In August 1945, a postal carrier delivered a letter from Lt. J.P Dixon, a G.I. stationed in France in the months after the war in Europe had ended, to St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church in Oak Park.
The brief letter was addressed to Rev. Hedley Heber Cooper, who was at one time the priest-in-charge of the church and whom the soldier hoped still resided there. Dixon wrote that a French woman had shown him a silver communion set – a small chalice, communion plate and two containers for water and wine — inscribed with the following:
“Rev. Hedley H. Cooper, St. Christopher’s Church, Oak Park, Illinois, April 22, 1917.”
The letter also stated that the communion set reportedly had been found “on the Verdun battlefield in 1918.”
Lt. Dixon might have guessed, correctly, that Cooper had been among the American troops stationed in the vicinity of Verdun that year. No doubt, Dixon surmised, the communion set was mislaid during the chaos of trench warfare in that part of Lorraine.
Dixon wrote Cooper to announce he’d found his long-lost communion set and that it “undoubtedly would make an interesting story.”
According to a biographical sketch written in 2000 by Francis A. Brennan, a relative, Hedley Heber Cooper was born in Adrian, Michigan on Jan. 25, 1886, which would have made him 31 years old when he received the communion set. It was given to him as a going-away present.
Cooper had been ordained a priest in June 1914 and was immediately assigned to St. Christopher’s on East Avenue in Oak Park. It must have been a comfortable assignment for him.
He was close to his family’s home in Riverside, where his father, the Rev. Robert O. Cooper, had been rector of St. Paul Episcopal Church since 1908.
Hedley’s eyesight was poor, and he wore the same Pince-nez-style glasses favored by his father, though he eschewed his dad’s bushy mustache, which made Robert look a little like Teddy Roosevelt.
It took a while for Hedley to become ordained. He attended the University of Chicago, where he was a member of the Sigma Chi fraternity, and according to a 1918 item in a publication called The Diocese of Chicago, he also attended Northwestern.
Cooper attended the General Theological Seminary in New York City from 1909 to 1911, but he didn’t graduate, according to Brennan. While there, Cooper “applied to be a candidate for Holy Orders in the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago” and in November 1911 transferred his application to the New York Diocese.
Two years later, Cooper was still in New York, anxiously awaiting ordination as a deacon, a step apparently necessary to clear the way for his ordination. It would be another year, in June 1914, before 28-year-old Hedley Cooper would be ordained a priest at St. John the Divine in New York City.
He was sent to his first assignment as a priest to St. Christopher’s in Oak Park, where he apparently made quite an impression. According to a parish history on the St. Christopher’s website, Father Cooper instituted the tradition of transforming the black cross of Good Friday into a floral cross on Easter.
On April 22, 1917, Cooper was bidding farewell to his parishioners in Oak Park to volunteer in the Armed Forces. When World War I broke out in Europe in 1914, Cooper reportedly was “a most ardent pacifist,” but that changed in May 1915 after a German submarine torpedoed the ocean liner Lusitania, killing 1,200.
The United States had declared war against Germany on April 2, 1917, and Hedley was determined to play a part.
Cooper went to New York to volunteer in the U.S. Army as a chaplain, but he failed the physical because of his poor eyesight, according to “71st New York in the World War,” a history of that New York National Guard regiment written by its regimental treasurer Robert S. Sutliffe and published in 1922.
Turned down by the regular army, Cooper learned that the 71st New York National Guard had an opening for a chaplain. Colonel J. Hollis Wells, the commander of the outfit, liked what he saw in Cooper, who was described as “militant, active and vigorous, but with a knowledge of men and their ways, their strength and their weaknesses.”
Cooper was also “young, handsome and filled with the spirit of the Crusaders,” according to the regiment’s historian, who added the 71st New York “discovered” Cooper at a recruiting meeting, “pouring out his heart and soul to a noonday crowd to enlist them for the repression of the Hun.”
In November 1917, Cooper was appointed chaplain, given the rank of captain and “gloried in the 71st uniform,” according to the unit history.
While serving with the 71st, Cooper also served as rector of Christ Church in Sparkill, a village not too far from New York City.
