard.  Their uniforms hadn't been changed for days.
 
Forty men gathered in the basement.  When no more appeared, Nee approached the altar and began Christmas Mass shortly after 10 in the morning.  Opening his missal, he asked the men to remain standing because of the slush on the floor.  General absolution would be given since there was no time for private confessions.  He asked for a show of hands of those wishing to receive communion.  Everyone raised his hand.
 
Mass continued in this battered land of Christmas trees and then came time for the gospel and the glad news.  Nee read the epistle and the gospel and began his sermon by wishing a Merry Christmas to all, but he stumbled over the words.
 
He pushed on and recalled the privations of Mary and Joseph in that stable and the similarity of the hills of Bethlehem and the rolling hills outside.
 
As he talked about the shepherds leaving their posts and coming down from the hills to worship their newborn king, much like the assembled soldiers, his voice began to break. "I'm sorry, fellows,"  he said.  "I can't finish, but I hope my wish for your Merry Christmas will not ..."   The soldiers understood.
 
Wiping his eyes, he turned around and continued with the consecration, the absolution and communion.  Blessing the assembled soldiers, he said: "The Mass is ended.  Go in peace."
 
And each one did, giving thanks to Father Nee for giving them a moment of peace as they headed back to the war-torn fields outside.
 
Source:Bulge Bugle, November 2002
Submitted by William R. O'MALLEY

Died February 7, 2008

87th Infantry Division

Campaigns

Battle of the Bulge,

Belgium