I wrote a long piece on Saint Patrick’s Day, the life of Saint Patrick and five famous Irish Americans and this vignette is from that long piece. It is about Father Francis Duffy and his influence on Bill Donovan.
Father Duffy, as he was known to almost all New Yorkers in the first quarter of the 20th Century, was the oldest of our group. He, of course, was connected to both FDR and Al Smith through General William “Wild Bill” Donovan, who was a law school classmate of Franklin Roosevelt, and ran for Lt. Governor of NY against Al Smith in 1922. Father Duffy and George M. Cohan also share the distinction of having their statues in Broadway’s theater district. Interestingly James Cagney had a leading role in both film treatments about Duffy and Cohan.
Francis Duffy (1871-1932) was born in Cobourg, Ontario, Canada and immigrated to New York City, where he taught for a time at the College of St. Francis Xavier and where he was awarded a Master’s degree (the school survives as Xavier High School). He became a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, being ordained in 1896. He attended The Catholic University of America, where he earned a doctorate.
After ordination, Duffy served on the faculty of St. Joseph’s Seminary, Dunwoodie, Yonkers, NY, which trains priests for the Archdiocese of New York. He was professor of Philosophical Psychology (a course more related to the Philosophy of the Human Person, than to Clinical Psychology, in today’s terms), functioned as a mentor to numerous students, and was editor of the New York Review — at the time, this publication was the most scholarly and progressive Catholic theological publication in America. Extremely popular with students, Duffy was part of a group of members of the Dunwoodie faculty who attempted to introduce ground-breaking innovations in seminary curriculum, putting the institution in the forefront of clerical education.
When authors in the New York Review fell under suspicion of the heresy of Modernism, Archbishop Michael Augustine Corrigan, of NY, broke up the faculty and reassigned them to other work.
The New York Review itself never published an article that was suspect, but it did print papers by leading Catholic biblical experts who were part of the newly-emerging schools of biblical criticism, and several of these authors’ other works (which would be uncontroversial today) raised eyebrows in Rome. Duffy himself wrote few signed items in the journal (though he did author parts of it) but was responsible as editor for the entire publication.
Duffy’s new assignment was creating the parish of Our Savior in the Bronx, New York. There, he organized the parish and built a physical structure that combined parish school and the church, one of several innovations he introduced. Throughout this period, Duffy was active in both the Catholic Summer School, a sort of adult summer camp and continuing education system that foreshadowed the explosion in Catholic higher education for the laity today, and in the military — he was regimental chaplain to the 69th New York National Guard Regiment which was federalized for a time during the Spanish-American War.
Already famous in theological circles, Duffy gained wider fame for his involvement as a military chaplain during World War I when the 69th New York (The Fighting 69th) was federalized again and re-designated the 165th U.S. Infantry Regiment. When the unit moved up to the front in France, Duffy accompanied the litter bearers in recovering the wounded and was always seen in the thick of battle.
Lt. Col. William “Wild Bill” Donovan (who would go on to create the OSS in World War II), used Father Duffy’s influence with the men as a key element regarding morale. Duffy went far beyond the actions of a normal cleric. The regiment was composed primarily of New York Irish immigrants and the sons of Irish immigrants, and many wrote later of Duffy’s inspirational leadership. Brigadier General Douglas MacArthur, the commander of his division, admitted later that Duffy was very briefly considered for the post of regimental commander. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and the Distinguished Service Medal, the Conspicuous Service Cross (New York State), the Légion d’honneur (France), and the Croix de guerre. Father Duffy is the most highly decorated cleric in the history of the U.S. Army.
Major General William Joseph Donovan, USA, KBE, (January 1, 1883 – February 8, 1959) was an American soldier, lawyer and intelligence officer, best remembered as wartime head of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). He is also widely known as the “father” of today’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). During World War I, Donovan organized and led a battalion of the United States Army, designated the 165th Regiment of the 42nd Division, the federalized designation of the famed 69th New York Volunteers, (the “Fighting 69th”). In France one of his charges was poet Joyce Kilmer. For his service near Landres-et-St. Georges, France, on 14 and 15 October 1918, he was awarded the Medal of Honor. By the end of the war he received a promotion to colonel, the Distinguished Service Cross and three Purple Hearts.