He replaced the church’s previous rector, the Rev. Henry P. Seymour, who shipped off to France as a field secretary with the YMCA, whose volunteers often served in support roles to front-line troops.
But a uniform and a commission in a National Guard unit wasn’t getting Cooper any closer to France.
So, he followed in the footsteps of his predecessor at Christ Church and joined the YMCA as a field secretary. He hoped to be assigned to a unit at the front lines.
“I may get mine early in the game, but if I do, I die happy,” Cooper was reported to have said in a letter after taking leave of his comrades in the 71st New York. “Here’s to all. Good night and God bless you.”
On Feb. 8, 1918, according to Brennan, Cooper was on a ship bound for France.
Cooper found himself attached to the 42nd Division – the Rainbow Division, so designated by one of its commanders, Col. Douglas MacArthur, because its soldiers were drawn from so many places in the United States.
In February, the 42nd Division was sent into the front line in Lorraine and the 168th Regiment was deployed near the town of Baccarat, about 95 miles southeast of Verdun. The regiment’s headquarters were in Baccarat itself, while the front line troops were in trenches near Badonviller, about 10 miles east.
While the German Army launched a massive offensive that spring along the Somme front far to the northwest, things were quieter in the Baccarat sector. It’s unclear exactly when Cooper joined the 42nd Division, but he was with the 168th Regiment by May.
At some point during his time in France, it’s not clear where, Cooper salvaged from a battlefield a metal sculpture of the crucified Christ, about three-feet tall and missing its hands.
His relative, Brennan, wrote that he was told by Father Thomas Fraser, who retired last year as rector of St. Paul Church in Riverside, that Cooper had sent the figure to his parents as a war souvenir.
The figure subsequently was mounted on a cross and is still displayed on a wall in the Guild Hall at St. Paul Church.
According to W.E. Robb, who served as the chaplain for the 168th Regiment and wrote the book “The Price of Our Heritage” in 1919, Cooper joined the regiment in late May. He and another YMCA volunteer, Halliday Smith, ran YMCA canteens for the troops in front-line trench dug-outs.
Just before 1 a.m. on May 27, 2018, all hell broke loose, according to “The Story of the 168th Infantry,” written by John H. Taber and published by the State Historical Society of Iowa in 1925.
Along a half-mile line facing the 168th Regiment’s position northeast of Badonviller, the Germans attacked, using an electrical charge to simultaneously launch about 600 shells each containing about two gallons of liquid phosgene from high-angled tubes similar to mortars.
The liquid phosgene “vaporized into heavy gas” when they detonated on impact. The soldiers of the 168th, most of them asleep, were unprepared.
“In a moment half the battalion area was suddenly drenched with the concentrated fumes of phosgene gas, one whiff of which is enough to kill,” Taber wrote.
The Germans followed the gas attack with an artillery barrage.
“The [gas shell] projectors had been ranged with diabolical accuracy, and now came shrapnel and high explosive to paralyze them from reaching the open air and safety,” Taber wrote.
As the shells fell and the gas spread, according to Chaplain Robb, both Cooper and Smith went forward to help care for the wounded.
According to Taber in his history of the 168th Infantry, Cooper and Smith “thought not of themselves but of the struggling, agonized men about them, and rendered the most valuable assistance, working until they fell from exhaustion.”
It’s not clear whether Cooper himself died from inhaling poison gas or was killed by artillery fire.
Chaplain Robb wrote that when the attack started “Cooper donned his gas mask and went out to see what he could do to help.” A sergeant “let him pilot a detail of ammunition down to the front line and while doing so was killed.”
In writing about Smith’s death, however, Robb stated that the two YMCA men were aiding the wounded when “a gas shell burst near them and they did not realize its deadly nature until a breath had been taken. Smith was immediately overcome.”
Taber, the 168th Regiment’s historian, wrote that both Cooper and Smith died while being transported by ambulance to the rear.
Robb said the regiment suffered more than 400 casualties, including 47 dead, in the May 27 gas attack. In July 2018, the Episcopalian publication “The Diocese of Chicago” reported that Cooper was “the first American clergyman to fall in the war.”
