Standing in St Patrick’s Cathedral on Monday 29 April, Rev Mike McNamara takes a gold ring from his finger to reveal the engraving on the inside of the band. A special gift to Mike from his grandmother on his 21st birthday, it is also the ring she exchanged with her late husband on their wedding day at St Patrick’s Cathedral in 1924.

Inscribed with the couple’s names in French and the date of their wedding—Helene a Frank 29.4.24—it is a precious reminder of both his beloved ‘Granny’ and his war-hero grandfather, who died suddenly of heart failure when Mike was only two years old. It also alerted him to the approaching centenary of their wedding day.

Mike, an Anglican minister at St James’ Anglican Church in Ivanhoe, has a keen interest in his family’s history and even wrote a chapter on his grandfather for the 2021 book The Art of Sacrifice by Melbourne artist George Petrou OAM. He felt the anniversary would be a fitting occasion to visit the Cathedral and to give thanks for the lives of his remarkable grandparents.

At Sunday lunches throughout his childhood, his grandmother had loved ‘to talk about how they met and the story of their life together, which was pretty colourful and wonderful’.

Mike’s grandfather, Air Vice Marshal Francis ‘Frank’ McNamara VC CB CBE, was raised in Rushworth, in northern Victoria, and Melbourne, and worked as a teacher before enlisting and training as a pilot at the outbreak of the First World War. Serving with the 1st Australian Squadron (also known as No 67 Squadron), based at Kantara in Palestine, he would sometimes take leave in Cairo, and it was on one of these visits, in September 1916, that he first met Hélène Bluntschli.

Hélène’s father, Rodolphe, was a Swiss banker who had been seconded to Cairo, where he was in charge of the treasury of the Suez Canal, and her mother, Jeanne, was Belgian. One of seven children, Hélène was born and educated in Cairo, spending her summers in Brussels.

During the war years, since travel was restricted, the family remained in Cairo year-round and devoted themselves to offering hospitality to soldiers serving at the front. Their home in Heliopolis soon became known as a place where weary, homesick servicemen would receive a warm family welcome, along with a free meal and a free bath.

‘And that’s how Granny met Grandpa,’ Mike explains. ‘He was this dashing pilot from Australia, the other side of the world. She was a shy 16-year-old, and they kept in touch.’

Frank would go on to become a household name in Australia as the first Australian pilot ever to receive the Victoria Cross, and the only one during the First World War.

Above the bridal table hung ‘a huge aeroplane constructed for the festive occasion by the bridegroom’s comrades at Point Cook’, and the wedding cake, decorated with four miniature aeroplanes, was cut by the new Mrs McNamara using her husband’s sword.

During an air raid on a Turkish troop train near Gaza, he pulled off a daring rescue of a fellow pilot shot down behind enemy lines. Although wounded in the thigh—one of his shells had exploded prematurely—Frank nevertheless descended to collect his friend, Captain DW Rutherford. Under enemy fire, he helped Rutherford board his plane, only to find that with his injured leg, he couldn’t get the plane to rise, eventually flipping it over. After setting fire to the plane to destroy it, the pair managed to cover the 200 yards back to Rutherford’s damaged aircraft, which Frank—by now weak from loss of blood—somehow managed to start and get off the ground, flying them the 70 miles to safety.

The injuries he sustained during this act of gallantry meant he would never fly again in combat. Arriving home in Melbourne, he received a hero’s welcome and would later take up a role as commander of No 1 Flying Training School at Point Cook Air Base. He continued to correspond with the Bluntschli family, including Hélène.

The romance received plenty of attention in the press, with reports of their wedding day appearing in papers from Kalgoorlie to Launceston.

Hélène’s younger sister Gisele married Mr Peter Roth, formerly of the AIF, and in 1923 Hélène and her mother (by then a widow) travelled to Sydney to visit the couple in Rose Bay. During this time, Frank and Hélène became reacquainted and were eventually engaged. In an article in the Melbourne Herald at the time of her marriage, Hélène (described as a ‘tall, slim girl with dark bobbed hair, black eyes and a vivacious manner’) explained how the engagement came about:

‘I stayed in Sydney 16 months, saw a good deal of Lieut. McNamara, and voila!’ A gesture indicated the rest. ‘Yes, I like Australia,’ she added, in reply to the inevitable question. ‘I like Melbourne, with its colder climate, much better than Sydney. And as for Australians—well, what I think of them is pretty clear, isn’t it? I’m marrying one. And one can do no more.’
Captain McNamara, in an Avro 504K, flies around the spire of St Patrick’s Catholic Cathedral, Melbourne, in 1919 to welcome troops home at the end of the First World War. (Photo: Australian War Memorial.)

The romance received plenty of attention in the press, with reports of their wedding day appearing in papers from Kalgoorlie to Launceston. A photo of the happy couple descending the steps of the Cathedral beneath a guard of honour formed by fellow airmen featured prominently on the front page of The Argus in Melbourne, and the Weekly Times reported that ‘Crowds thronged St Patrick’s Cathedral on Wednesday to see the gallant airman, Flight Lieutenant Frank McNamara, VC, RAAF, perform the biggest stunt of his life when he took the matrimonial dive with Mdlle Helene Marcelle Bluntschli’.

