Lieutenant Colonel (Fr.) Francis Patrick Duffy chaplain of New York’s “Fighting 69th”, mostly Irish, National Guard Regiment was almost larger than life. He exemplified many of the qualities we hold dear, humble priest, scholar, soldier, and patriot. He, the most decorated chaplain in history, was Canadian born, another immigrant who helped make America.
Coming to America for college, he soon entered the Seminary for New York ‘s Archdiocese. His superiors recognized his intellect and, following his 1896 Ordination, sent him to Catholic University to earn his doctorate. Even before finishing the degree, he was appointed to the New York Seminary to teach psychology and ethics. He also founded and edited a magazine of theology, but after a few years local and Vatican authorities, who felt his views were too advanced, shut down publication. Posted to a storefront NYC parish, his leadership soon saw it blossom into a robust parish with a church and school. During this time, in 1914, he took on the additional role of chaplain of the 69th New York.
When in 1917, the regiment was called up for WW I as the 165th United States Infantry, Fr. Duffy helped with recruitment, seeking men who could fight for America while upholding traditions of the regiment. It had become famous in the Civil War when Confederate General Robert E. Lee called them “that fighting sixty-ninth.” Among the first units shipped to France, the regiment joined the 42nd “Rainbow Division “under B.G. Douglas MacArthur. It was “Rainbow” because it had National Guard units from 25 states under their many-colored state flags. Fr. Duffy, now a major, was the senior chaplain in the Division.
Naturally, among the first to arrive, the regiment was also among the first to see combat. It served in a record number of battles over 180 days in combat, and suffered heavily, over 600 killed and nearly 3000 wounded. Among the killed was Fr. Duffy’s good friend, Joyce Kilmer, the famous poet.
Fr. Duffy earned the respect of all while the 69th was in combat. He heard confessions and said Mass in the front lines. He encouraged the troops, aided the wounded, and gave last rites to those who did not survive. He constantly went out with stretcher bearers to retrieve the wounded. For his meritorious and courageous service, he was heavily decorated, the Distinguished Service Cross and Distinguished Service Medal from the US, Conspicuous Service Cross from New York, as well as the Legion d’honneur, and Croix de Guerre from France. So well respected was he that years later, at his passing, Army Chief of Staff Douglas MacArthur revealed that he had briefly considered giving Duffy command of the 165th regiment. While a great honor, obviously impossible for a chaplain to be a combatant. Instead the job went to another of Father’s good friends, Colonel William “Wild Bill” Donovan, who in the next war, headed the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), precursor to the CIA.
Following WWI Fr. Duffy ably shepherded Holy Cross Parish near Times Square where he ministered to the theater folk and those in need. In 1928 Democratic Presidential Nominee, Governor Al Smith asked for his help. Smith, the first major party Catholic nominee, was under attack for his faith. Despite the rivers of blood shed by Catholic American soldiers, there were many who still questioned their allegiance to America. Fr. Francis Duffy ghost wrote Smith’s reply. His views on religious freedom and freedom of conscience in the Smith defense would later influence the Second Vatican Council.
Despite his many accomplishments, Fr. F. P. Duffy had never been in perfect health. He passed away in 1932 at the age of 61. All claiming to be personal friends, 25,000 attended his funeral. Five years later, Col. Donovan successfully campaigned to name part of Times Square, “Duffy Square” and to erect a large statue there of the soldier priest.
Randal L. Hoyer, PhD, Professor Emeritus
Michael W. Marihugh, MA Adjunct Assistant Professor
Department of History
A Catholic, Franciscan University