Francis P. Duffy
1871 - 1932
What are the qualities that a man must have to become a military chaplain? Piety, altruism, stamina and, above all, courage. Father Duffy had all of these qualities combined with an Irish sense of humor. Most people who met him liked him, and all solders who meet him respected him. Between him and the Doughboys of the 69th there was a bond of love, formed under fire and in common danger which can never be broken. (To read what one veteran wrote about Father Duffy, go to "Hogan on Duffy"
Francis Patrick Duffy, Frank to his family and friends, was born on May 2, 1871 in Cobourg, Canada, a mill town on the north shore of Lake Ontario. Frank was the third of eleven Duffy children, grandchildren of Irish immigrants. He was good at school but when he was 13 had to interrupt his studies and go to work in one of the towns mills to help the family make ends meet. Even when he was able to continue his schooling he held a variety of part time jobs. Eventually he was awarded a one year scholarship to St. Michaels College, a seminary in Toronto. When asked If he wanted to become a priest, Frank always insisted that he wanted to become a teacher. One of his classmates helped him get a teaching position at the College of St. Francis Xavier in New York City ( now Xavier High School). It was while teaching and studying there that he realized his vocation for the priesthood.
He became a priest in the New York Archdiocese and was studying theology at Catholic University in Washington D.C. when war with Spain was declared. Immediately and with his superiors approval, he volunteered for duty as a military Chaplain.
The shooting war was over before Father Duffy could be called to serve with a unit over seas, but many solders were coming home stricken with typhoid fever. Father Duffy accepted a position as chaplain in a military hospital on Montauk Point, Long Island. Since this was dangerous and unglamorous duty, he did not have a lot of competition for the slot. He served until he himself came down with the disease. In the future, Father Duffy would say that he got nothing out of the Spanish American War but a second hand fever,
After recovering from his illness, Father Duffy was assigned to the faculty of St. Josephs Seminary at Dunwoodie, NY. Duff to his students, he helped train over 500 young men for the priesthood over a fourteen year period. Duff was by all accounts a gifted teacher. In 1912 Father Duffy was given a new assignment, establish a new parish in the Bronx.
Father Duffy rented a vacant grocery store near 184th Street and Washington Ave in the Bronx and called it the Church of Our Savior. Before he went off to war with the 69th he had managed to raise enough money to buy the entire block and to build on it a church, a rectory a school and a club house for boys. The club house was open to all the boys from the neighborhood regardless of race or creed.
Father Duffy and the Fighting 69th
In 1914 Cardinal Farley recommended Father Duffy for the post of Regimental Chaplain of the 69th New York Volunteer Infantry. If ever there was a match made in heaven it was Father Duffy and the Fighting 69th. The unit was still predominantly Irish and Catholic in make up. Of those un-celtic surnames which seemed to be creeping more and more into the Regimental lists, Duffy classified them as "Irish by adoption, Irish by association, or Irish by conviction." Duffy served as chaplain when the 69th was called up to patrol the Mexican Border and again when they were called up to go to war in Europe.
Many good men served as chaplains during this war to end all wars. What made Father Duffy so special? The same qualities that made the 69th special. To see what I mean, lets look at the actions of this priest and this regiment during its first big battle, the Champagne Defense.
On July 14th the 2nd Battalion commanded by Major Anderson waited in the trenches to meet the expected German offensive. Their orders were clear and they were prepared to die in the trenches rather than retreat. The men of the 2nd Battalion had made their preparations, both martial and spiritual, for the coming battle. All that was left was the waiting. Father Duffy had helped them with the spiritual and he was waiting with them. He joked and talked with "his boys" in a dugout. At 12:04 on the morning of July 15 the artillery duel began with one thunderous report. "Theyre off!" quipped one of the men. And so was Father Duffy.
He wanted to get to Major Andersons PC (Post of Command). The quickest way was a forty yard overland route through the bombardment. Judging that most of the shelling was passing over head, he took that route and entered the PC whistling a tune.
Shortly after he arrived a report came in of casualties in the trenches. Father Duffy went out to begin his work. He began carrying wounded to the battalion aid station, gave last rights to those who need them and comfort to those who did not. For the next 48 hours he shared every danger with the men of the 69th shot, shell, and gas. He worked continuously, helping where ever he could. On the morning of the 16th, Major Anderson was making final preparation for the last German assault. Anderson himself expected to be over run. He offered Duffy some grenades with which to defend himself. Father Duffy refused stating that he would stick to his own trade. Anderson then handed his battalion flag into Duffys care, asking him to burn it if needed to prevent it from falling into enemy hands.
