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Heaven’s Soldier: Lt. Col. Francis P. Duffy

Next Thursday, our nation marks Veterans Day, a time to remember and honor service members who willingly offer up themselves in service to our country.  Begun following World War I and for over a century thereafter, the ritual of celebrating Veterans Day has come to include recognizing acts of heroism great and small by those in our military and those serving our military.  As we have done in the past (see, e.g., Veterans Day: Reminding Us of Our Higher Calling” and “Remembering a Harlem Hellfighter on Veterans Day”), at this time, the Coalition recognizes a remarkable figure of World War I.

Lt. Col. Francis P. Duffy is recognized as the most decorated Chaplain in U.S. history.  An immigrant from Canada, he was one of eleven children and a descendant of Irish Immigrants to North America who sought to escape famine in their homeland.  After college, he was ordained a Roman Catholic priest, and obtained his Doctorate from The Catholic University of America.  At the turn of the last century, Fr. Duffy volunteered to minister to sick soldiers returning from the Spanish American War and, in the process, caught typhoid and spent time recuperating.  Later, in addition to his role as a parish priest, Fr. Duffy served as Chaplain to the N.Y. National Guard’s 69th Regiment, the so-called “Fighting 69th,” comprised mostly of Irish Americans.

At the outbreak of World War I, Fr. Duffy joined with the 69th Regiment, one of the first units to leave for France.  There, he ministered to the young men of his flock, from hearing Confessions to saying Mass, and he offered a paternal ear to all, listening to their worries and fears as they faced death in the newly mechanized age of combat.  Fr. Duffy was no stranger to this combat.  Indeed, he regularly put his life on the line, accompanying stretcher patrols under fire into the open fields separating combatant trenches to retrieve the wounded and the dead.

Fr. Duffy kept the welfare of his men in his heart perhaps, in part, because he knew many of them from their time together back home.  He maintained their Irish traditions, which reinforced their common heritage in service to this nation, bolstered esprit de corps, and earned him their love and admiration.  Though he maintained courage and an even keel under fire, he was not immune to the pains of war’s loss.

[W]itnesses recall that in turning over one young soldier to give the last rites, Duffy broke down into tears; he remembered baptizing him as a baby.

Perhaps it was a blessing that, in the middle of such horror, the same kind soul that blessed that soldier and welcomed him into the world ushered him to the hope of salvation.  In any case, the scene provides an example of why Fr. Duffy was so admired for his leadership and his dedication to the troops, so much so, that then-Colonel Douglas MacArthur considered appointing him as regimental commander.  For his bravery, service, and dedication, Fr. Duffy was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the Distinguished Service Medal, the Legion d’honneur, the Croix de Guerre, and New York State’s Conspicuous Service Cross.

After the war, Fr. Duffy returned to New York City and led Holy Cross Parish in Hell’s Kitchen.  When he died in 1932, a reported 25,000 people attended his funeral at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and a statue is dedicated to his honor in New York City’s Times Square.

Although wars tend to be viewed in macroscopic terms, e.g., battles, strategic decisions, and the like, Fr. Duffy’s life demonstrates the significance of individual dedication and contribution.  Each soldier does their part in service to the cause, and as we celebrate this Veterans Day, we should take time to remember these individual contributions that, together, have kept us free.

The following served as sources for the foregoing:; and

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