The Archivist’s Nook: Heroes for More than One Day

Logo, Catholic Heroes of the World War Collection, American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.

In his 1977 hit single ‘Heroes,’ David Bowie sang “We can be heroes, just for one day…We can be heroes, forever and ever.” He may just as well have been referring to the ‘Catholic Heroes of the World War‘, whose valor was chronicled in the American Catholic press, 1929-1933. This now obscure paean to Catholic veterans and war workers, decorated by their then grateful country, was rediscovered in 2015 by Catholic University archivists working to identify and digitize materials documenting American Catholic efforts for the 2017 centenary of the United States entry into the so-called War to End All Wars. Perhaps via digitization these “heroes, just for one day” can begin again to be recognized as “heroes, forever and ever.”

As a minority, American Catholic population percentages increased mostly through immigration, from one percent during the American Revolution, to seventeen percent in World War I, and twenty-two percent in the twenty-first century. Supporting America’s World War I effort was a watershed for Catholics, long viewed as having questionable patriotism. They responded under the motto “For God and Country” to create the National Catholic War Council (NCWC), forerunner of today’s United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), representing Catholic interests in Congress and addressing the needs of soldiers and war workers. After the war, Catholics were confronted with the Oregon School Bill, supported by the Ku Klux Klan, declaring school age children could only attend public schools. The NCWC mobilized public opposition and the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the Oregon School Bill in 1925.

Colonel William J. ‘Wild Bill’ Donovan (1883-1959). Decorated World War I veteran, he was the only one to win all four of the United States’ highest awards: Medal of Honor, Distinguished Service Cross, Distinguished Medal, and National Security Medal. He was also head of the World War II era Office of Strategic Services (OSS), precursor to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Image from Homeofheroes.com.

The 1928 American presidential election witnessed the first Catholic to head a major party ticket with Al Smith of New York as the Democratic Party nominee. He lost to Republican Herbert Hoover and it would not be until 1960 with John Fitzgerald Kennedy, that another Catholic would run, and this time win the presidency. Smith and Catholics were subjected to such vitriolic abuse that for Daniel J. Ryan, who headed the NCWC Bureau of Historical Records, it appeared work over the past decade to document American Catholic patriotism via war activities had been for naught. Never faint hearted and with records of over 800,000 Catholic veterans available, Ryan began in December 1928 to write a weekly column on outstanding ‘Catholic Heroes of the World War‘ for the Catholic press.

Ryan chose to profile men, and some women, who had won the Congressional Medal of Honor (CMH), the Distinguished Service Cross (DSC), and the Distinguished Service Medal (DSM). Included were Colonel William ‘Wild Bill’ Donovan, later the famed spymaster of World War II; nurse Beatrice Mary MacDonald, the first woman to win a DSC and Purple Heart; Daniel Daly of both the Knights of Columbus and U. S. Marines; Michigan chaplain Patrick R. Dunigan; El Paso native Marcus Armijo; and Italian immigrant Michael Vigliotti. Ryan kept a record of the stories with clippings in a scrapbook organized alphabetically by surname. The scrapbook itself was unremarkable, hard cover with yellow onionskin paper. The cover was acidic and falling apart, and many of the pages torn or disintegrating. The clippings were digitized and photocopied onto acid free paper, with the originals and copies individually housed in acid free folders.  

The feature was well received by former servicemen, their families, and others, who noted the accuracy of the articles. It continued until 1933, ending perhaps not coincidentally, in the same year Franklin Delano Roosevelt, relatively friendly to Catholics, assumed the Office of the President, though it should be noted the NCWC decided to close the Bureau of Historical Records in 1934 citing lack of funds. Ryan had explained the series hoped to deal with Catholic heroes from every state and diocese, and by 1931 there were 141 stories covering the then 48 states and all but 7 Catholic dioceses. By the time the column ended in 1933 there were about 250 stories in all.¹ For more on American Catholics in World War I see the Catholic University online exhibit.

