Victory in Japan Day - Wymondham’s unique memorial church
- Credit: Archant
An international memorial for all who suffered in brutal prison camps is also a Norfolk church
Wymondham holds a special place in the hearts of many of those who suffered so terribly as prisoners of the Japanese during the Second World War, and of the families of people who perished in the camps or afterwards.
Malcom Cowin endured three and half years in Japanese Prisoner of War camps as a Roman Catholic chaplain. During that time he helped build chapels in three camps (and also had to dig many graves) and vowed that if he made it back to Britain he would build a church here in memory of all who had died in the POW, internment and slave labour camps.
Liberated in 1945 he arrived home to learn that he was to be sent to a new parish. He arrived in Wymondham on the last day of the year and soon launched an international appeal to fund a church which would also be a living memorial. Money came in from around the world and the new Roman Catholic church of Our Lady and St Thomas of Canterbury was completed in 1952.
It is the only church in the world to have been built as an international memorial as well as a parish church, dedicated to the memory of Far East Prisoners of War (FEPOW) and civilian internees of all faiths and nationalities.
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Handwritten books and an online archive hold the names of the thousands who died in horrific conditions in the Far East, and the thousands more who suffered unimaginably, but survived and have since died. The memorial also includes a piece of the Burma railway which cost so many lives.
Many East Anglian men were sent to fight Japan, meaning that East Anglian families were particularly badly hit by the cruelty of the camps. For some, the memorial and archives in Wymondham give an insight into the lives of husbands, brothers, fathers and grandfathers who, even if they returned home, could not or would not talk about what they had suffered.
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On the 75th anniversary of VJ Day on Saturday August 15 informal wreath-laying ceremonies will be held in the Wymondham town centre and then in the church. There is usually an annual FEPOW service in the church every May. This year’s event had to be cancelled due to coronavirus but people can visit the memorial by appointment.
The people remembered in Wymondham include members of the British Army, Navy and Air Force, Merchant Navy and Commonwealth forces, plus civilians interned, starved, beaten and enslaved in one of the more than 600 camps across Japan and countries including Thailand, Burma, Sumatra and Indonesia.
Church archivist Peter Wiseman moved to Wymondham after retiring from the RAF and was intrigued by the story of the memorial church. He has written a booklet on its history and looks after the three volumes of memorial books and other FEPOW information and artefacts. “Father Malcolm Cowin wanted a living memorial rather than a barren piece of stone,” said Peter. “While he was a prisoner he vowed that if he got through the captivity he would build a church memorial for the men who had died.”
Designed by local church architect Donvan Purcell it is also a Roman Catholic parish church serving the people of the Wymondham, Attleborough, Hingham and the surrounding area. It is notable, as well as for its unique status as a memorial church, for the fine series of pictures of saints behind the altar, commissioned by Father Malcolm and painted in the arts and crafts style.