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Wartime icon returned to Russia after protecting sailors on Arctic convoys

Wartime icon returned to Russia after protecting sailors on Arctic convoys
21 June 2018
A religious icon has been returned to worshippers in Russia – 76 years after they gave it to a British sailor to protect his ship on the fearful Arctic convoys.

The small framed portrait of Jesus was presented to junior officer Lieutenant William Painter as a thank-you by the Roman Catholic community of Murmansk in the summer of 1942.

Lt Painter is believed to have been a survivor of the ravaged convoy PQ17, which was mauled by German aircraft and U-boats on its passage to the north Russian port in July 1942.

More than 60 ships set out to deliver aid to Murmansk, but two dozen merchant ships were sunk – the darkest hour in Allied assistance to the Soviet Union.

Scarred by the ordeal Lt Painter, a devout Catholic, sought out the local Catholic Church to give thanks for his survival.

Over tea, cake and many stories, the church members expressed their delight and surprise that so much effort had been taken to return this important symbol of the friendship between the British and Russian people

Captain Chris Connolly RN, Defence Attaché to Moscow

He succeeded, despite the fact that he spoke no Russian, there was no church building in Murmansk at that time – religion was severely repressed under Stalin – and the Catholic congregation met, largely in secret, in apartments and other small meeting places.

When the officer saw the dreadful state in which they were barely surviving, suffering from constant air attacks and threatened starvation, he arranged for a significant proportion of his ship’s food supplies to be handed over to his new friends, leaving only the minimum on board for the journey home.

In gratitude, they presented him with an icon of Jesus to protect him on his return to the UK. It did – and continued to safeguard him for the rest of the war.

Many years later, after being in the hands of the family and a convent, it was bought from a Kent antique shop by Phyllis Barton.

Having read the paperwork that came with the icon, Mrs Barton was determined that it should be returned to its original owners and enlisted the help of former Royal Naval Attachés to Moscow and ex RN Russian interpreters who helped piece together the remarkable story.

Finally it fell to Britain’s Defence Attaché to Moscow, Captain Chris Connolly RN, to hand over the artifact to Murmansk’s Roman Catholic community.

They no longer meet in secret but worship at Murmansk’s Holy Michael the Archangel Catholic Church, where Father Alejandro Carbajo and members of his congregation gladly received the relic.

“Over tea, cake and many stories, the church members expressed their delight and surprise that so much effort had been taken to return this important symbol of the friendship between the British and Russian people,” said Capt Connolly.

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