St. Joan of Arc

In the fall of 2010 when I was between jobs, I went to France on a self-styled pilgrimage to visit some of its Gothic cathedrals. Knowing of my desire to learn more about the history and iconography of the famous cathedral at Chartres, my wife, Mercedes, encouraged me to go despite my precarious employment status. Her argument went something like this: “If not now, when you have more time than money, then when?”  It didn’t take much convincing.

St. Ouen Abbey Church

1. St. Ouen Abbey Church, Rouen, France

Using money left over after refinancing our home for an improvement project, I happily set out for a two week sojourn in northern France with stops in Paris, Rouen, Amiens, Chartres, and Reims. I visited abbey churches (photo 1, above), cathedrals, and museums. I walked a lot, rode trains, and ate simple meals (fresh baguettes made every sandwich seem extraordinary). I enjoyed the slower pace and quiet, reflective, moments that enabled me to ponder a range of possible answers to a question that anyone who’s entering his 57th year, when it seems that time is running out, would be well-advised to ask: What’s waiting in the wings?

One of my answers to that question led indirectly to this blog. When I thought about what I’d like to do with the time that remains, I wrote in my journal that I’d like to be “Malcolm Miller’s protégé.” Malcolm Miller has been the resident English-speaking guide at Chartres Cathedral for decades. He knows the cathedral—its history, art, and meaning—like the back of his hand. He’s also very good at communicating it. I first saw Miller in action in 1991, and thought at the time that he has the ideal job; one that would get me out of bed every morning. I wanted to do what he does. So, with all this in mind, I decided to spend six days at Chartres just to hear Malcolm Miller talk about its wondrous cathedral (photo 2).

Malcolm Miller So Porch 2010

2. Malcolm Miller leading a tour in 2010, South Porch, Chartres Cathedral, Chartres, France

But on my fourth day in France, before I got to Chartres, something else caught my eye. I learned at a small museum in Rouen, 80 miles northwest of Paris, that Mark Twain was a big fan of St. Joan of Arc (Sainte Jeanne d’Arc in French).  The Joan of Arc Museum displayed a letter where Twain wrote that Joan was the “world’s supremest heroine.” It also had an early edition of the author’s last novel, Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, a fictional account of her life written from the perspective of a lifelong friend. Twain published it in 1896 when he was 61 years old. What’s more, I learned that he spent the better part of a decade researching background information for the book. I’d never heard of it, nor did I know that Twain considered it his finest literary achievement.

In retrospect, I now see that my brush with Mark Twain and Joan of Arc marked the start of a course correction. Did I really want to be Malcolm Miller’s protégé? I learned during my trip that protégé literally means “protected one.” I sensed that I didn’t need protection beneath an older man’s wings as much as I needed inspiration to lift my own, and for that I had cathedrals and churches all around me including a historic chapel dedicated to Joan of Arc in my hometown (photo 3).

MKE-Joan of Arc Chapel

3. Joan of Arc Chapel, Marquette University, Milwaukee, WI

Twain’s deep interest in Joan of Arc’s story helped to broaden my view, and incidentally validated my desire to delve into the stories and symbols one finds in sacred structures everywhere, and follow them where they lead deep into the rich soil of the spirit where the seeds of timeless ideals and enduring principles like love, courage, and self-sacrifice mysteriously start to grow. So, on the 586th anniversary of her death, I am happy to post this article as a tribute to Joan of Arc whose extraordinary life inspired a novel, films (love that Ingrid Bergman!), countless works of art, and my decision to stay put and write about what I’ve been so fortunate to see on my travels. As we revisit Joan’s story, I’ll illustrate it with photos I’ve taken in France, Quebec, and the United States.

Voices of Saints   Joan of Arc was born in the Champagne region of France in 1412 at roughly the three quarters mark of a drawn out conflict that historians would later call the Hundred Years War. The war stemmed from a dispute about who was the legitimate ruler of the Kingdom of France. Intermarriage among the royal families of England and France had led to competing claims over the French crown. When Joan was seven years old, the English and their Burgundian allies had the upper hand, occupying entire regions of France and major cities such as Rouen, Caen (photo 4), Reims and Paris.

