Gloucester fisherman, American veteran, Polish benefactor

Photo by Robert BreuerOwn work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

Two weeks before Veterans Day, 88-year old World War II vet Curtis Dagley of Gloucester, Massachusetts, was decorated by the Republic of Poland. The great, late-Gothic sculptor Wit Stwosz (known in German as Veit Stoss) was smiling, from what I trust is his current station at the Throne of Grace. And therein lies a tale.

The colossal wooden altarpiece that Wit Stwosz carved in Kraków for the Basilica of the Assumption of Our Lady, the Mariacki, is one of the great feats of decorative art in Christian history. More than forty feet high and some thirty-six feet wide, the altarpiece is a gigantic triptych, the centerpiece of which is the Dormition of the Virgin in the presence of the apostles. The two flanking panels depict numerous scenes from the Bible, including the Annunciation, the Nativity, the Resurrection, the Ascension, and the Descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Because the biblical figures (some of which are twelve feet tall) were modeled on the burghers, tradesmen, waitresses, and housewives that Stwosz met during his mid-15th century labors in Kraków, the altarpiece is a marvelous evocation of what the Creed means by the “communion of saints.”

Just before the German invasion of September 1939, the altarpiece was disassembled and the main wooden figures taken to the cathedral in Sandomierz for safekeeping. But Nazi looters were determined to take Stwosz’s composition to Nuremberg, his native city, and got their way in 1941 when the altarpiece was removed to Nuremberg Castle and hidden in its basement. Discovered by the U.S. Army detachments known to moviegoers as the “Monuments Men,” the Wit Stwosz altarpiece was returned to Kraków on a thirty-car train in April-May 1946, escorted by American GIs.

Enter Curtis Dagley.

The eighteen-year old Gloucesterman was a buck private at the time, assigned to guard duty on the train bringing recovered art treasures back to Poland. But tensions were high in Kraków, where the newly-installed Polish communist regime was not, to put it gently, popular. The regime planned a large May Day “workers’ celebration” on May 1; it was quickly followed by an anti-communist demonstration on May 3 in which eight hundred protesting students were arrested and thirty wounded. (The role played in that demonstration by a then-obscure seminarian named Karol Wojtyła – later to be known as Pope St. John Paul II – likely had something to do with Cardinal Adam Stefan Sapieha’s decision to send Wojtyła to Rome for graduate studies immediately after his ordination in November 1946.)

So congenitally nasty regime officials and their secret police goons were in an even more petulant frame of mind than usual on May 5, when the altarpiece was officially and ceremonially returned. Perhaps to underscore their unhappiness, they claimed that an American soldier had shot two Polish militiamen. Private Dagley was charged with this “crime,” handcuffed, and held in custody, even after another GI admitted to randomly firing his pistol and accidentally wounding one Pole the previous night. The falsely-charged Private Dagley’s commanding officer made the imprudent decision to leave him behind under Polish arrest, thinking that everything would sort out in due course. Thus Curtis Dagley spent unnecessary (and certainly unwanted) time as a guest of the ill-named Polish People’s Republic before being returned to American control and mustered out of the Army.

I first learned about all this from my friend Agata Wolska, the archivist of the Mariacki, who was a great help when I was preparing City of Saints: A Pilgrimage to John Paul II’s Kraków. Dr. Wolska, a charming and tenacious scholar, spent a year tracking down the American who helped restore the Wit Stwosz altarpiece to Kraków and was unjustly imprisoned as a result. Her persistence was rewarded when she met Mr. Dagley in Gloucester in 2012. Last month’s ceremony, at which Curtis Dagley was presented with the Bene Merito medal of the Polish foreign ministry, completed a work of thanksgiving in fidelity to historical truth.

There’s more than a whiff of isolationism in the American air these days. The remarkable, wonderful story of Curtis Dagley and the Poles who remembered him with gratitude seventy years later is a poignant reminder that some still look to the United States as a pillar of stability and decency in a very nasty world.

