Military Chaplains in World War I

As we remember the men and women who fought for our country on Veteran’s Day, we take a look at the history of a group of men who also put their lives in harm’s way: the military chaplains of the armed forces.

Requirement to be a Military Chaplain in 1918

Requirements to be a Military Chaplain in 1918

The Archdiocese of New York played an active role in the war effort during the First World War. The priests of the Archdiocese, as well as priests from all over the country were called upon to serve as military chaplains. Pope Benedict XV created the Military Diocese in 1917 and Bishop Patrick Hayes (our future Cardinal) was appointed the Chaplain Bishop for the diocese. Under Hayes and Cardinal John Farley, the chaplain program grew from a few 100,000 men to 5 million men in just 18 months! Military chaplains did exist prior to World War I, but really increased in numbers with the American entry into war in 1917. The military chaplains were sent into the heat of battle to provide comfort and solace to the men, and to hopefully renew their faith to keep on fighting.

In 1918, Congress passed an act that called for one chaplain for every 1200 officers and enlisted men. Bishop Hayes, in a letter to Cardinal Farley, informs Farley of the current number of chaplains overseas. As of June 1918 there were 301 chaplains in the Army, 30 in the Navy, 7 with the Red Cross, 2 interpreters, and 95 volunteer or Knights of Columbus chaplains. Hayes also comments on the obligation that they have for military chaplains, “Every bishop has a portion of his flock in military service, in constant danger to body and soul. The love of the sheep, not to mention common justice, demands that our soldiers and sailors be shepherded by their pastors, even afar from the diocesan fold.” The men were quick to volunteer to serve God and their nation.

Cardinal Farley was in correspondence with many of the chaplains during the war.  These men wrote about the great support they have received from their commanding officers, as well as the enlisted men they work with. Below are brief descriptions about the experiences of two military chaplains Rev. Francis P. Duffy of the 165th Infantry (69th New York) and Rev. John J. Brady, of the 5th Regiment Marines, from letters we have here at the archives.

The Confession Card that Rev. Francis Duffy Produced for the Soldiers Abroad

The Confession Card that Rev. Francis Duffy Produced for the Soldiers Abroad

Chaplain Francis P. Duffy

In a letter dated February 24, 1918, Rev. Francis P. Duffy wrote to Cardinal Farley of the “good day” he was having. His regiment was finally in a place with one church. When the French clergyman told Duffy that he had seats for everyone, Duffy laughed and said only if “he hung benches from the ceiling,” a statement showing the large crowd that Duffy’s mass attracted. Even their non-Catholic Colonel was moved by the grand mass that Duffy had in the French church that day. Duffy also discusses his role of hearing confession with hundreds of soldiers lining up to see him. The large quantity of men desiring to have confession both in his regiment and others, resulted in Duffy creating and distributing confession cards for the soldiers. These cards were sent all over France.

John Brady's 1917 Letter to Cardinal Farley

John Brady’s 1917 Letter to Cardinal Farley

Chaplain John J. Brady

In a letter dated August 28, 1917 to Cardinal Farley from “Somewhere in France,” Chaplain John J. Brady of the 5th Regiment Marines recounts his experiences. He writes of the crowd of 400 men who attended mass with him, and an additional 80 men who went to confession with him. Brady was able to use the many churches he is near in France. He tells Farley about the purpose of his work: “My work is to bring back by personal meeting of the men, to bring back a great many indifferent Catholics.” Brady, like many military chaplains, tried to accommodate as many men as possible with the hope that they would strengthen their faith and their will to continue fighting.

The military chaplains of the Archdiocese of New York were spread all over the world during World War I. Many chaplains saw action, as they were stationed on the front lines. We are grateful for their work and their efforts should not go unnoticed.

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