Abbey Towers

4. Abbey of St. Etienne (Abbaye aux Hommes), Caen, France

It was a rough time for France. People had lost hope. One writer notes that many residents of Domremy, Joan’s village, were forced to leave their homes as the war threatened them.  The French peasantry suffered under English rule, perhaps none more than the small farmers whose crops and livestock were appropriated without compensation to feed the occupiers. Joan’s father was a tenant farmer, and her mother was a devout Catholic who, it is said, conveyed her deep love of the Church to her daughter. Artists sometimes portray Joan as a pious French farm girl, as in a window at the Cathedral of Notre Dame of Quebec (photo 5).

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5. Joan of Arc Window, Cathedral-Basilica of Notre Dame of Quebec, Quebec City, Canada

When she was 13 years old, Joan began to hear saints’ voices. She believed that Michael the archangel (photo 6), Catherine of Alexandria, and Margaret of Antioch wanted her to embark on a divine mission to deliver France from its English enemies and install Crown Prince Charles (i.e., the Dauphin), son of the deceased Valois King Charles VI, as the King of France. Consecrating herself to the cause, Joan took a vow of chastity and later refused an arranged marriage. In January 1429, without a formal education or military training, 17 year old Joan presented herself to the Dauphin and convinced him to place an army under her command to relieve the besieged city of Orleans.

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6. St. Michael the Archangel, Mont St. Michel Abbey, France

Before the army set out, someone asked about Joan’s sword. Where was it? She didn’t have one, yet. She replied that a sword would be found in a church a few miles from Charles’ encampment at Chinon, and so it was. The sword would later become Saint Joan’s acknowledged attribute, as we see in statuary commemorating her and other martyrs on the North Portal at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York (photo 7).

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7. St. Joan of Arc (3rd from Left); John Angel, Sculptor; St. John the Divine Episcopal Cathedral, New York, NY

The Maid of Orleans   Joan and her army arrived at Orleans on April 29, 1429. On May 4, she led a successful assault on one of the English forts. Joan led another attack on May 7 and was wounded. She persisted in battle and urged the French troops forward. By May 8, the English had abandoned the siege and were in retreat.  The lower panels in the Joan of Arc window at the Washington National Cathedral show Joan on her horse leading the French infantry in a charge against the English (photos 8 & 9, click to enlarge).

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8. Joan of Arc Window, Burnham Studios, 1941,Washington National Cathedral, Washington, DC

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9. Joan of Arc on Horseback, Joan of Arc Window, Washington National Cathedral

After breaking the siege at Orleans, Joan urged the Dauphin to proceed quickly to Reims where, for centuries, French kings were crowned in its cathedral (photo 10, below). Joan, who reportedly had uncommon common sense, understood the symbolic value of a traditional coronation ceremony for French morale. Charles hesitated at first, but after the French defeated an English army at Patay on June 18—as Joan promised they would—the Dauphin set out for Reims with Joan at his side. The coronation of Charles VII took place in Reims Cathedral on July 17, 1429. Joan was present at the ceremony and afterwards knelt before Charles to pronounce him her king, as depicted in the pedestal beneath the Joan of Arc statue at St. John the Divine (photo 11).

WNC-Jeanne d'Arc Pedestal

10. Sculpture with Reims Cathedral Facade, Fleurs de Lis, and Crown Symbolizing Charles VII’s Coronation; Washington National Cathedral, Washington, DC

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11. Pedestal with Joan of Arc Kneeling as Charles VII is Crowned King of France; John Angel, Sculptor; St. John the Divine Episcopal Cathedral, New York, NY

In the ensuing months, several towns north of Paris turned from the English side to the French. In early September, the French forces with Joan in the lead made an unsuccessful attempt to take Paris. She was wounded again and retired to the Abbey Church at St. Denis where she paid homage to one of France’s patron saints (photos 12 & 13). By this time Joan’s compatriots had begun to idolize her and Charles may have been wary of her growing power. Nevertheless, after the army disbanded in December for the winter, King Charles VII decreed that Joan and her family would become members of the nobility.

