Let me begin with a few quotes. Can you guess who said them?
“Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm.”
“All the greatest things are simple, and many can be expressed in a single word: freedom; justice; honor; duty; mercy; hope.”
“All babies look like me. But then, I look like all babies.”
Still not sure who said these? This one will give it away:
“We shall fight on the beaches. We shall fight on the landing grounds. We shall fight in the fields and in the streets. We shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”
The speaker, of course, is Winston Churchill. If you’re a Winston Churchill fan (and if you’re not, I’m disappointed in you), you probably think you would have to travel to England to learn more about the great British statesman. But on a trip to Missouri, I came across the most amazing find. The National Churchill Museum is located on the campus of Westminster College in the small town of Fulton. Equally surprising is what sits on top of the museum: a Christopher Wren-designed church, brought piece by piece from London after it was destroyed in the Blitz of World War II.
As you can probably guess, there’s a story behind this.
But first, a few words about Winston. Isn’t it interesting how some political leaders pass into obscurity once they leave office and the reputation of others continues to rise, even after their deaths? Soldier, politician, historian, writer and artist Sir Winston Churchill fits the latter category. I thought I knew a fair amount about Churchill before visiting the museum, but I came away with an even deeper appreciation for his courage, leadership and tenacity.
The story of why the museum is located in the middle of Missouri begins with an invitation from Westminster College to Churchill shortly after he had lost his position as Prime Minister following the end of World War II. President Harry Truman, a native of Missouri, put in a good word for the school, and on March 5, 1946, the revered statesman arrived on campus to deliver a speech that received news coverage around the world. In it he warned of an “iron curtain” descending across Europe as the Soviet government tightened its grip on the countries of the Eastern bloc. Churchill was one of the first to realize the seriousness of the Soviet threat and his vivid phrase came into widespread use.
So began a long association between Westminster College and Winston Churchill. Today its $4 million museum showcases the life and achievements of the great wartime leader, with special attention, of course, to his famous speech at the school. Exhibits describe his childhood growing up on one of England’s grandest estates, his checkered military career prior to World War II and his valiant service to Britain and the larger world during the conflict. According to Churchill biographer Paul Reid, this is the “epicenter of Churchill in North America,” designated by the U.S. Congress as America’s National Churchill Museum.
I found myself most fascinated by Churchill’s early years. While his accomplishments in World War II are well-known, they were preceded by a roller coaster of failure, success and then failure again. His childhood was dismal. His father (a British lord) was greatly disappointed in his son, whom he thought showed a woeful lack of initiative and intelligence. His adored mother (an American-born heiress) was emotionally distant, and Churchill’s sole source of unconditional love was his nanny.
After a mediocre record as a student, Churchill joined the military. To make extra money as well as enhance his reputation, he volunteered to serve in hot spots around the world and worked as a war correspondent for several London papers. By the time he entered politics he was already well-known in Britain and had experienced enough drama, tragedy, defeat and adventure to fill the lives of 10 men. All of these experiences helped forge a steely resolve, superlative communication skills and a talent for leadership that proved essential during World War II.
The church that sits atop the museum recalls Churchill’s heroic efforts during the Blitz, England’s darkest hour. For the 20th anniversary of the Iron Curtain speech, Westminster College received from the city of London one of the churches that had been reduced to rubble during the Blitz. The 17th-century Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Aldermanbury (which had laid in ruins ever since the war) was packed up piece-by-piece and shipped to Missouri, where it was laboriously reassembled in its original form.
Today the church is a sunlit marvel of English elegance. The famed architect Christopher Wren had designed the building to replace a medieval church destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666. Wren believed that there is nothing more beautiful than light, and stepping inside the church’s sanctuary, I found myself agreeing with him. Clear glass windows let in the sun, illuminating white walls, simple wooden pews, and an altar displaying the Ten Commandments.
Another tribute to the great leader sits outside the church. Created by Edwina Sandys, Churchill’s granddaughter, it is called “Breakthrough” and features eight sections from the Berlin Wall, each covered with graffiti from the days when the city was divided into Soviet-controlled East Berlin and free West Berlin. The wall symbolizes the wisdom of Churchill’s warning to the world in 1946, but it also shows the triumph of freedom over tyranny.
One could say that the holy site here is the Christopher Wren church, but I would argue that the entire site is sacred. Winston Churchill, flawed as he was, was a man of honor and bravery who inspired millions at a time when the world’s future hung in balance. I love the fact that we can pay homage to him here, in this rural corner of the Midwest, sitting in a London church, looking up at the sunlight streaming in the window.