Cross gifted to war hero on display at Paris Kirk
Published on 30 March, 2019
A large wooden cross gifted to a war hero minister has been rehung in his former church after languishing in a cellar for nearly 20 years.
It was presented to Rev Dr Donald Caskie, who helped save more than 2,000 allied service personnel during the Second World War, by George Watson’s College in Edinburgh.
Known as the Tartan Pimpernel, he played a key role in looking after the welfare of pupils taking part in an exchange programme at Lycee Henri IV in Paris in the 1950s.
The school was so impressed with the kindness of the “charismatic” minister who led the Scots Kirk in the French capital that it decided to give him a gift as a token of their appreciation.
He chose the 8ftx5ft Christian symbol.
Pupils raised money to buy what was known as the “Watson’s Cross” in 1959 through a collection whereby each boy donated “thrupence” (three pennies).
It hung behind the chancel in the Scots Kirk for around 40 years until the building was torn down and it was put into storage.
The church was rebuilt in 2002 but the cross remained tucked away in a cellar and largely forgotten about until a former pupil questioned its whereabouts.
Edinburgh born Andrew Brown, who was a Watson’s pupil from 1952-63 and raised money for its purchase, felt it should be on prominent public display.
He led discussions with the school, St Andrew’s Church in Brussels and the Scots Kirk - both congregations are international in flavour with members from across the world - which led to a decision to keep the cross in Paris.
It now has pride of place above a stairwell which leads to the sanctuary and a re-dedication service is being held on Sunday, April 7 at 11am.
Rev Jan Steyn, who has been the minister at the Scots Kirk on Rue Bayard since 2017, said he was “delighted” that the handsome icon is now back on public display.
“The cross was donated to the Scots Kirk during the time of Donald Caskie and it is part of the congregation’s beautiful story,” he added.
“For 20 years it was stacked away in the church's cellar after the existing church was built.
“Our friend Andrew Brown, a member of the St Andrew’s Church in Brussels, made us aware of the cross again and we were inspired to put it up.
“It tells the story of ‘paying it forward’ - giving something small which unknowingly influences the future.
“It reminds us of our Christian roots and belief and is something of an anchor and a compass.”
Dr Caskie, who grew up on Islay in the Inner Hebrides, was the minister at the Scots Kirk between 1938-40 and 1945-1961.
The annual exchange programme that George Watson’s College had with Lycée Henri IV – the alma mater of French President Emmanuel Macron – started in 1947.
It was aimed at rebuilding relationships between European countries, particularly among young people, in the aftermath of the Second World War and lasted for more than 50 years.
A permanent exhibition dedicated to Dr Caskie will also be officially opened on April 7.
It features photographs, documents and some of his personal possessions including his Gaelic Bible, which was gifted to the church by the minister’s nephew Tom Caskie.
Some of his relatives are expected to attend the service along with Melvyn Roffe, principal of George Watson’s College and representatives of the Watsonian Clubs of Paris and Brussels and Lycee Henri IV.
Mr Roffe said he is very pleased to have been invited to the service with his wife Katherine because the cross highlighted the enduring, international nature of the school.
“It represents a really good link with the generations of Watsonians who were involved in the exchange programme immediately after the war,” he said.
“It was a formative part of their lives and education experience.
“Clearly the Watson's boys who took part in the exchange programme that we then had with Lycee Henri IV were much impressed by the charismatic minister of the Scots Kirk who helped to look after their welfare whilst they were in Paris.
“Their donation came at the time of the rebuilding of the Kirk.”
Mr Steyn said he was pleased that the cross had brought the congregation, the school and Dr Caskie’s family together.
“We hope and believe that it will be a beacon to future generations,” added the minister.
Mr Brown , who used to live in Paris and was baptised at the Scots Kirk, said the cross carries important memories.
“The life and work of Donald Caskie, the former Kirk building, the pupil exchange programme between George Watson’s College, Edinburgh and the Lycée Henri IV as well as the long forgotten “threepenny” bit,” he added.
“I am delighted with the outcome”.
Dr Caskie denounced the Nazis from his pulpit and when the Germans invaded Paris in 1940 he had to flee the city.
While in southern France, he refused the chance of safe passage on the last ship bound for the UK and fled to Marseille instead.
There he ran a Seaman's Mission, living a double life and passing the close scrutiny of the Vichy Police, and helped British and Allied soldiers to freedom across mountains into Spain.
He was eventually recruited by British Intelligence officers and was told that his mission was the last link of a chain of safe houses that they had set up, which stretched from the beaches of Dunkirk in northern France to Marseille in the south.
With nothing to trust but God and his instincts, the crofter's son operated in the Seaman's Mission for many months until he was betrayed by a traitor.
Dr Caskie was eventually arrested by the Vichy Police, interrogated and banished from Marseille.
He moved to Grenoble where he continued to arrange for the escape of soldiers, seamen and airmen under the cover of being a university chaplain.
Dr Caskie was finally imprisoned by the Gestapo and sentenced to death.
The minister, who was given his nickname by the BBC, had ignored repeated calls from British Intelligence and the Church of Scotland to return home.
His life was only saved through the intervention of a German pastor and he spent the rest of the war in a Prisoner of War camp.
The proceeds of the book penned by Edinburgh University graduate Dr Caskie, whose first charge was Gretna St Andrew's Church, helped rebuild the Scots Kirk after the war.
Dr Caskie retired and after his death in 1983 at the age of 81 he was laid to rest in the family grave at Bowmore on Islay.
His medals are on display at nearby Kilarrow Parish Church.