John Brent Mills, after his escape from Campo PG 54 and his eventual return to South Africa, spent a year as Personnel Officer at a gold mine, before joining the diplomatic service and had the great pleasure of ending his career as South African Ambassador in Italy. During the 1970's John organised for a stained glass window to be installed in the Monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie near Fara Sabina to thank the Italians who helped escaped South African prisoners of war.
The following is an extract from John's book 'Gap in the Wire', with kind permission of his wife, Pamela Brent Mills.
Many heroic acts by the Italians came to my knowledge only long after the war. It became apparent that our own experiences were not unique, and that South Africa really had not sufficiently recognised what had been done for her people during those stirring days. Was there anything that could be done at this late stage? Obviously nothing in the nature of a financial reward - which many of them would in any case indignantly refuse. Something symbolic ?
It was when I was in Pretoria on leave and visited a friend, Leo Theron, the well-known designer and maker of stained glass windows, that the idea occurred to me of putting a window in the Franciscan Sanctuary of Santa Maria delle Grazie, near Ponticelli, not far from Rome. I knew from my own experience that the monks that monastery had been a life-line for many of our people when German search parties were looking for them. I also knew that the monastery would shortly he celebrating its six-hundredth anniversary.
And so it was that I asked Leo whether he would he interest in designing and making a window representing St Francis, to be installed in the chapel of the Sanctuary on the date of its anniversary - 13th May, 1979. He replied that he would be delighted. I took the idea with General Neil Webster, Chairman of the Council of Ex-Servicemen’s Associations of South Africa who arranged an appeal for funds to cover the making of the window and its despatch to Italy and within a short period the project was under way.
We were fortunate in finding that the Lloyd-Triestino Shipping Company would be willing to arrange the transport of the completed work to Italy free of charge, and that Messrs. Bollinger, who handled most of the packing for the Embassy, would collect it in Livorno and take it out to the site free of charge. A well-known Italian film director. Alfredo Medori, offered to film the handing over ceremony and also arranged for the installation of the window by Italian craftsmen.
At this stage! I nearly had a fit! When I telephoned the Minister Provincial to find out what was needed to be done I was told that the work, or failing that a sketch of it, should be submitted for approval by an expert in iconography, a Brother by the intriguing name of Ugolino da Belluno. Luckily Leo had sent me a sketch and I rushed it to the expert. Fortunately he approved and we had the nihil obstat. Phew!
There was one more hitch. When we learnt from Lloyd-Triestino that the work was on its way and due to arrive in Livorno in a fortnight’s time. I asked my secretary to submit a request to the Italian Department of Foreign Affairs for duty-free entry of the work in the normal fashion. After a week I checked again. There was, I was told, a small problem. Why? It eventually transpired that the request had fallen between two stools. Had the item in question been for my private use, or alternatively for the official use of the Embassy, there would have been no problem. As things were, however ... I spoke with the Secretary-General of the Italian Department of Foreign Affairs and represented to him that it would be bizarre indeed if a gift intended for the Italian people should have to pay customs dues on entry. If necessary I would he prepared to pay out of my own pocket. He assured me that this was unthinkable and that some means of getting over this bureaucratic hurdle would be found. I told him I had full confidence that the genius of the Italian people would triumph.
I was right, but I understand that it took complicated negotiations between the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Finance, Cultural Affairs and Customs to cut the bureaucratic knot.
The window duly arrived, in three sections. I had previously arranged for our Embassy man of all work go out to the monastery and measure the window space, and was hoping that he had been accurate. As things turned out there was no trouble, and the window slid sweetly into place as if it had been made for it - which, of course, it had. Murphys Law was suspended that day.
Much to my delight the Minister-General agreed to come and bless the window, and the next thing was to let the joyful news he known in the area and to invite anyone who had cared for any P.O.W.s, whether South African or not, to come to the ceremony. In the time available my wife and I went to as many villages as possible and asked the mayors to let the people know, and the parish priests to announce it from the pulpits at mass. I also invited members of the Zonderwater Bloc, a group of Italians who had been POW’s themselves in South Africa, to attend. Our Military Attaché and his staff, our Consul-General and Honorary Consul-General in Milan, together with our Immigration Attaché and I were all present with our gongs up.