St. Denis Nave

12. Nave and Apse, Abbey Church of St. Denis, Suburban Paris, France

STD-Jean d'Arc was here

12. Joan of Arc Memorial, Abbey Church of St. Denis, Suburban Paris, France

Heretic, Hero, Saint   In spring 1430, the Burgundians captured Joan at Compiegne.  The Oxford Dictionary of Saints summarizes what happened next:  “The duke of Burgundy imprisoned her; Charles made no attempt to save her; the Burgundians sold her to the English, who attributed her success to witchcraft and spells.  She was imprisoned at Rouen and tried for heresy by the court of the bishop of Beauvais (a French cleric aligned with the English) who carefully chose her judges. She was examined repeatedly, but made a spirited and shrewd defense, single handed.”

La Tour Jeanne d'Arc

13. Joan of Arc’s Tower, Remnant of Bouvreuil Castle, Rouen, France

Joan spent a year in captivity, most of it under close guard in a drafty tower in Bouvreuil castle in Rouen (photo 13, above).  During her trial, the judges pressed her on the question of her submission to church authority, given that she claimed to communicate with saints directly. She did her best to avoid the trap, maintaining that she held herself answerable to God and the saints. She responded, “I am relying on our Lord, I hold to what I have already said.” When the judges threatened to torture her into submission, she declared that she would reply no differently even under threat of torture.  On May 23, 1491, the court convicted her of heresy and handed her over to the secular authorities for punishment. A week later, English executioners burned her to death in Rouen’s market square (photo 14). The record of Joan’s trial was a primary source for Mark Twain and his book.

Rouen Quoin

14. Street Scene near the Market Square where Joan of Arc was Burned; Rouen, France

In 1450, when King Charles VII entered Rouen after his army drove out the English forces, he ordered an inquiry into Joan’s trial. After a thorough investigation by a papal legate, the Pope revoked the findings of heresy against Joan. The French faithful were free to regard her as a national heroine and centuries later, in May 1920, Pope Benedict XV canonized her as a martyred saint.

Voices of Saints, Revisited   Did three saints really speak to Joan?  It seems to be the source of some controversy among skeptical theologians and psychologists. Let’s take a look at some evidence. It’s obvious that the voices Joan heard inspired her to take extraordinary risks and accomplish unprecedented feats for the love of God, king, and country. It’s also clear that many of her compatriots never doubted that she was a divine messenger, sent to restore their faith in themselves. A prophecy had been gaining traction among the French populace at the time of Joan’s birth, that a young virgin would deliver the country from its English oppressors. Joan, who vowed perpetual chastity at an early age, was thought to be that deliverer. Those who knew and fought beside her took heart in her example and encouragement, and they carried on bravely after she died. They sensed something transcendent about her.

But along with what we can see of her impact on others, I think it’s important to consider what the three saints might have meant to young Joan. To put it another way, what did they symbolize? It’s a key question because symbolism, says theologian Huston Smith, is the “technical language” of religion; of human correspondence with the divine.

When we look closely at the traditions involving Saints Michael, Catherine, and Margaret, we find some interesting connections between their stories and Joan. She embodied qualities associated with each of them. The Bible’s Book of Revelation describes St. Michael as the principal fighter against the forces of evil who was thought by the Church to lead the armies of God. He’s the patron saint of the military and is often depicted, as in photo 6 above, as a powerful warrior. Joan too, was a warrior and leader.

St. Catherine of Alexandria declared herself to be a “bride of Christ” and is one of the early church’s virgin saints. Legend has it that she turned down the emperor’s marriage proposal. He didn’t take kindly to being spurned so Roman authorities tortured her on a spiked wheel, ever after called a “Catherine wheel.” She survived the torture and was martyred by beheading, signified by the palm branch and red blade in a window at Albany’s Roman Catholic cathedral (photo 15, below). Joan too, refused marriage.