Beatrice Mary MacDonald (1881-1969). Canadian born, New York resident, U.S. Army nurse seriously injured, losing an eye while caring for wounded soldiers. First woman to win the Distinguished Service Cross (DSC) and the Purple Heart. Also awarded the British Military Medal and French Croix de Guerre. Image from Purpleheart.com.

On occasion a ‘Heroes’ column was also published in the NCWC Bulletin magazine, as with the June 1929 story of Slovak immigrant, Matej Kocak, who won two Medals of Honor before making the ultimate sacrifice for his new country. USCCB records, American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.

¹NCWC Bureau of Historical Records, Annual Reports, 1929-1933.

The Archivist’s Nook: Catholic University Declares War

CUA students in uniform on steps of McMahon Hall, 1917. Lawrence Wright Photograph Collection, American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.

The decisive entry of the United States of America into the calamitous First World War on April 6, 1917 joining Britain and France against Imperial Germany was a momentous event in the history of the American Catholic Church. Making up about seventeen percent of the American population, Catholic support of the war effort was a watershed event to prove their patriotism.  While many German and Irish Americans were not keen to assist the British, most Catholics believed it was a just war against an enemy whose submarines indiscriminately killed civilian passengers and oppressed the largely Catholic population of occupied Belgium. The fledgling Catholic University of America (CUA), established in 1887, was one of the first American Catholic institutions to declare itself when its rector, Bishop Thomas J. Shahan, wrote to President Woodrow Wilson on March 28, before the declaration of war, offering “such services as the Government of the United States may desire.” The President replied two days later expressing thanks “for your pledge of cooperation and support.”¹ Though partially addressed in a previous blog post, we now take a more in depth look at CUA’s wartime activities.

SATC at CUA Application, 1918, SATC Records, American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.

After the declaration of war, lay students military drilling on campus, forming three companies led by university instructors with prior military experience. A new gymnasium, ‘The Drill Hall,’ served both recreational and military needs. Many students also joined both reserve and active duty units. Soon, the U.S. War Department (a precursor to the Defense Department) inaugurated the Student Army Training Corps (SATC), an incarnation of today’s Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC). The SATC used over 100 college campuses as training facilities for new military personnel, including nearly 400 inducted from CUA, while the University’s Rev. Dr. Peter Guilday served as one of the SATC Regional Vice-Directors. CUA contributed to the state in other ways, such as vigorously promoting Liberty Loan subscriptions to help fund the war effort and permitting the United States Navy to use Albert and Gibbons Halls as a paymaster training school, graduating nearly 600. More ominously, the United States Army used the Maloney Hall laboratory for important chemical research, developing Lewisite Gas, which thankfully went into production too late for use in the war.

Certificate of Appreciation from the U.S. War Department to The Catholic University of America (CUA), 1921. SATC Records, American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.

CUA also provided valuable service to the church as the venue for the founding of the National Catholic War Council, forerunner to today’s United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Under the motto of ‘For God and Country’ and ably headed by CUA alumnus and Paulist priest, John Burke, a New York City native and Catholic newspaper editor, the NCWC represented Catholic interests ranging from charity to war before federal and state governments as well as secular and other religious organizations. By war’s end, some 800 CUA alumni and students had served in the military, with fifteen making the ultimate sacrifice, including Edward L. Killion, editor of the Cardinal Yearbook’s first issue in 1916. Additionally, more than 50 priest alumni had served as chaplains, probably the most famous being Francis P. Duffy of the famous ‘Fighting Sixty-ninth.’ The University’s postwar efforts included a rehabilitation school for wounded soldiers, administration of the Knights of Columbus Scholarships for ex-service men, and a 1922 campus memorial to honor CUA’s fallen

Image showing the list war dead from CUA’s campus memorial taken from a 1920s CUA View Book, University Photograph Collection, American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.

For more on CUA’s collections relating to the war please see the ‘Chronicling the U.S. Catholic Experience in the First World War’ web site.


¹Correspondence Files, CUA Rector-President Records, American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.

²C. Joseph Nuesse. The Catholic University of America: A Centennial History. Washington, D.C.: CUA Press, 1990, pp. 176-177.