In the wonderful World War I action film, The Fighting 69th (1940), Father Duffy was played by Pat O’Brien. It starred James Cagney and George Brent and the plot is based upon the actual exploits of New York’s 69th Infantry Regiment during the First World War. The regiment was first given that nickname by opposing General Robert E. Lee during the Civil War. O’Brien, who plays Father Duffy, a military chaplain, attempts to reform the character played by Cagney. “Wild Bill” Donovan, played by Brent, is the regimental commander, who ultimately orders Cagney’s character (Jerry Plunkett) to be court-martialed. One of the characters portrayed in this film is Sgt. Joyce Kilmer, the poet. Alan Hale, Sr. plays Sgt. Wynn, who loses both his brothers due to Cagney’s blunders.
Sergeant Kilmer, who was killed in action, was a great poet, no less a great soldier, wrote the famous poem, “Trees.” Kilmer’s companions wrote: “He was worshipped by the men about him. I have heard them speak with awe of his coolness and his nerve in scouting patrols in No Man’s Land.” This coolness and his habit of choosing, with typical enthusiasm, the most dangerous and difficult missions, led to his death.”Kilmer, who was awarded the French Croix de Guerre for valor, was buried in the Oise-Aisne American Cemetery and Memorial, near Fere-en-Tardenois, Aisne, Picardy, France. Although Kilmer is buried in France in an American military cemetery, a cenotaph is located on the Kilmer family plot in Elmwood Cemetery, in New Brunswick, New Jersey. A memorial service was held at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan.
The text stated below is the original written by Kilmer.
I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.
Joyce Kilmer in France
In a wood they call Rouge Bouquet
There is a new made grave today,
Built by never a spade or pick
Yet covered with earth ten metres thick.
There lie many fighting men,
Dead in their youthful prime,
Never to laugh or love again
Nor taste the Summertime,
For Death came flying through the air
And stopped his flight at the dugout stair,
Touched his prey and left them there,
Clay to clay….
Let your rifles rest on the muddy floor,
You will not need them any more,
Now at last,
Go to sleep!
Following the war, he wrote of his exploits in Father Duffy’s Story ( published by George H. Doran Company, New York 1919), a book that grew out of a manuscript originally started by Joyce Kilmer, the poet and convert to Catholicism, who had joined the regiment and had become a close friend to Duffy. When Kilmer was killed in France, he was working on a history of the regiment’s involvement in the war, which Duffy intended to continue, but Duffy was prevailed upon to include his own reminiscences of the war.
He then served as a pastor of Holy Cross Church in Hell’s Kitchen, a block from Times Square, until his death. While there he had one last opportunity to make a contribution to Catholic thought: in 1927, during Al Smith’s campaign for president, the Atlantic Monthly published a letter by Charles Marshall, a Protestant lawyer, which questioned whether a Catholic could serve as a loyal president who would put the nation and the Constitution before his allegiance to the pope (a common thread in American anti-Catholicism). Smith was given a chance to reply: his article, a classic statement of the intellectual ideas behind American Catholic patriotism, hinted at notions of religious freedom and freedom of conscience which would not be spelled out by the Church itself until the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Freedom in the 1960s. In fact, Al Smith had gone to Father Duffy and asked him to ghostwrite the piece and he did.
The last of our great Irish-Americans was the legendary Al Smith, who was known to everyone in his time. Jim Farley first worked for Smith in his NY State Governor’s campaigns. Smith was associated with FDR from the days that FDR entered the New York State Senate in 1911 and became his great rival and sometime critic. Smith was a political opponent of WWI hero William J. Donovan, whose friendship with Father Duffy was legendary. Later of course, Donovan became an intimate of FDR, worked secretly with him regarding early war-time spying and became the head of the war-time OSS, the Office of Strategic Services, which was the forerunner of the CIA.
Richard J. Garfunkel
PS: In a meeting a number of years ago, with Mr. William vanden Heuval, the former Ambassador to the UN and the current President of the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute, at his offices on 5th Avenue in New York, and I had suggested a the creation of a new “Birthday Ball Celebration” for Franklin D. Roosevelt. In the course of my conversation I learned that the Ambassador was quite well connected with General William Donovan, the legendary head of the OSS, during the 2nd World War and a recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions at the Argonne Forest. He was awarded the Medal of Honor while serving as an officer with the 165th Infantry, formerly known as the Fighting 69th, which of course was part of the famous Rainbow Division. It was nicknamed the “Rainbow Division”, because it was the first division composed of men from all over the United States. This division was home to the famous fighting Tennessean, Sgt. Alvin C. York, who captured and knocked out 20+ German machine gun nests, single-handedly and captured over 130 of the enemy himself.