15. St. Catherine Window; Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Albany, NY

St. Margaret of Antioch also was a beautiful virgin who, according to legend, for the love of Christ refused a Roman official’s marriage proposal. As punishment, he had her put on the rack, beat with rods, and had her flesh raked with iron combs. She survived these horrible tortures and was thrown into her cell where a monstrous dragon suddenly appeared and began to swallow her whole. Margaret made the sign of the cross and the dragon disintegrated. The dragon lies at Margaret’s feet, likely symbolizing the evil of her oppressor, in a 19th century stained glass window at the cathedral in Albany, NY (photo 16). Joan too, withstood oppression.

ALB-Margaret of Antioch

16. St. Margaret Window; Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception; Albany, NY

A fascinating window at St. Roch’s church in Quebec City pulls it all together through the symbolic use of flowers (photo 17). It depicts Joan with her emblematic sword standing  in a garden with a cathedral in the background. Flowers associated with three saintly virtues appear in the composition. The lilies stand for innocence and purity; roses symbolize self-sacrifice; and irises, sometimes called sword lilies, signify divine messengers. The fleurs de lis on her skirt signify devotion to France. I’m inclined to think that Mark Twain, who wrote that Joan “was unfailingly true in an age that was false to the core,” would have liked the window as much as I do.

STR-Jeanne d'Arc

17. Ste. Jeanne d’Arc Window; St. Roch Church, Quebec City, Canada

Copyright 2017 by Michael Klug,, May 30, 2017

Sacred Symbols: My Roots

Sometime in the summer of 1990, Mercedes, my wife, and I visited Philadelphia. We lived in Washington, DC at the time, making Philadelphia an easy weekend getaway. The Philadelphia Museum of Art with its famous “Rocky steps,” immortalized in the 1976 film Rocky starring Sylvester Stallone, was on our list of sights to see. The museum’s extensive collections impressed me, but the thing I remember most is a thought that crossed my mind when I saw four marble plaques bearing the images of four winged creatures,  including a flying bull (photo 1). Accompanying placards identified the images as symbols for Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, the evangelists who authored the four gospels. I remarked to Mercedes, “I’ve seen these symbols my whole life long, and never knew what they meant.” My lack of awareness and curiosity bugged me.

PMA-St. Luke Plaque

1. Symbol of St. Luke, northern Italy ca. 1250, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA

Growing up, I spent a lot of time in churches, most of it in a back pew at St. Martini church where small Christian symbols discretely surrounded me. St. Martini is a Missouri Synod Lutheran church built by German immigrants in 1887.  The building, designed by local architect Herman Schnetzky, is typical of late 19th century Gothic revival structures in Milwaukee with its brick façade, lancet windows, and lofty spire (photo 2). Mr. Schnetzky undoubtedly drew inspiration from the soaring pointed arches and windows that first appeared in Europe’s abbeys and cathedrals around 1150. In doing so, he created a simple, yet elegant, sacred space for St. Martini’s working class congregation. I was baptized at St. Martini in 1954 and confirmed there on Palm Sunday 1968.

St. Martini Church

2. St. Martini Lutheran Church, Milwaukee, WI

StM-Ark of Covenant & Bronze Serpent

3. Ark of the Covenant (left) and Bronze Serpent (right) which alludes to the story of miraculous healing in the book of Numbers: 21:4-9. St. Martini Church, Milwaukee, WI

During Sunday morning services, sitting with my mom and dad, I had plenty of time to ponder the symbols embedded in St. Martini’s modest stained glass windows. I knew they were there, but honestly, I mostly ignored them. Every week, for example, I saw the image of a snake hanging from a T-shaped cross and never asked myself, “What does that mean (photo 3, above)?” But a week ago last Saturday, I returned to St. Martini for the first time in more than 20 years to attend a special “Return to Your Roots” service and to look more closely at the windows that prompted my embarrassed admission to Merce at the Philadelphia museum. So after the service, I turned my camera with its telephoto lens to an oculus high above one of St. Martini’s doorways. I clearly saw for the first time the attributes of three apostles, a chalice, and the black silhouette of St. George’s dragon (photo 4).


