RU nursing student Sperry Grills poses in the Bayeux Cathedral in Normandy, France, with the Bell of Peace and Freedom of which she is a godparent.
Radford University’s Sperry Grills represented the United States and her generation as world leaders joined D-Day veterans on June 6, 2014, to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Invasion of Europe in Normandy, France.
Grills, a junior nursing major from Bedford, had a unique role and perspective on the momentous occasion that was attended by President Barack Obama, the English Royal Family and French Prime Minister Francois Hollande among others.
“For sure, the experience meant a lot to me, but it meant so much more to the people of Normandy and the veterans,” she said of the ceremonies, both solemn and celebratory. “I was hugged and kissed by the Normandy residents and literally treated like royalty. They just wanted to say thank you and touch an American.”
In a way, Grills, who is spending the summer maintaining the kennels at a local veterinary hospital, was royalty.
She was one of nine junior godparents representing the Allied Nations in whose presence the Bell of Peace and Freedom was blessed. Grills was joined by the bell’s senior godparent, Queen Elizabeth II, for a christening ceremony in the historic Bayeux Cathedral.
As part of the traditional French ceremony, Prince Charles, representing the Queen, named the bell Thérèse-Bénedicte after St. Thérèse-Bénedicte of the Cross. St Thérèse, born Edith Stein, was a Jewish philosopher and convert who died at Auschwitz. Grills’ name as the American godparent is engraved upon the 1,100-pound brass peal bell that now hangs in the cathedral nave.
After the ecumenical ceremony in which the Archbishop of Paris blessed or “baptised” bell, Grills and her fellow godparents, who hail from France, Great Britain, Norway, Canada, Belgium, Netherlands, Poland and Germany, saw a 94-year-old British D-Day veteran strike the bell’s first peal.
As an American and a member of the Bedford International Alliance, a collaboration between the Bedford community and citizens of England and France devoted to sustaining the D-Day and Normandy invasion legacy, Grills enjoyed red carpet treatment. The real VIP treatment, she said, went to the elderly veterans who were returning to the Omaha, Gold, Sword and Juno beaches they stormed 70 years ago.
“Watching the veterans, who did so much, get such love from the local people and the visitors from around the world who were just saying thank you and how grateful they were, brought me to tears,” she said. “The feeling on the beach when you see and remember what the soldiers did and endured is so powerful.”
During her three days and four nights in Normandy, Grills laid wreaths at a British cemetery with her godparent colleagues and the Royal Family. With family and friends who made the trip with her, she then decorated graves at an American cemetery. She enjoyed a gourmet beach picnic with music and a grand illumination of waxed wind socks and participated in a human chain that lined the beach as far as she could see.
An enduring recollection for Grills was the World War II-era vehicles that continue to be used in the area. She was transported from some events in an olive drab jeep that came ashore in the invasion and has remained in Normandy.
“The takeaway for me is how truly world-changing D-Day was,” she said. “It was nice to see how well everybody got along, but it it made me think how hard it is to work together sometimes, and how important peace is.”