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The Queen, The Chaplains, and The Dead

Updated: Apr 4

Major (Padre) Paul G Gemmiti

If you have a chance, go and visit Brookside Cemetery in Winnipeg, Manitoba. There you will discover an interesting section known as “The Field of Honour.” With the intent of providing a respectful burial ground for all those who served in World War One, the cemetery was established in 1915. Over time and as human circumstances changed, it gradually evolved into a place of interment for past military personnel serving in any capacity in the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) and Commonwealth of Nations (formerly known as the British Empire).

In 1960, the Mayor of Winnipeg arranged with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to have a formal “Great Stone of Remembrance” erected at the Field of Honour. (If you have any awareness of the role of Winnipeg citizens during past wars and campaigns, you will also hear of the important part that Winnipeg played in providing aircraft training for pilots from all over the Commonwealth of Nations during WWII. In 2024, the Royal Canadian Air Force and 17 Wing Winnipeg will be celebrating 100 years.

Photo credit: Major (Padre) Paul G Gemmiti

Being a current chaplain serving in the Canadian Armed Forces, first as a part-time chaplain in the Army Reserve with the Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment and then as a full-time Regular Force chaplain with the Canadian Armed Forces, I have been part of the funeral ceremony and interment of various CAF members. I have also listened to the stories of others who have laid to rest their loved ones in that same or similar location.

The breadth of my experience has been of those who were of food services, transportation services, housing, supplies, uniforms, and administration. Some of the headstones include the particular markings of regiments as some past members may have had a particular affiliation and affection for their regiment; ranks and eras not-withstanding.

There are the remains of some chaplains there, too. The only one that I personally had met during the early part of my time being posted here to 17 Wing Winnipeg in 2014 was Fr Raphael Glofcheski. He was a Roman Catholic priest who had spent his final years here in Winnipeg. As a CAF chaplain, like me, he would have been part of providing formal public prayers at mess dinners, Change of Command parades, graduations, Remembrance Day services, and Roman Catholic liturgies sometimes at the 17 Wing Chapel.

As past military chaplains did, he would have counselled members through their hurts, frustrations, and hardship, and referred them to other helping professionals; as family problems, conflict with an employer, and financial solvency challenge us still. He would have enjoyed coffee breaks, meals out, weddings and baptisms. Administrative decisions, paperwork, and reports are usual expectations. It is common belief that all those buried there have served overseas or in active wars, but in reality, many simply gave their service so that they could provide the necessary support to others who were on the front lines, like those participating in UN peacekeeping missions or NATO war campaigns in Afghanistan or Libya.

Personally, I had a deployment during six months of 2011 while in Sicily, supporting those of the coalition campaign in Libya. Troops, along with some civilian personnel, would be the ones to, at times, endure common hardships such as occasional food intolerances, cultural conflict, backaches, migraines, heat stroke, rashes, and lack of sleep. The idealism or romanticism that so many students and common citizens hear of is usually far different than the practical stressors and logistical glitches that are integral. Post-traumatic stress disorder, formerly known as “shell shock,” can occur whenever anybody witnesses or participates in a tragic event. Therefore, deaths due to circumstantial vehicle accidents, training mishaps, and suicides can always be possible even during deployments.

Of course, we couldn’t talk about the CAF without the recent realization that our long time Colonel-in-Chief of the Forces, and of many particular Canadian regiments, has died. Elizabeth Windsor, known to most of us as Queen Elizabeth the Second, has come to the conclusion of her reign during her Seventieth Year Platinum Anniversary, at the age of 96. Her dedication to service on behalf of armed forces members of Britain, Canada and the Commonwealth of Nations, remains a hallmark; the end of an Elizabethan era, certainly. Personally, I have looked to her as a point of reference in mutually journeying through so much of what has evolved and changed in our world and in Canadian society since I was born in the 1960s. She will be missed. According to local historical records, she had visited Winnipeg on six occasions. Her role as Sovereign, and her position as Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, has now passed to her son Charles, long-time Prince of Wales, now known as King Charles the Third.

My purpose of this brief article has been twofold: to remind you that past and present military members are, like you and me, from our beloved mix of Canadian society; and that they, as with chaplains, continue to play a role in supporting and continuing to support those who serve and remember, in the hopes that peace and justice will one day prevail. Like the late Queen Elizabeth II, the decades will move into the future which may have new threats, challenges, and improvements, but we and the CAF aim to simply leave a legacy of support and service for the benefit of future generations.

I hope you will consider becoming part of it…the CAF and its service to the citizens of Canada.

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