Answering the call with you,
David J. Conrad
Commander (Msgr.) John P. Chidwick was honored to be appointed as the third Catholic Chaplain in the U.S. Navy. A native New Yorker, he earned BA and MA degrees from Manhattan College. He later entered St. Joseph Seminary in Troy, NY, and was ordained a priest in 1887. After seven years at a New York parish, Fr. Chidwick was then appointed Chaplain in the U.S. Navy in 1895. His first assignment was to the battleship USS Maine, serving until March 1898.
Chaplain Chidwick quickly became well-liked by sailors whether Catholic or not. Late in the evening of February 15, 1898, while making a port visit to Havana, Cuba, a violent explosion racked the USS Maine. It happened while the people of Cuba were trying to throw off Spanish colonial rule. Despite the fact that no cause of the explosion has even been identified, Americans were sympathetic to the Cuban Independence Movement and tended to blame Spain for the disaster which killed 266 of its crew (only 89 survived). This led to the outbreak of the Spanish-American War.
Fr. Chidwick was saying the Holy Office of the Priesthood in his quarters when the explosion occurred on the USS Maine. When he went out on deck, he saw a horrible sight. The front of the ship was twisted and burning as the ship sank. Dead and wounded sailors were everywhere. He gave a general absolution and then, ignoring the threat of another explosion, Fr. Chidwick joined the rescue effort. He was all over the ship tending to the wounded and ministering to the dead and dying. Fr. Chidwick was one of the last to leave the ship. The Captain’s report to the Navy Department included the highest praise for the Chaplain. The Secretary of the Navy also sent a letter praising him.
As Chaplain, Chidwick wrote consoling letters to the relatives of those killed in the explosion of the USS Maine. He also conducted burial services for the sailors in Havana cemeteries. Later, he repeated the services when they were moved to Arlington National Cemetery. Since the ship was a hazard to navigation, in 1912 it was raised from Havana Harbor and then sunk again in deeper water. Fr. Chidwick conducted burial services then, and again at Arlington, for three sailors whose remains were recovered during the raising of the ship.
Fr. Chidwick continued to serve in the Navy, achieving the rank of Commander before resigning his Commission in 1903. He served as a priest in New York for about 30 more years during which time he was appointed a Monsignor. In addition to parish service, he was Chaplain for both the NYPD and the Spanish-American Veteran’s organization. He also had academic appointments as President of his old seminary and of the College of New Rochelle.
Father John Chidwick died on January 13, 1935, and was buried with all military honors and rights. Veterans of the Spanish-American War erected a plaque in his memory at New York’s Columbus Circle.
Randal L. Hoyer, PhD, Professor Emeritus
Michael W. Marihugh, MA, Adjunct Assistant Professor
Department of History
Madonna University - A Catholic, Franciscan University