The events described in Fr Doyle’s letter below occurred on 18 March 1917 (Passion Sunday in that year). The statue Fr Doyle refers to was a specially commissioned statue of Our Lady of Victories, paid for by members of the 16th Irish Division, constructed in honour of the dead of the Division. Then statue was due to be erected in the church of Noeux-les-Mines, in the district of Loos where the Division was stationed for some time. It avoided narrowly avoided destruction, unlike the rest of the church…
On Passion Sunday, as I told you, the men arrived with the box and asked him where he wished the statue of Our Lady of Victories to be erected. As it was only a quarter of an hour before High Mass he told them to come back later and then turned into his own garden a few yards away to finish his office. The Mass servers were playing outside the church, which at that moment, was empty, the sacristan having finished his preparations had lately left, when a 15 inch shell fired from a German naval gun about the distance of Skerries from where you are crashed through the wall and exploded in the Sanctuary. As a rule shells burst on impact, but this being an armour piercing shell, came through the wall like paper and exploded inside, with results impossible to describe.
When I went into the ruin I exclaimed to Mons le Curé ‘surely you have had fifty shells in here!’ ‘No’, he answered, ‘only one. The havoc you see is the work of a single shot.’ Not a trace of the beautiful altar where I so often offered the Holy Sacrifice remains. The carved stalls, the altar rails, benches and chairs are smashed into splinters, the roof and parts of the walls are stripped of plaster. I have never seen such a scene of desolation and destruction, the explanation being that the explosion took place inside the church and the liberated gases rushed round like ten thousand mad animals, rending and tearing all they met, seeking for an exit.
The building was nearly as large as Kingstown church, but from end to end it is a perfect ruin. Pictures, organ, statues, all are gone, the door of the sacristy blown in and the vestments torn to ribbons, while not a particle of the beautiful stained glass, which filled the twenty large windows, remains now.
There is just one ray of comfort in this sad destruction, not a life was lost. Ten minutes later the church would have been crowded with civilians and soldiers; few of them, probably, would have been touched by bits of the shell, but not a soul could have been left alive by the shock. I have seen on the battlefield men, sometimes a row at a time, standing or leaning against a trench, untouched by bullet or shrapnel, simply killed by the force of an exploding shell. You can picture the result in a strong enclosed building.
Here, as in so many other places, God again showed His power in a wonderful way. Quite near the altar stood a magnificent Calvary; one arm of the Crucified is torn off, but otherwise neither the figure nor the cross is injured. Poor St John got badly smashed up and Saint Mary Magdalen has a bullet through her heart, the very thing she would have asked for, but our Blessed Lady, with the exception of a slight scratch on one hand ‘stands by the cross’ absolutely untouched, in the midst of all the havoc and ruin.
The shell you will remember fell in the sanctuary, blowing the altar to bits. After much search and digging among the debris the tabernacle was found, whole and entire; inside the ciborium,or sacred vessel containing the Blessed Sacrament, was standing upright, not even the cover having been knocked off and the Consecrated particles in perfect order, though the tabernacle must have been blown to the ceiling.