Father Francis P. Duffy: War and Humor

“If you want an example of how you ought to worship God, go over to the 69th.  You’ll see hundreds of sturdy men kneeling on the ground hearing mass.”

Father Francis P. Duffy in a letter to Cardinal Farley

A recent National Guard video on Father Francis P. Duffy.  I have written about Father Duffy here.  His courage as a chaplain with the Fighting 69th made him a legend in his own time.  However, courage was only one of his virtues.  Just as appreciated by the young soldiers he helped shepherd through the hell of trench warfare in World War I France was his sense of humor.  Here are a few samples:

Amongst the sturdiest and brightest of our recruits were two young men who had recently been Jesuit Novices. I amused one Jesuit friend and, I am afraid, shocked another by saying that they were exercising a traditional religious privilege of seeking a higher state of perfection by quitting the Jesuits and joining the 69th.

The newcomers are not yet accustomed to the special church regulations relieving soldiers of the obligation of Friday abstinence. Last Friday the men came back from a hard morning’s drill to find on the table a generous meal of ham and cabbage. The old-timers from the Border pitched into this, to the scandal of many of the newer men who refused to eat it, thus leaving all the more for the graceless veterans. After dinner a number of them came to me to ask if it were true that it was all right. I said it was, because there was a dispensation for soldiers. “Dispensation,” said a Jewish boy, “what good is a dispensation for Friday to me. I can’t eat ham any day of the week. Say, Father, that waiter guy, with one turn of his wrist, bust two religions.”

I asked one of the men how he liked the idea of going to confession to a priest who cannot speak English. “Fine, Father,” he said with a grin,  “All he could do was give me a penance, but you’d have given me hell.”

The Major was asked to say something and he smilingly passed the buck to me. I got square by telling the story of a Major who had been shot at by a German sniper while visiting one of his companies in the trenches. He made a big fuss about it with the Captain, who in turn bawled out an old sergeant for allowing such things to happen. The sergeant went himself to settle the Heinie that was raising all the trouble. Finally he got sight of his man, took careful aim and fired. As he saw his shot reach home, he muttered, “Take that, confound you, for missing the Major.”

I don’t mind rumors in the army. They are part of the game. With eating and growling, they constitute our chief forms of recreation. Fact is, I am made the father of most of them in this regiment. When some lad starts his tongue going, and everybody tells him just what kind of a liar he is, he says that Father Duffy said so, and Father Duffy got it straight from Secretary Baker or General Pershing, or, who knows? — by revelation. It is a great compliment to me, but a left-handed one to my teaching.

The religion of the Irish has characteristics of its own — they make the Sign of the Cross with the right hand, while holding the left ready to give a jab to anybody who needs it for his own or the general good. I cannot say that it is an ideally perfect type of Christianity ; but considering the sort of world we have to live in yet, it as near as we can come at present to perfection for the generality of men. It was into the mouth of an Irish soldier that Kipling put the motto, ”Help a woman, and hit a man; and you won’t go far wrong either way.”

It was too late to send the extra chaplains to other regiments as we were even then getting ready to move forward into line, so I decided to keep them all under my wing. I told the lieutenants of the Headquarters Company that it would not be my fault if they did not all get to Heaven because we had five chaplains along. ‘Five Chaplains,” said Lieutenant Charles Parker. ”Great Heavens ! there won’t be a thing left for any of the rest of us to eat.”


Through all the grim and grisly business of war, Father Duffy was ever-present for his men, with the sacraments, prayers, a smile and assistance for the wounded.  A war correspondent viewing him in action wrote: “In the thick of the fighting, cheering on the living, administering the last rites of his Church to the dying, filling the place of a stretcher bearer who had been struck down by a bullet, assisting the wounded, darting hither and yon, a ministering angel truly affording the one human touch and supplying the last link between Christian civilization and the barbarism which is war.”   At the peak of the fighting when casualties in the 69th were high, General Douglas MacArthur, the commander of the Rainbow division of which the Fighting 69th was a part, considered placing Father Duffy in charge of the Fighting 69th, something unheard of in American military history.    The Fighting 69th keeps Father Duffy’s memory ever green, as does the National Guard.  The grace of God gives us men like Father Duffy to light our way in an all too often dark world.

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  1. The religion of the Irish has characteristics of its own — they make the Sign of the Cross with the right hand, while holding the left ready to give a jab to anybody who needs it for his own or the general good.

    *laughs* Sounds right to me, at least the folks that filled the town my mother’s side is in!

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