The reception was hosted by Madame Bluntschli at ‘Ardoch’ in Dandenong Road, St Kilda. Above the bridal table hung ‘a huge aeroplane constructed for the festive occasion by the bridegroom’s comrades at Point Cook’, and the wedding cake, decorated with four miniature aeroplanes, was cut by the new Mrs McNamara using her husband’s sword.

Their first child, Robert (Mike’s father), was born in 1925. Frank went on to serve as commander of Point Cook Air Base and then of Laverton Air Base, also completing a bachelor of arts in international relations at the University of Melbourne in 1933.

Mike says that moving to Australia was ‘a very big step’ for his grandmother, but it helped that her own mother Jeanne (known as ‘Johnny’) came with her. Influenced perhaps by the hospitality and generosity of her own parents in Cairo, ‘Granny was involved in a lot of hospitality for everybody on the bases,’ Mike explains. ‘She was a very good cook, and everyone loved her accent [and] broken English … Instead of saying, “I think you’re pulling my leg,” she said, “I think you are pushing my foot,” which was delightful—they loved all that. She was very loyal, and she adored Grandpa.’

In 1937, when Frank accepted a three-year appointment as Air Attaché for the RAAF in London, the family moved to England.

Mike explains that shortly after arriving, and ‘being good Catholics’, they were keen to visit Rome. As they were looking around the Vatican, Frank, who was dressed casually for sightseeing, got a bit lost and wandered into a side room. The door closed behind him. Before he knew it, he was being accosted by Swiss Guards, who wanted to know what he was doing in the Pope’s private residence.

The Pope explained to Frank that they had found his commissioning papers inside his passport, which mentioned his Victoria Cross, so he had wanted to meet him and hear his story.

‘He was terrified,’ Mike says. ‘He was a devout Catholic and not trying to make trouble.’ An official came in and asked him for some identification, so he handed over his passport. While the official went off with it, ‘he had to wait there and sweat it out. Meanwhile, Granny was looking for him.

‘So then the [official] came back again and said, “Follow me” quite severely. So he went through and there was the Pope [Pius XI]. And he was more shocked than anybody.’

The Pope explained to Frank that they had found his commissioning papers inside his passport, which mentioned his Victoria Cross, so he had wanted to meet him and hear his story.

‘They sat and talked for about 15, 20 minutes,’ Mike says. ‘And then … Grandpa went back out the door he’d come [through] and met Granny, and she didn’t believe a word of it—she just thought he was making it all up.’

Only the next day did she finally start to believe him. ‘And you were wearing that old shirt and shorts!’ she said in despair.

When the Second World War broke out in 1939, ‘Australia invited Grandpa to stay [in London] for as long as it would take,’ Mike explains. Initially he helped to place Australian and New Zealand pilots with the RAF, and was later posted overseas as Allied Commander (AOC) of British Forces, Aden, separating him from his family for much of the war. To avoid the Blitz, 14-year-old Robert was also evacuated from London and billeted with a family in Sussex, on the south coast.

This time on her own was difficult for Hélène, but she found comfort and purpose in her local Catholic parish, and ‘really threw herself into working at Australia House in charity work and supporting the wives of Australian pilots, soldiers and sailors who were on active service’, Mike says.

After the war, like many other senior officers at that time, Frank was dismissed from his post with a short letter saying his services were no longer required. This was a devastating blow to him after all those years of loyal service. The saving grace was that he had the joy of welcoming a daughter into the world not long afterwards, in December 1946. Hélène, aged 45, gave birth to their second child, Anne, 21 years after Robert’s birth. ‘So that was a wonderful surprise for them,’ says Mike. After Anne’s birth, Frank and Hélène decided to remain in the United Kingdom.

Needing a new career, and having previously worked in education, Frank was appointed by the British Government as Senior Education Control Officer in Westphalia, Germany, and went on to become Deputy Director of Education for the British Zone of Occupation. Returning to London, he worked for the National Coal Board until his retirement in 1959, dying in 1961.

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Rev Mike McNamara on the steps of St Patrick’s Cathedral, 100 years from the day his grandparents stood there as newlyweds.

During his time in Sussex, Mike’s father Robert had befriended the Rogers family, who lived next door to his host family, and he stayed in touch with their daughter (Mike’s mother). Ten years on, they decided to marry, but because she wasn’t Catholic, Robert was refused permission. Eventually, he decided to convert to Anglicanism, and the marriage went ahead. And that, says Mike, ‘is why my sisters and I were raised as Anglicans and I am a minister in the Anglican Church. Of course, over 70 years later, things are very different now.’

Even up to the day of the wedding, Frank and Hélène were undecided about whether to attend, having been advised by their priest not to. But that morning, ‘Grandpa stood up and said at the breakfast table, “We are going to Robert’s wedding.” And Granny said, apparently, “Well you are my husband … If you say we go, we go.” It turns out she had already quietly bought herself a dress, and one for Anne, just in case.

Next month, Mike plans to visit his aunt, Anne, who still lives in England and remains very involved with St Joseph’s Catholic Parish in Chalfont St Peter, Buckinghamshire, where Frank and Hélène were parishioners in their retirement. ‘She knows I’ve come today [to the Cathedral],’ he says, ‘so she’s really thrilled about that.’

Banner image: the photo that appeared on the front page of The Argus, showing Frank and Hélène on the steps of St Patrick’s Cathedral on their wedding day with crowds of onlookers.