Burials of the dead from the gas attack commenced the following day. Cooper was laid to rest among the 42nd Division troops at the French Military Cemetery in Baccarat.
A U.S. Army Signal Corps movie documenting the 42nd Division’s time near Baccarat contains footage of a sergeant scattering chloride of lime in a shell hole on May 28 to counteract the effects of any remaining phosgene gas residue.
The movie also includes several scenes involving the May 28 funeral procession and the burial of those killed in the May 27 attack, including soldiers firing a 21-gun salute over the flag-draped wooden coffins placed on the ground in front of them.
Remarkably enough, there are also about 18 seconds of footage filmed showing Mr. M.P. McNaughten, chief of the YMCA, and Mrs. F.A. Rutherford placing flowers on the graves of Cooper and Smith. The scene is listed and described in a Signal Corps record of the film in the National Archives. Cooper’s grave appears to be the one on the left.
The document dates the footage to June 1, 1918, but it’s more likely that it was shot May 30, on Decoration Day, when top commanders of the 42nd Division and townspeople were filmed decorating the graves of the division’s dead. Among those laying flowers on the graves is Col. Douglas MacArthur, the 42nd Division’s chief of staff.
Cooper’s body remained in France until 1921 when, at his father’s request a year earlier, the U.S War Department disinterred Cooper’s body and shipped it to Christ Church in Sparkill, where he’d briefly served as rector.
According to Brennan, Christ Church records indicate that Cooper was buried in Rockland Cemetery “overlooking the church he loved and within the sound of the bell” on July 29, 1921.
“The Living Church,” an Episcopalian publication reported in its Aug. 20, 1921 edition that the Rev. Raymond Brown, chaplain of the 71st New York Regiment, gave the eulogy. Present at the ceremony were Cooper’s parents and siblings, as well as many friends from Cooper’s former parish in Oak Park.
Christ Church parishioners placed a stained-glass window memorializing Cooper and his predecessor and fellow YMCA secretary, Rev. Henry P. Seymour, in the church after the war.
The church had lost two successive rectors in France. Seymour, who had shipped out with the YMCA in September 1917, died Oct. 24, 1918 in a Paris hospital after being injured in a fall while serving with the 1st Division.
On May 30, 1921, two months before Cooper’s burial in New York, Riverside residents turned out in Guthrie Park to witness the dedication of a new war memorial, consisting of four boulders, each bearing a bronze plaque – three of them emblazoned with the names of three Riversiders who lost their lives while serving the nation during the Great War.
One of the plaques reads “In Memory of Reverend Hedley Heber Cooper, Chaplain, Killed on the Battle Front in France. May 26th, 1918.”
The date of Cooper’s death was, at the time, often reported to have been on May 26. It’s the same date that appears on his headstone in Rockland Cemetery and on a stained-glass window placed in the sanctuary of St. Paul Church in his memory. But official unit histories of the 168th Regiment are clear that he died in the May 27 gas attack.
Cooper’s name also can be found on war memorials in Scoville Park in Oak Park and at the University of Chicago. The 71st New York Regiment, whose historian called Cooper “the great heroic figure” of the unit, erected a bronze tablet in Cooper’s memory at its monumental regimental armory at 34th Street and Park Avenue in New York City, according to Brennan. The armory was demolished in 1971.
The Rev. Charles Street, who was rector of St. Christopher’s Church in Oak Park in 1945, is reported to have replied to Lt. Dixon’s letter about Cooper’s communion set. And, parish legend has it that the items recovered from the World War I battlefield made their way back to Oak Park.
Brennan wrote that a 1950 inventory of the St. Christopher’s sacristy included mention of “at least one or possibly two” communion sets. But, whether either belonged to Cooper wasn’t mentioned in the inventory.
In any event, according to the church’s history, the communion set was believed to have been among the silver items stolen from the church sacristy during a burglary in the 1970s.
Special thanks to Stephen Mitchell, the historian of Christ Church in Sparkill, New York, who generously shared Francis Brennan’s biographical sketch of Hedley Cooper, which was an indispensable source for this piece.