COMING UP: Catholicism embodied: “The Pivotal Players”

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Looking for some uplift after this tawdry election cycle? Some inspiration for tackling what lies ahead? A good way to enrich Advent? Examples of sanctity to help you be the missionary disciple you were baptized to be? Then let me recommend Bishop Robert Barron’s new DVD series, Catholicism: The Pivotal Players.

Pivotal Players is a follow-up to Bishop Barron’s immensely successful, ten-part mega-series, Catholicism, the most compelling presentation of the symphony of Catholic truth ever created for modern media. Key figures in Catholic history appeared throughout the original series to illustrate this truth of the faith or that facet of the Catholic experience. Now, with Pivotal Players, six of the most striking personalities in Catholic history take center stage, the adventure of their lives serving to deepen our understanding of the “faith once delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3).

The six are Francis of Assisi, Catherine of Siena, Thomas Aquinas, John Henry Newman, G.K. Chesterton, and Michelangelo Buonarroti: the reformer, the mystic, the theologian, the convert, the evangelist, and the artist. Two are doctors of the Church – and a third may be one day. Several of them inspired successors of St. Peter; another told a pope off in no uncertain terms. Two were Englishmen and converts from Anglicanism: one, will-o-the-wisp slight and the other gargantuan; one the quintessential Oxford don, the other, the quintessential Anglo-eccentric genius. One grew up a wannabe knight errant before his abrupt turn into radical evangelicalism. Still another was arguably the greatest genius in human history, his extraordinary talents ranging across sculpture, painting, architecture, poetry and other fields. Four were Italians (if you’ll permit the anachronism for an Umbrian, a Sienese, a sort-of Neapolitan, and a devout Florentine). Each of them was the human analogue to what astrophysicists call a “singularity,” someone to whom the old rules of spiritual gravitation didn’t apply.

And they shared something else in common besides the passionate intensity of their Catholic faith: each lived at a time of crisis for the Church, and each helped the Church address that crisis creatively while remaining true to itself.

Francis of Assisi and Catherine of Siena lived at times when institutional Catholicism had become complacent, losing its evangelical edge. By creating something utterly new in Catholic life – the mendicant religious order dedicated to evangelization – Francis inspired in the Church a new Gospel radicalism centered on the joyful experience of salvation. By persuading (perhaps better, shaming) Pope Gregory XI to return to Rome from his political exile in Avignon, Catherine of Siena made it possible for the papacy to be again the center of unity for the entire Catholic world, as Christ intended it to be.

Thomas Aquinas, for his part, grafted the “new learning” of Aristotle into Catholic theology in a creative synthesis that gave the Church conceptual tools that remain powerful today. In doing so, he helped create what we know in the West as higher education, even as he showed the Church how to incorporate the best of the  “modernity” of his time into its intellectual and spiritual life without losing touch with the truths it had long possessed as a bequest from the Lord.

Michelangelo lived during that moment of sometimes-brash human assertiveness we call the Renaissance; his theologically-driven art (which Bishop Barron explains in perhaps the most scintillating part of Pivotal Players) enriched the classically-inspired humanism of his day by marrying it to the biblical account of the human person.

Newman and Chesterton, closer to our moment, were key figures in crafting a Catholic response to the scientific revolution and the other dramatic changes that were reshaping how we think about things – and imagine our place in the scheme of things – during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. That each of them did so in wonderfully winsome prose helped demonstrate the continuing vitality of the Catholic mind and spirit in an increasingly skeptical age, even as they bequeathed to the 21st-century Church models of apologetics that remain cogent at a time like ours, when skepticism has often hardened into cynicism, or just plain boredom.

There are important things to be learned from each of these God-touched human personalities for the challenges Catholicism faces in the post-modern world of the twenty-first century. Kudos to Bishop Barron for bringing those things to our attention in a gripping way.

Order Catholicism: The Pivotal Prayers here.