Fr Duffy: Oliver O’Hanlon on the US soldier priest

New York honours the son of Irish emigrants for his service with the ‘Fighting 69th’ regiment

Midtown Manhattan is the location of a large Celtic cross. It forms part of a monument honouring a man who gave his life to others through his years of service as a priest and army chaplain. His name was Francis Patrick Duffy.

Erected in 1937, the green granite cross is more than 17ft tall. In front of it stands a bronze statue to Fr Duffy that measures almost 8ft. The area where it is located, at the north end of Times Square, was renamed Father Duffy Square in his honour in 1939. Today, it is usually referred to as Duffy Square.

The statue depicts the priest dressed in his army uniform clutching a bible in his two hands. He looks purposefully straight ahead of him, his Doughboy helmet lying at his feet. The inscription on the front reads simply “Father Duffy”.

On the back of the monument carved into the green granite is a brief biography of the man. It reads: “Lieutenant Colonel Francis P Duffy, May 2 1871 – June 26 1932, Catholic Priest, Chaplain 165th US Infantry, Old 69th NY, A life of service for God and Country.”


The inscription goes on to list the battles in which he ministered to the men of his regiment and the military decorations he was awarded. The conflicts include the Spanish-American War, Mexican Border War and the first World War.

Even though he spent time working as a teacher and tending to congregations in parishes, it is for his service with the 69th regiment that Fr Duffy is best remembered. Ordained in 1896, he taught philosophy at a seminary in Yonkers and edited a journal based at the seminary.

He was later assigned to a parish in the Bronx where he held services in a store as there was no church. In 1914 he was appointed chaplain of the 69th Infantry Regiment of the New York National Guard, which would become known as “the Fighting 69th”. The regiment had attracted large numbers of Irish-born men or Americans of Irish descent since its founding in 1849. Its mascot is an Irish wolfhound.

After the United States entered the war in April 1917, the 69th (renumbered as the 165th Infantry Regiment) went to Long Island for training. It was sent to France in November 1917. In his role as chaplain, he put himself in danger in order to tend to the ill and dying men of his regiment in no man’s land and on the field of battle.

The regiment suffered high casualties. Of the 3,500 members who fought in the war, almost 850 lost their lives. As it had to be reinforced due to the losses, men from other backgrounds came in but it retained its Irish identity. Fr Duffy said the newcomers were “Irish by adoption, Irish by association or Irish by conviction”.

A 1940 movie starring James Cagney called The Fighting 69th told the story of the regiment in the war. Pat O’Brien played the role of Fr Duffy, who was described as the “courageous fighting chaplain”. O’Brien employed an Irish accent in the film even though Fr Duffy, who was born in Canada to the children of Irish emigrants, had a North American accent.

After the war, the priest published a book entitled Father Duffy’s Story. He declared modestly that the “chronicle claims no merit save that of being true” and that the only critics he had in mind while writing it were “those who fought in France”.

His bravery was recognised with the awarding of the Distinguished Service Medal, Distinguished Service Cross and the Conspicuous Service Cross. He was also decorated with the Légion d’honneur and Croix de Guerre by the French.

In 1921 Fr Duffy was sent to Holy Cross church in Hell’s Kitchen as pastor. Located on 42nd Street, just off Times Square, it was a busy assignment. Conscious of the pressures on his parishioners, he came up with new pastoral initiatives such as starting a day care centre and holding a Mass at 2.30am for night workers. It became known as “the printers’ Mass”.

He died in June 1932. His funeral Mass, which was held in St Patrick’s Cathedral on 5th Avenue, brought thousands on to the streets. Inside, 1,000 representatives of the army and navy gathered alongside government and state representatives as well as city officials. Captain, the horse that he had ridden for nine years, formed part of the cortege. Cardinal Hayes referred to Fr Duffy as the “ideal chaplain and the ideal parish priest”.

His family was offered a plot at Arlington National Cemetery but they chose a cemetery in the Bronx as his final resting place. In a pleasing symmetry with the monument off Times Square, his gravestone is a Celtic cross with the inscription “Father Duffy” on it.