Category: Archive

84 years ago: Fighting Father Duffy

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

Eighty-four years ago, on July 5, 1918, Fr. Francis Duffy experienced his first taste of battle. As chaplain to the famed 69th Regiment of the New York State National Guard, Duffy and his men were among the first soldiers of the American Expeditionary Force to arrive in Europe and engage in combat along the French frontier. Few people outside of his parish and the 69th Regiment had ever heard of Fr. Duffy at the time, but he soon became a nationally known for his heroic conduct on the battlefields of France.

Francis Patrick Duffy was born the third of 11 children in Cobourg, Ontario, in 1871. A somewhat sickly child, his parents steered him toward schooling rather than manual labor in the nearby woolen mills. The strategy paid off when he won a scholarship to St. Michael’s College in Toronto. Upon graduation he took a job teaching at St. Francis Xavier College in upstate New York, but soon left to enter St. Joseph’s Seminary in Troy. An outstanding student, Duffy was immediately sent to Catholic University for graduate study following his ordination in 1896. In 1898 he began teaching at Dunwoodie in Yonkers, the seminary for the Archdiocese of New York, where he proved an able and popular instructor.

A man of boundless energy and wide-ranging interests, Duffy soon took on several additional responsibilities. In 1905 he co-founded and edited the New York Review, a publication that espoused a modernist Catholic theological outlook. It raised more than a few eyebrows among the higher-ups in the archdiocese and was eventually suppressed in 1908. In 1912 Duffy was sent to establish the Church of Our Savior in the Bronx — a move many believed was intended to punish the outspoken liberal priest and remove him from his influential position at the seminary. Duffy nonetheless threw himself into the job and soon transformed the small storefront church into a thriving parish.

Duffy’s most important assignment, however, came two years later when in 1914 he was named chaplain of the 69th Regiment of the New York State National Guard, a unit with a formidable history and a strong connection to the Irish. Formed in 1851 as a unit of the New York State Militia, the 69th was composed almost entirely of Irish soldiers. During the 1850s, Irish revolutionary exiles — most notably Michael Corcoran — gravitated to the unit, forming most of its officer corps. It earned early fame in the Civil War for its exemplary performance at the first Battle of Bull Run, a feat that led to the formation under Brigadier General Thomas Meagher of a larger “Irish Brigade,” with the 69th at its core. The regiment’s reputation for fierce combat earned it the nickname “Fighting 69th,” a reputation it maintained in the Spanish American War and raid into Mexico in 1916 in search of Pancho Villa. In accepting the position of chaplain, Duffy knew of the regiment’s storied past, but he had now idea how great an impact the job would have on his life and legacy.

By this time, the 69th had been transformed into the 165th Infantry of the Army’s 42nd Division. It was also no longer an all-Irish unit and was instead known as the “Rainbow Division” because it marched with the flags of the 25 states from which its members hailed. Duffy would later comment that he didn’t care about their place of birth or ethnic background, but admitted that he liked to think they were all “Irish by adoption, Irish by association, or Irish by conviction.”

World War I broke out in the summer of 1914, but the U.S. immediately adopted a position of strict neutrality. This suited most Irish Americans just fine as nationalist sentiment ran high at the time and England’s troubles were interpreted as beneficial to the struggle for Irish freedom. This was especially true after the failed 1916 Easter Rising and subsequent executions of 16 leaders. Indeed, Fr. Duffy was a featured speaker, along with Victor Herbert and Bourke Cockran, at a mass rally called to denounce the executions.

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Yet when the U.S. declared war on Germany in April 1917, Irish Americans were quickly swept up in the patriotic fervor (helped along by George M. Cohan’s instant hit, “Over There!,” a song he composed on the day war was declared). Duffy was 46, nearly twice the age of most soldiers, but he nonetheless welcomed the challenge. He became a popular recruiter, but he warned all those considering enlistment, “Don’t join the 69th unless you want to be among the first to go to France.”

Thousands heeded the call, among them William “Wild Bill” Donovan, who would later be awarded the Medal of Honor for his battlefield exploits. Another famous recruit was the poet Joyce Kilmer, who was later killed in action. He wrote of the inspiration behind the regiment’s recruiting strategy:

“It was desired to enlist strong, intelligent, decent living men, men whose sturdy Americanism was strengthened and vivified by their Celtic blood, men who would be worthy successors to their forgotten patriots who at Bloody Lane and Marye’s Heights earned the title ‘The Fighting Irish.’ ”

The 165th was quickly mobilized and on Oct. 29, 1917 sent off to France. It took months for General Pershing’s ‘F to get in place along France’s northern frontier, but by the spring of 1918 it began to see its first significant action. Germany had launched a final assault on the French and British lines and the Yanks were deployed to help stop its progress — including Duffy and the 165th, which faced its first enemy fire on July 5, 1918.

It would not be the last, for the 165th was destined to play an important role in battles at Lorraine, Champagne, Champagne-Marne, Aisne-Marne, and St. Mihiel, Meuse-Argonne. No regiment saw more action — 180 days of combat — and as a result, it suffered high casualty rates with 644 killed and nearly 2,900 wounded.

From day one Duffy stood out as a symbol of courage and dedication. He moved fearlessly about the battlefield as shells and bullets flew, shouting words of encouragement, carrying wounded men to safety and administering last rites to those mortally wounded. It was not long before the men took to calling him “Front Line Duffy.” Nowhere was Duffy’s extraordinary service more evident than in the Battle of the Oureq River (the one that claimed the life of Kilmer). It earned him the coveted Distinguished Service Cross (not to mention France’s Croix de Guerre). There was even talk of a Medal of Honor, but Duffy quietly squelched the effort. The papers back home lauded the “fighting priest” from New York and he soon became a household name.

The Great War ended in November 1918 and four months later the 165th arrived in New York, They were greeted as returning heroes and honored with a grand parade up Fifth Ave. Duffy was treated as a celebrity and went on a speaking tour and began writing a memoir of his wartime experiences. In 1920 he was assigned to Holy Cross parish in Times Square on the edge of Hell’s Kitchen, where he developed a following among both showbiz celebrities and skid row down-and-outers. For the next 12 years he remained a popular figure and a frequent public speaker. In 1928 Gov. Al Smith called upon him to help draft his response to the all-out anti-Catholic campaign being waged against Smith in his run for the presidency.

Despite his manly reputation, Duffy was never in very good health and he died in 1932 at the age of 61. Tens of thousands passed by his coffin at his wake and still more turned out for the funeral procession to and from St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Five years later, after a successful campaign by William Donovan, the city unveiled a large statue of Fr. Duffy in Times Square. It has since been placed on the state and national registries of historic monuments.


July 4, 1895: a parade of the anti-Catholic American Protective Association in Boston touches off a riot. One Irish Catholic opponent is shot and killed by an APA marcher.

July 8, 1871: the infamous corruption of Tammany Hall “boss” William Tweed and his cronies is exposed by the New York Times.


July 4, 1826: prolific songwriter (Oh, Susanna!”) Stephen Foster is born in Lawrenceville, Pa.

July 8, 1770: nationalist Mary Ann McCracken is born in Belfast.

Read about Ed O’Donnell’s new book, “1001 Things Everyone Should Know About Irish American History,” or contact him at www.EdwardTODonnell.com.

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