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Easter 1944 Castelvecchio

By Stan Scislowski

My first away from home.

What should have been a time of yearning for things as they once were with me, watching my mother paint hard-boiled Easter eggs in various intricate patterns; of running out to the front porch right after awakening in the morning to see what the Easter bunny put in my hat; of the jelly bean hunts my sister Annie always held, with prizes for those who found the most.

Yes, these were the thoughts of other Easters on my mind. This particular service instead gave me an uplift in spirits I hadn't known since I arrived overseas, first to England and then to Italy.

Although at my first Easter Service in the Army back in Canada I joined with some five hundred other new soldiers in singing Easter hymns I learned in school, hymns that are dear to my heart, and listened attentively to the Padre at Camp Ipperwash give the sermon, it did not move me in quite the same way as did the Easter Sunday service on the grassy slope nearby the little village of Castelvecchio in 1944 in the Daunia Hills of south Italy. It stands out shining in my memory even yet.

Our three platoons sat on a grassy hillside in an amphitheatre-like setting, with the Padre below, looking up at us from behind his portable altar. It was a sunrise service, with the sun not yet peeking over the crest of the hill behind us. The scene was right out of the Bible, and I pictured the Padre as the Lord himself speaking to his disciples and a scattering of shepherds.

Though it was early morning in late March, the air was tinged in warmth of an early spring and we sat there not having to wear our tunics, for this was no formal church parade. The service had just begun with the Lord's Prayer, when our hillside congregation was momentarily distracted by a flock of bleating sheep and the sound of a tinkling bell on a bellwether ram.

They came from over the brow the hill from the southeast, followed closely by the raggedest of urchins carrying a traditional shepherd's crook. The line of sheep and six snow white lambs made their way nervously through the amused congregation. And It didn't take much in the way of imagination to take us back in time, heart and soul to the land where Jesus once trod in sandaled feet. The soothing sense of peace that prevailed was all around us in the glorious morning of sun-bathed hills, the grassy hillside on which we sat, the bleating sheep, the tinkling bell, the shepherd boy in torn and frayed black body-length cloth, with his crook, the service itself, and the hymns that followed. And when we sang the one hymn I loved more than all others, "Jesus Christ Has Risen Today," it was with a depth of feeling as I had never felt before.

I couldn't stop a few tears from running down my cheeks; nor did I want to, for they were not tears of acute sadness or of pain, but that of knowing a sublime feeling I could not name but that I knew it made me feel so good deep inside.

No church or even great cathedral could have brought on the same feeling that lifted my heart and spirit in a way I couldn't have found elsewhere or in different circumstances. I stole a glance to my side and saw I was not alone with tears. And in between hymns I caught myself wondering why it was that I, who did not regularly attend church while growing up, could get so carried-away by a what was going on around me.

Perhaps it was the significance of the day... the pastoral setting...the sun peeking over the crest of the hill behind us...the line of bleating sheep...the shepherd boy and his crook, taller by half than he was...the hymns...the sermon itself...and quite likely because for most of us, it was our first Easter so far from home. And then, of course, maybe in the silence of our thoughts we could not help but wonder if this might be our last celebration of the Resurrection.

After all, we would soon be going into battle and some of us would die. Though I wiped my eyes, I can honestly say as we trooped back to our pup-tents on the slope of a neighbouring gentle hillside that I have never felt as at peace with myself as I felt after our Easter Service on that gloprious March morning of 1944.


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