On the appointed day a large crowd of about 600 had assembled at the monastery. Some had charted a char-a-banc to be present. The chapel was filled to overflowing. A great sigh went up as the window was unveiled and shed its brilliance down the aisle to the altar. We had also arranged to have a marble tablet let in to the wall, inscribed with the following words:
“The window above the doorway, gift of the Ex-Servicemen’s Associations of South Africa, records with profound gratitude the courage and generosity of those Italians who, during the Second World War, at risk of their lives sheltered and protected escaped South African prisoners-of -war.”
It was a joyous occasion and I think it served to give proof that South Africa had not forgotten.
Anyone who visits Rome and can spare the time will find a visit to the peace and solitude of the Sanctuary, set as it is in beautiful countryside, well worth while. See the window; read the words of the tablet ... and reflect.
The following further memories of the ceremony are from Pamela Mills, the wife of John Brent Mills
BENEDICTION CEREMONY OF THE WINDOW AT SANTA MARIA DELLA GRAZIE
13th May 1979
Finally everyone filtered into the little church and the Minister General began the Mass. So many were packed in that the whole altar area was crowded as well as the vestry and many outside. A choir of young girls and men from Ponticelli sang sweetly during the service.
After the Minister General delivered a fine sermon, Ambassador John Mills spoke on behalf of the South African ex-Servicemen’s organisations. It was a most moving experience and when he was finished many of the congregation were in tears.
We are also glad to have with us the Mayors from many villages representing their communes, all of whom so distinguished themselves in aiding prisoners.
Present here today are representatives from all over Italy of the Zonderwater Blok, those who were imprisoned in South Africa. We thank them for coming. It is good that we who were enemies can meet today in brotherhood.
I wish to thank Maestro Theron for the genius he has displayed in the making of our window and for journeying here himself from South Africa for the inauguration. He must be happy to think that the work of his hands now form part of a 500-year-old fabric and will endure for centuries to come. Unfortunately there are no other South African ex-Servicemen here today, but they are with us in spirit.
Dear friends, we are met together today in time of peace to recall our common struggle, our common sufferings, our life together in the far-off time of war. Just as the most beautiful flowers grow from the noisome dunghill, so from the passion and the cruelty of the killing time sprang the generosity, the compassion and the courage of those who could not bear to see fugitives without food, without shelter – who felt a compulsion to help these unfortunates, even at the risk of their lives.
Inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these,
ye have done it unto Me.
It is these Italians whom we honour today. Look around you: their representatives are here . We South Africans have not forgotten you.”
The window was then unveiled to a great A-a-h, and tumultuous applause, followed by the Benediction Ceremony.
After the ceremony, as had happened before it, many of the Italians came to greet my husband bringing pieces of paper bearing names of the South Africans they had sheltered and asking questions about them, which he was hard put to answer. “Eduardo! You must remember Eduardo? Tall he was, blonde; he was a policeman.”
“Great Oaks too have fallen. I wish to remember all those to whom I owe my life from Montorio Romano, Ponticelli, Pietra Forte, Collegiove, Pozzalia, Petescia, Ascrea. How I wish they could have been here together with us today to know they are not forgotten"
It was a very convivial way to finalise the day with everyone enjoying themselves.
After the farewells, John collected the flowers from the tables and we, together with the descendants of the Pichetti family, visited the cemetery at Montorio Romano and laid the flowers at the graves of Gioacchino and Augusta, as a fitting end to the ceremony
Apart from the Italian National television team which filmed a short interview with my husband and a Brother, who had been at the monastery during the war, Dr Alfredo Medori , a private producer, was so interested in the story that he filmed the entire proceedings at his own expense. The film was sent to South Africa and, with a translation, shown on Prime television.
During recent renovation work at the Monastery in 2010, the window and tablet were unfortunately removed from their original location in the Monastery and repositioned in a corner of the cloisters, away from public view. If visiting the Monastery please ring the bell and ask to see the window.