Jesuit Army Chaplains of the First World War - 2

POST BY GClapson

A Jesuit Chaplain celebrates Mass in the trenches
Mass in the trenches of the First World War Front

Fr Jack Mahoney SJ continues his investigation into the memorial to five Jesuit Chaplains killed in action during the First World War. Having explored the circumstances of the death of three of them in an earlier blog, here – with the help of the Jesuit Archivist, Rebecca Volk – he concludes his research into their lives.

The obituaries of these five Jesuit military chaplains tend of their nature to contain more on their apostolate in Britain before the war, rather than provide many details of their comparatively brief ministries as padres, apart from providing basic information on their death and burial. If only we knew what valour – and devotion to his men – on Fr McGinity’s part led to his being mentioned in despatches in 1917. We are well conscious of what must have been their regular priestly ministry of providing the consolations of religion day after day in administering the Sacraments of Confession, Holy Communion and Anointing of the Sick to so many of their flock who were wounded, maimed and dying, either up at the front or after being transported back to be cared for in the casualty wards behind the lines. In addition, we are fortunate in possessing some added detail from a letter which a British artillery officer in Flanders wrote to his sister, giving us a rare, but possibly typical, description of how the Catholic chaplains were at work serving the daily spiritual needs of their front-line charges. Referring to Fr Denis Doyle, he wrote:

“Of late, I have been shooting over an Irish regiment who (an ancient privilege) have their own chaplain. Fr Doyle is his name, an English Jesuit, and in the two or three nights that we have spent together, I have howled with joy over the tales of the Catholic side of the case [compared with other denominations’ ministries being often unwelcome]. This good man, instead of having to work up interest in the minds of his fighting parish, is worked hard to satisfy their spiritual needs. Every morning he says Mass for the reserve company behind the trenches, at which every free man is present a couple of times each week. Every evening he says the Rosary in the front line fire trench for the whole battalion, and at the end he administers general Absolution to every man there. Quite as often as not he is cut down to two or three decades [of the Rosary] by hostile shelling, and once, at least, men have been killed and wounded by German fire while the Rosary was being said. Add to this that when the regiment is out at rest, every man comes faithfully to the Sacraments, and that, at times of strafing, this intrepid priest goes straight to the front lines and absolves the wounded and the dying, and you can have a picture of what the Church can mean to men of faith in the midst of sudden death. He has told me that some of the acts of contrition of the wounded men have been the most wonderful things he has listened to – perfect contrition such as he never before thought could be put into words at all. The other morning I was at Mass just behind the lines – two planes overhead most of the time; machine guns from the Boche trenches popping away to beat the band; an occasional shell somewhere in the rear – the whole thing was intensely dramatic”.

Devotion

Father Timothy Carey SJ (below) was born in 1878 in Ireland and spent some of his Jesuit training there. After being appointed a Military Chaplain in 1916, he spent some years ministering to the troops in France, on which his fellow-chaplain and Jesuit superior, Fr Rawlinson, commented to their Provincial Superior in London: “Since his arrival on 10 October, 1916, he has been at Audruicq, where his work has been beyond all praise. His wonderful zeal and energy and his devotion to duty endeared him to both officers and men. He founded a Catholic Club which was known throughout the army area, and which made a great impression on Cardinal Bourne during his visit to France. He certainly succeeded in stirring up both the soldiers and French civilians to a sense of their religion, and organised Christmas Midnight Masses and Corpus Christi processions in a way that few others were able to do.”

Fr Timothy Carey SJ, 1878 - 1919

Fr Carey became ill in 1919, four months after the war ended, and succumbed to influenza after receiving the last rites of the Church from a Westminster diocesan priest, a Fr Roche.  On this Fr Rawlinson commented: “His loss to our department will be very much felt. I had only written to him a few days ago about his demobilization, which was to take place very shortly.”  He expressed a wish to be buried in the local church cemetery at Audruicq, near Calais, to whose people he had become devoted. Ten fellow Catholic chaplains and two Anglican chaplains were among the mourners, and his coffin was carried by the non-Catholic Commandant of the large military area and five other officers, with “hundreds of troops” on duty, a very large firing party and numerous buglers.  Fr Roche wrote: “It was a wonderful funeral. His coffin, covered with the Union Jack, was borne by four Commanding Officers. The church was quite full of officers and French civilians. The Curé of the church sang the Requiem High Mass and Fr Dawes and Fr O’Brien were deacon and sub-deacon. The Curé addressed the people in French, and Fr King SJ, the Senior Jesuit Chaplain, spoke in English … there were many tears on the faces of the civilians and his own well-beloved soldiers … There were at least 30 beautiful wreaths from the officers and men of Audruicq, and two from the matron and sisters of this hospital. The whole service was most impressive, especially the last volleys fired over the grave, and the Last Post”. Fr Carey’s obituary concludes with the eloquent comment: “The solders are having a tombstone erected over his grave”.

Fr Henry Cuthbert McGinity SJ, 1882 - 1918

Father Henry Cuthbert McGinity SJ (left) was born in Liverpool in 1882, and after completing his Jesuit training he was ordained in 1916 and left soon after for France as an army chaplain. We know little of his ministry except that he was mentioned in despatches for his services in 1917, before he moved to Italy. He had some illness earlier in his Jesuit life, so it was perhaps not surprising that he succumbed to illness from exposure to the open with the 23rd Field Ambulance, to which he was connected,  when a military operation was cancelled to cross the river Piave on the Italian Front. On showing an alarming temperature he was evacuated to the rear, where he died from influenza complicated by pneumonia. A fellow-chaplain explained that his fatal illness developed as the result of exposure, “for he was out three or four days and nights on the swamps on the Piave, giving spiritual consolation to those Catholic souls whom he loved so dearly”. One doctor wrote to his parents that the exposure was typical of Fr McGinity’s devotion, “as he always insisted on being as near as possible, especially when the Brigade was going into action and there was any chance of casualties occurring”.  He was buried in the British cemetery at Mirano, about 20 miles from Padua.

 During this centenary year which commemorates the beginning of the First World War, it is appropriate and fitting to recall here also the memory of these distinguished Jesuit chaplains who served their fellows and God by their devoted pastoral care and the gift of their lives, in the hope that as memories of that war unfold, we will remember them. The private war memorial in the Jesuit garden in Wimbledon which inspired this article no longer exists. The property was sold to a Catholic family who cherished the little garden-well memorial, and who, on later moving house, dismantled the memorial and, by agreement, took the inscription stone and the statue of the angel with them to their new home.