What makes Sainte-Mère-Église, a French town in northwest Normandy, so special?

The town has a rich history stretching back near a thousand years. Sainte-Mère-Église was founded sometime in the later 11th century, the earliest documents dated 1080-1082 AD including the name Sancte Marie Ecclesia, Latin meaning Church of Saint Mary. A later document, written 1317 in Norman-French includes the name Saincte Mariglise.

The Sainte-Mère-Église Church shares similarly ancient history, with its construction beginning in the 11th century with the founding of the town. The church began in the Romanesque style, and by the 14th century was completed in the Gothic style, topped by a saddleback bell.

However, the true claim to fame for the town is that it was one of the first to be liberated on June 6th, 1944 – D-Day, which also happens to be the reason the church has a stone paratrooper hanging from it.

On D-Day, around 30 paratroopers dropped into Sainte-Mère-Église, including 20 in the church square. A house in the town happened to catch fire that night, illuminating the night sky and making the incoming troops easy targets.

One of those targets was an American, John Steele, who was hit by shrapnel and lost the use of his leg mid drop, eventually landing on the church steeple and getting stuck. He spent two and a half hours hanging while he watched firefight rage on beneath him.

The first wave of Allied forces were repelled by the Germans there, and Steele was cut down and taken prisoner. However, three days later he escaped and recovered at a hospital in England before rejoining the war effort.

To commemorate Steele and the liberation of the town, a paratrooper effigy was built shortly after the war that remains today on the church steeple. Steele would later return to attend commemorations of the 1944 Allied landings and see the unveiling of the paratrooper effigy.

Watch an aerial drone flyover of the church below:

Editorial credit: Cynthia Liang / Shutterstock.com
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