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‘Day of Prayer’ has Minden connection

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FDR, Churchill in attendance

Special to the Minden Press-Herald

Long before President Harry S. Truman signed a law establishing the official National Day of Prayer in 1952, a gathering took place in Christ Church in Alexandria, Virginia during a “National Day of Prayer” in 1942.

In attendance were President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, among others.

That meeting, and Day of Prayer, have a Minden connection. Rev. E.R. Wells II, the rector of Christ Church, was the father-in-law of Anna Welles, who grew up in Minden.

The following is an excerpt of his account of that meeting. (Verbatim).

Another of my friends was Norman H. Davis, President of the American Red Cross, who was elected to our parish Vestry.

He was very close to President Franklin D. Roosevelt and saw him frequently …. [I]asked Mr. Davis to urge the President to appoint a National Day of Prayer and handed Mr. Davis a letter I had written to President Roosevelt on the subject. Mr. Davis did hand my letter to the President who did appoint the following New Year’s Day [1942] as a National Day of Prayer.

Next we learned that Prime Minister Winston S. Churchill of Britain had arrived at the White House. I asked Mr. Davis when he saw the President to invite him to come to Christ Church on the National Day of Prayer bringing Mr. Churchill so they could sit together in George Washington’s pew and bury the hatchet of the American Revolution …. 1 was confident that my suggestion was a “natural” and that the two leaders could not resist …. Finally on December 29, word came from the White House that my invitation was accepted. I had already planned an appropriate service for the National Day of Prayer, January 1, 1942, whether the President and Prime Minister came or not. I had chosen the Litany from the Book of Common Prayer, adding a special suffrage for the British Prime Minister after the one for the President. I had discussed the music with … our organist, and secured her agreement to use the Battle Hymn of the Republic for the first time in the history of our parish; it was in the old, pre-1940 edition hymnals we were still using.”

On Dec. 31, between 5 and 6 pm, the Secret Service descended in force on our rectory. They had warned me that the 3 galleries could not be used, reducing tickets available for our regular congregation to about 350 instead of 650.

Who should receive tickets? Before the Secret Service arrived I went over our parish list carefully and, knowing my people well, made a list of those who, on the basis of church attendance over the last year, would be in church anyway. The number came to 385 …. the Secret Service … brought their typewriters, tickets, secretaries …. The Secret Service explained to me that no one could know about the unusual aspects of our service until 7am of the day.

Then the public would suspect something when workmen arrived and began erecting a 10-ft-high canvas wall around the grounds of the church, and at the same hour Secret Service would begin to control access to the grounds while the armed forces would begin erecting machine guns on the roofs of houses overlooking the church.” [Dad enlisted 8 vestrymen–without telling them why–to come to church at 7am for the distribution of tickets.]

“I arrived at the church by 9 to make sure all was in order. Catharine came down later with Katrina, whose 7th birthday it was …. Mr. Roosevelt’s wheelchair was in the sacristy in case he wished to use it. A ribbed rubber runner had been cemented to the marble floor from the NW door to the Washington pew, the ribs going at rt. angles to the length so that the President would not skid as he came up the aisle, if he walked …. The presidential party arrived. The President, refusing to use his wheelchair, went up the aisle on the arm of his Aide, Gen. Edwin Watson.

Mrs. Roosevelt, who must surely rank as one of the 29th century’s most interesting and influential persons, followed. Then came Lord Halifax, the British Ambassador. For a moment no one else appeared. Then the impressive figure of Winston Churchill. He took his place beside the President in the Washington Pew …. The service went very well; the Litany was ideal and the hymns were a militant selection: “God of our Fathers, “Once to Every Man and Nation” and “Battle Hymn of the Republic. The singing of the latter took people’s breath away when I announced it with the introductory remarks that it was time we in the USA buried the hatchet of the War Between the States as well as the British and Americans burying the hatchet of the Revolutionary War. Everybody sang, movingly; Winston Churchill was so deeply moved that in the middle he wept, with great tears running unashamedly down his cheeks.

As dictated by his affliction the President could not kneel, but stood or sat throughout the service. Mr. Churchill, Mrs. Roosevelt and other members of the congregation alternately stood, sat and knelt. The time came to climb up into the high, graceful wine-glass pulpit and begin my sermon. Strangely, I was not as nervous as I had been …. For 18 minutes I preached on our need nationally to pray for three gifts from God: Pardon, Power, and Peace.

During the service, whenever the President had sat down he had been helped by Gen. Watson. The steel braces on either side of each leg had been unclamped so that his legs, when he was seated, did not unbendingly stick out straight ahead of him. When he was to rise, those legs had to be straightened out and the jointed of the braces had to be snapped and locked into position …. At the end of the service he had to negotiate that long aisle on his legs. I think it is fair to say that all through his presidency the public never realized how badly crippled he was. The press, especially still and newsreel protographers (before the days of TV) were kinder to him than to any president since: they never showed him in movement. The public never saw him picked up like a baby and lifted into his car as we saw him that day after the doors of the church had been shut and only Mr. Churchill, the aides, the chauffeur, Stewart Mattews and the three members of the Welles family were present.”

… The President was wan, weary, and looked badly to me. He looked worse to me than old and tired; close up he looked deathly, and as he painfully, grimly shuffled down that aisle on the arm of Gen. Watson, he was obviously enduring torture. I lowered my gaze; I could not bear to look at his grimaced face as he forced himself down that aisle to the spot ten feet outside the church where photographers were waiting. The President from the waist up was a sturdy, handsome man, whose courage and personality created the impression of strength and thus happily obscured his crippled condition …. When he reached the photographers’ chalk line he stopped … turned on his winning smile and extended his right hand towards me …. When they returned to the White House they met with the representatives of 24 other nations and together signed the epoch-making United Nations Pact, dated Washington, Jan 1, 1942. This was one of the things the President had alluded to in his after-church conversation saying he was happy to have worshiped Almighty God before the important event that was about to take place.

Submitted by Lyda Madden.

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