On the night of 14 November, 1940, the 14th-Century Cathedral of St Michael in Coventry burned. The next day, while the ruins were still smoking, provost Richard Howard wrote the words 'Father Forgive' on the smoke-blackened wall of the sanctuary. The charred remains of two roof beams that had fallen to the floor in a cruciform shape were raised above an altar of rubble for the Sunday service. A charred cross still stands in the eastern end of the old cathedral, but this is not the original. The first 'cross' is held in the vaults of the new cathedral.
The Original Cross of Nails
Among those to walk horror-struck through the ruins of the cathedral the next morning was a young clergyman called Phillip Wales. He noticed, amid the rubble, several enormous medieval nails, each about 18 inches1 long. He picked some up and took them home.
That night, while poking the nails around on the kitchen table, he found that three of them could be made to form the shape of a cross, with one vertical and the other two crossing it horizontally. He bound them together with wire, and this original cross was then placed upon the altar of rubble. Later, he found a firm in Coventry to weld the pieces together, and another to coat them in silver.
The Cross of Nails came to symbolise the suffering of war, the hope of survival, and the desire for peace and reconciliation. More nails were collected from the floor of the cathedral and copies were made; these would be sent to organisations that were working for reconciliation throughout the world.
At the end of World War II the first crosses were despatched to Dresden, Berlin, and Kiel. These were all cities that had suffered heavily from bombing during the war, and the ashes provided a rich fertiliser for the spirit of reconciliation. The Berlin Cross is in the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, which, like Coventry Cathedral, was destroyed by enemy bombs and is similarly built alongside the shell of the ruined building.
The original of the Stalingrad Madonna, drawn by Kurt Reuber as he sat in a foxhole during the battle of Stalingrad - Christmas, 1942 - is also held at the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church. It carries three words from St John's Gospel, 'LICHT', 'LEBEN', 'LIEBE'2, the words 'Weihnachten 1942 im Kessel', and, inscribed upon the bottom, 'Festung Stalingrad'.
There are two copies of this. One sits in the Coventry Cathedral Millennium Chapel, which is dedicated to political and religious prisoners. The other is in the Russian Orthodox Church in Stalingrad3.
This courageous dream of peace and love instead of retribution led to the birth of a society that today spans the world. There are now more than 220 Cross of Nail Centres. They are not always in churches. Some are in schools, some in prisons. But all are in places of suffering (!). The pastors who work in these centres each wear a small Cross of Nails about their neck.
However, the cross is a Christian symbol and the desire has always been to reach out to all places of suffering, so there is an associate Reconciliation Society and its symbol is a miniature of the statue 'Reconciliation’.
'Reconciliation' is a statue representing two people hugging each other across a barbed wire barrier. It was originally created in 1977 by Josefina de Vasconcellos, entitled 'Reunion', and presented to University of Bradford. In 1995, to mark the 50th anniversary of the end of the war, a bronze cast was presented to Coventry Cathedral by Sir Richard Branson.
It was unveiled by the sculptor on her 90th birthday and renamed Reconciliation at the request of the peace studies department at Coventry University. Further copies can be found in the Hiroshima Peace Park, Japan, and Stormont Castle in Belfast. In 1999, another cast was placed as part of the Berlin Wall Memorial at the re-opening of the 'Reichstag'.
There is also a Cross of Nails aboard each HMS Coventry commissioned by the Royal Navy. In 1982, the nails were once again subject to a bomb attack when the type 42 destroyer was sunk off the Falkland Islands. The cross, which had remained on display throughout the conflict, was recovered from the wreck - a grave for 19 men - after the war. It is currently on loan to the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard for its South Atlantic display, and will remain there until another HMS Coventry is commissioned.
Today, there are Cross of Nails Society Centres or Centres of Reconciliation in South Africa, working to eradicate the wounds of apartheid, and in Nigeria and Burundi - seeking to defuse inter-faith tensions. They can also be found in Israel and Palestine, where they work towards a greater mutual understanding between Jews and Arabs, and in Iraq supporting peace initiatives.
In the US, they work towards community cohesion, and providing financial support to sister centres in Sierra Leone, Cuba, and other poorer countries. There are many centres in Europe: Germany, Slovakia, Bosnia, Belarus, Romania, and Northern Ireland, where the Cross of Fire works to resolve disputes between Catholics and Protestants.
In Coventry, the home chapter works at supporting and establishing centres, providing leadership, tutorials, conferences, and prayer. In the local community, it seeks to bring the disaffected into the church family and work among youth groups. In particular, it supports youths who are endangered by drugs or self-harm, and those who lack family support.