4. Oculus with Chalice and Four Saint Attributes, St. Martini Church, Milwaukee, WI

StM-Babel & Dove

5. The Tower of Babel (left) and Noah’s Dove (right), St. Martini Church, Milwaukee, WI

It’s easy to overlook the symbols in St. Martini’s stained glass. Set in large sheets of opaque glass, they seem understated. (photo 5, above). But it’s a mistake to ignore them. Each contains a tiny cache of meaning that links viewers to stories and ideas that comprise a faith tradition with roots in Christianity’s distant past and the more recent Protestant Reformation which celebrates its 500th anniversary this year. When I looked closely at St. Martini’s symbolic windows, I was delighted to see that they quietly, and with great economy, allude to some of the same themes that one finds in the stained glass and sculpture of the great cathedrals. But in today’s post, we’ll focus on just one theme: St. George, the dragon, and evil.

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6. St. George’s Dragon Attribute, St. Martini Lutheran Church, Milwaukee, WI

Why St. George?   To say that the presence in a Lutheran parish church of a stained glass window honoring St. George intrigued me would be an understatement (photo 6, above).  It flat out mystified me. That’s because the only saints one usually sees in the stained glass of Missouri Synod churches are those with a biblical pedigree. It’s common to see the four evangelists, the twelve apostles, and St. Paul. But I never expected to see St. George, in large part because his legend very likely derives from a myth with origins in ancient Phoenicia or Greece (photo 7). So, if St. George isn’t in the Bible, what is his dragon doing at St. Martini?

BrM-Bellerophon& Chimaera

7. Bellerophon Killing the Fire Breathing Chimaera, Apulia ca. 300, BCE; British Museum, London

The Martyr and the Legend   St. George of Cappodocia, historians are reasonably sure, was a soldier and Christian martyr who died in 303, C. E. during a purge of Christians who served in the Roman army. Beyond that, we don’t know much about him. At some point, an enduring story of combat with an evil dragon attached to St. George. We can thank Jacob of Voragine for perpetuating it. His Golden Legend, written in the 1250’s, tells how George saved a young princess from a sacrificial death in the clutches of a pestilential dragon. The beast lived in a lake near the city of Silena in the Roman province of Libya and “would venture right up to the city walls and asphyxiate everyone with its noxious breath.” Silena’s citizens temporarily mollified the dragon with the daily sacrifice of two sheep. But they soon ran out of sheep and then started to sacrifice the city’s youth. Finally, the king’s only daughter was the last youngster remaining.

St. George & Dragon

8. St. George and the Dragon, oil painting by Sodoma around 1518, in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

George enters the story on horseback as the distraught maiden stands at the lakeside, weeping (photo 8, above). The hungry dragon soon appears and George springs into action. He thrusts his lance into the dragon’s side and throws the wounded creature to the ground. The Golden Legend notes that the subdued dragon followed the princess through the city’s streets “like a puppy.” But when people saw it, they began to head for the hills. George calmed the panicked citizenry, saying, “Do not be afraid. The Lord has sent me to free you from the tyranny of the dragon.” He vowed to kill the dragon if everyone agreed to be baptized. They were baptized, and the dragon met its end.

Early Christians venerated St. George as a Christian martyr who died at the hands of the brutal Emperor Diocletian. But the saint’s popularity as the personification of chivalrous knighthood boomed in medieval England and elsewhere during the crusades to the Holy Land. It started for England when a vision of St. George appeared to someone before a battle in 1098 that ended the siege of Antioch in the crusaders’ favor, during the first crusade.  About a century later, King Richard I (the Lion Heart) placed himself and his army under George’s protection during the third crusade. By the early 1400’s, George was England’s official patron saint. St. George’s historic association with England is signified today by the red crusader’s cross superimposed on the United Kingdom’s “Union Jack” flag, along with St. Andrew’s X-shaped cross representing Scotland.

