Heroic Catholic Chaplains: Stories of the Brave and Holy Men Who Dodged Bullets While Saving Souls by Thomas J. Craughwell – TAN Books (195 pages)
“There are no atheists in a foxhole.”
This catchphrase has been attributed to many authors, which is often the case for pithy phrases that tell great truths. Those who are on the brink of a violent death, see friends die next to them, or witness grave injuries need spiritual help as much as the material equipment of war.
Thomas J. Craughwell has given us a marvelous book describing the work of the men who bring soldiers that spiritual help in the foxholes. His marvelous book, Heroic Catholic Chaplains: Stories of the Brave and Holy Men Who Dodged Bullets While Saving Souls is a collection of inspiring stories of these amazing and noble men.
Mr. Craughwell is an independent historian, who has a great love for Holy Mother Church. As a prolific author, his more recent books include St. Peter’s Bones: How the Relics of the First Pope Were Lost and Found . . . and Then Lost and Found Again and 101 Places to Pray Before You Die: A Roamin’ Catholic’s Guide. He has also written on the U.S. Civil War and the American Presidency.
The Nature of Catholic Chaplains
Catholic soldiers have spiritual needs that go beyond those of others. Because the sacrament of Confession is so central to preparing for eternity, priests need to be near at the hour of death. The Grace of God has provided those men – and what men they were! As Mr. Caughwell says in the introduction, “It is difficult to imagine the degree of sacrifice and commitment to souls that it took, and still takes, for an ordinary priest to walk out his rectory door, or leave a beloved campus, and head off to a place where fear, and pain, and death in battle will be daily experiences. … Such men deserve to be remembered.”
This is a book of stories, and that is as it should be. The only thing these individuals had in common was being priests. Otherwise, they came from different centuries, backgrounds, and experiences. Some were parish priests; some were in missionary orders, others were college professors. All brought the truths and sacraments of the Faith while sharing the rigors of the soldiers they served.
This review will sketch out two stories to whet the appetites of readers.
Father Peter Whelan
The horrors of the Andersonville Prisoner of War Camp were beyond description.
Father Peter Whelan was a sixty-two-year-old priest serving at Savannah’s Cathedral of St. John the Baptist when his bishop gave him an unusual assignment. The Civil War had less than a year to run when Bishop Jean Verot asked him to minister to the prisoners at Andersonville. Malnutrition and horribly unsanitary conditions contributed to a horrific death toll. Many of those interned at the camp were Irish Catholics. These men needed a priest.
Father Whelan’s qualifications for this assignment were unique. Two years earlier, he had been taken prisoner when the Union captured Fort Pulaski, where he was acting as chaplain. After five months, he was released and returned to Savannah. Bishop Verot thought that his experience as a prisoner of war would help him meet the needs of those prisoners.
Chronically short of food and medical supplies for its own army, the Confederacy had little to spare for captured Union soldiers. Indeed, the guards were not much better fed than the prisoners. Lacking cover, the men slept on the ground. There were no sanitary facilities worthy of the name. The summer’s heat increased the misery. Fr. Whalen’s time there – May to October 1864 – were the worst in the history of this awful place. He exhausted himself in their service. When Union troops neared Savannah, the prisoners were sent to other camps. Fr. Whalen returned to the city with a lingering lung ailment that would take his life in 1871.
Father Emil Kapaun
The Korean War started with a surprise attack of the Communist North upon the unprepared South. Until the U.S. assembled a credible force, the gap was filled with troops from the American occupation forces stationed in Japan, including Chaplain Emil Kapaun.
During the early stages of the war, the North nearly obliterated the South. Fr. Kapaun and his men were caught in that maelstrom. On November 1, 1950, twenty thousand enemy soldiers surrounded three thousand Americans. Throughout the day, Fr. Kapaun ran from one wounded soldier to another, hearing confessions and helping to move them to safety. Eventually, only six hundred Americans were left, and further resistance was futile.
The Americans were forced to complete a seventy-five-mile death march to the prison camp. At the camp, the water was contaminated, and there was no sanitation and very little food. With another soldier, Fr. Kapaun organized raids to get food from the guards’ supply shed. He pounded scrap metal into crude pans so that the men could boil water. He picked lice out of the hair of men too weak to do it. He led the soldiers in a daily Rosary.
By Easter, Fr. Kapaun had chronic dysentery and a blood clot that prevented him from walking. For a few days, men stole food to feed him, but it was impossible to hide his condition from the guards. He was taken to the death house where the very sick were left to die. His days ended there.
Shortly after his death, a gravely ill soldier offered a short prayer, “Father Kapaun, pray for me.” He experienced an extremely rare recovery in that miserable camp. The soldier, Cpl. Robert McGreevey, survived until the camp was liberated.
Fr. Kapaun’s story does not end in Korea. In 2009, high school athlete Chase Kerr was involved in an accident while pole vaulting. He landed badly, cracking his skull from ear to ear. The doctors did not expect him to survive. Chase’s aunt gathered family, friends, and other Catholics – asking them to pray to Fr. Kapaun for his recovery. They did, and Chase recovered. The case is in the Vatican awaiting determination. If found to be a miracle, Fr. Kapaun could well be beatified, one step away from sainthood.
These are only thumbnail sketches of two stories that Mr. Caughwell relates in Historic Catholic Chaplains. No military background is needed to profit from reading it. The reader need only appreciate dedication and courage – something these men all had in great measure.