On the morning of the 17th, after it was known that the Germans were stopped cold and that French units were going to relieve the 69th, Col. McCoy, the Regimental CO, bundled up the priest, who was too exhausted to resist, and ordered his driver to put Father Duffy to sleep in the Colonel's own bed.
The men of the 69th began to realize what they had accomplished and to discuss among themselves the deeds they had seen done. For every story they could tell of stubborn resistance or of selfless sacrifice, they had a tale to tell of their own priest. They knew he shared every danger with them, every risk. He wore the same uniform and fought in the same cause. But while they had rifles, grenades and mortars to defend themselves with, he had only his steel helmet, his faith and his sacraments. For this they loved him and knew him for their own.
Father Duffy was senior chaplain of the 42 Division. The men of the 69th were never out of his mind or prayers but his responsibilities were greatly broadened. He kept trying to find additional Protestant chaplains to see to the needs of the 4th Alabama and the other units. One of the last documents he was working on when the Armistice was signed was a request to grant leave to a number of Jewish solders so that they could celebrate the high holidays.
Father Duffy was one of the first three men to enter Germany at the head of the 69th. He had a similar place of honor when the regiment paraded on its return to New York.
Return to New York
So what do you do if you are the Catholic Church and you need to find a challenge for someone, a hero priest who cannot be scared by bombs, gas or the German Imperial Army. You send him to "Hells Kitchen" one of the poorest and toughest neighborhoods in New York.
In 1919 Father Duffy was assigned as rector to the Holy Cross Church. "Hells Kitchen" was the residential section of the parish. The parish also included part of Times Square and a large industrial neighborhood, all on the west side of mid-town Manhattan. To make matters worse the Holy Cross Church was almost bankrupt and weighed down by debt. He rearranged the church's schedule of masses and confessions so that these services would be available to the factory workers in the morning and at noon and late at night for the actors, theater goers and workers at the two major newspapers ( The New York Times and the New York Herald) who's presses were in the parish, as well as the regular schedule for the regular parishioners.
In the 1920's Father Duffy was in constant demand as a speaker. He was just as welcome and as comfortable at the Algonquin Round Table or the Friars Club as he was at the American Legion Hall or on the streets of Hell's Kitchen. When appropriate he commanded top fees as a speaker and collect even more in donations. He made a small fortune telling of the courage and the humor of his beloved Fighting Irish. Everything he earned went toward the church's mortgage or to the poor of his parish. Everything except the few dollars that were always there if a soldier in need showed up at his rectory door. His housekeeper had one standing instruction, "Never turn away a soldier."
Father Duffy also spoke on more serious matters. He was a strong supporter of Irish independence and was not afraid to say so. He was a political advisor to Governor Al Smith , the first Catholic candidate for President of the United States. It was his encouragement that convinced his friend Bill Donovan to run for Lt. Governor of New York. And at time of growing anti-Semitism, he was an outspoken advocate of tolerance.
In the early morning of June 26, 1932 Father Duffy passed from this world. His death was mourned by the entire city of New York. Telegrams of condolence were sent by President Hoover, Asst. Secretary of War, Major General Hugh A. Drum, Governor of New York, Franklin D. Roosevelt and many other dignitaries.
He was given a military requiem mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral. The funeral procession lead from Holy Cross Church, through Times Square and cross town to The Cathedral on Fifth Ave. The casket, borne on a horse drawn caisson, was accompanied by the 165th. Tens of thousands of mourners lined the route of the possession. After the mass, his casket was taken up to the Bronx for burial in St. Raymond's Cemetery.
The literary critic, Alexander Woollcott, a friend of Father Duffy since the days he was a war correspondent in France, wrote of the funeral on his column in the New Yorker magazine. He said, "Father Duffy was of such dimensions that he made New York into a small town."
Today, a monument to Father Duffy stands in Times Square. A bronze statue of Father Duffy, dressed in a WWI trench coat, stand in front of a Celtic cross and stares unblinking through the traffic in the direction of Holy Cross Church. It is the only statue of a priest in New York City and the only cross in times Square. The monument was paid for by private donations, many from veterans of the 69th and the 42nd Division.
It is more than 65 years since his passing there are few left alive who can tell stories of meeting him on the street and the pride that was felt when Father Duffy greeted the passerby by name. There may be a few yet living who were baptized by his hand or instructed for first communion. But do they remember this remarkable man. As long as there are veterans of the 69th and there are Irish in New York, he will not be forgotten.
Father Duffy's Monument in Times Square, New York City.
Statue sculpted by Charles Keck, 1875-1951.
Photo courtesy of Vince Fitzgerald. .