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9. Great East Window, Gloucester Cathedral, Gloucester, England

St. George in Art  As St. George’s cult grew, churches throughout Europe were dedicated to him and artists increasingly depicted his legend in a variety of media, including sculpture, stained glass, and liturgical art. In England, St. George stands with a host of saints in the Great East Window, installed at Gloucester Cathedral in the 1350’s (photo 9, above). An anonymous stained glass artist depicted the saint as a medieval knight wearing full body armor with his lance and sword in hand. St. George’s cross is emblazoned in red on his breastplate and shield (photo 10).

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10. St. George (2nd from left) in the Great East Window, Gloucester Cathedral, Gloucester, England

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11. St. George (left) and St. Christopher (right), Holy Thorn Reliquary, France ca. 1300, British Museum, London

Around the same time, a talented French goldsmith crafted a scene of St. George vanquishing the dragon on the reverse side of a fascinating artifact called the Holy Thorn Reliquary (photo 11, above). The vessel’s facing side displays a single thorn that came from the reputed crown of thorns or Holy Crown (photos 12), a relic of Jesus’ crucifixion, brought to France by King Louis IX around 1240. Look for the thorn at the center of the elaborate scene depicting the Biblical judgment day, where the dead rise from their graves, below, and Christ sits with the thorn surrounded by the apostles in heaven. The Holy Thorn Reliquary was likely used in private devotion by the Duke of Berry and his close relatives in their family chapel. The rare piece is among the British Museum’s most prized treasures from the medieval period.

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12. Holy Thorn Reliquary, British Museum, London

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13. Sant Jordi and the Dragon, Barcelona Cathedral, Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain

St. George also appears frequently in the sculpture and decorative arts of Catalonia where he’s the country’s patron saint and is named, in Catalan, Sant Jordi. A sculpture in the 15th century cloister at Barcelona’s Cathedral is illustrative. It shows St. Jordi wearing chain mail as he whacks the dragon with a sword. He holds a shield bearing St. George’s cross in his left hand (photo 13, above). Note the row of sculpted roses above the battle scene. The flowers signify a Catalonian tradition in which men present roses to their lady loves on April 23, St. Jordi’s feast day. Capitals in the medieval cloister at Vic Cathedral, about 40 miles north of Barcelona, charmingly honor this long-standing gifting custom with a sculpted rose bed (photo 14).


14. Rose Capitals, Vic Cathedral, Vic, Catalonia, Spain

George and Martin   St. George is regarded as the patron saint of Portugal, Ethiopia, Georgia, and many other nations. He’s the patron saint of soldiers, archers, armorers and, oddly enough, farmers due to the original Greek meaning for his name. But he’s not the patron saint of the region in Germany where the Missouri Synod Lutherans originated, nor is he Martin Luther’s patron. Another Christian soldier, St. Martin of Tours, holds that distinction. So, what’s the connection between St. George and a Lutheran church on Milwaukee’s south side?

I think it is about Martin Luther, a seminal figure in the Protestant Reformation who lived from 1483 to 1546 and for whom Lutherans are named. Between 1498 and 1501, young Martin attended St. George’s Latin School in the town of Eisenach. I assume that St. George was Eisenach’s patron saint because he appears in knightly attire on the city’s coat of arms.  But that’s not all. In 1521, Luther returned to Eisenach following his excommunication from the Roman Catholic Church. He stayed in nearby Wartburg Castle for the better part a year to escape a death sentence. Safe in the castle, Luther translated the New Testament from Greek into German and was inspired to write the great hymn of the reformation, A Mighty Fortress is Our God. Thus, his time in Eisenach was culturally and spiritually significant for Luther’s followers and Germany.

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15. Organ and Choir Loft, St. Martini Lutheran Church, Milwaukee, WI

But could there be even more to the St. George window at St. Martini than meets the eye? There’s no doubt that symbols evolve and acquire new and multiple meanings. Did the artist who designed the window or the churchmen who commissioned it see Martin Luther as something of a latter day St. George? After all, Luther jousted long and hard with Rome over the sale of indulgences and ultimately rid Germany of the evil he perceived in the noxious idea that a person can buy his or her way into heaven. We may never know the answers to those questions. But we can be sure of one thing. St. George belongs at St. Martini, where his roots run deep.

Copyright 2017 by Michael J. Klug,, 05/23/17