More than 15,000 Catholic soldiers, along with friends and relatives, took part in a May 1918 field Mass at Camp Dix at which they heard the president of Fordham University declare the Allies would win World War I because “God wills it.”
I don’t recall exactly where I obtained my photo of this incredible event. Nor do I know how the photo was captured. The panoramic view made for a photo print that is easily 3 feet wide. It stretches from the Knights of Columbus hospitality hall all the way to the end of the crowd.
Held on the parade grounds of Camp Dix, N.J., the Mass was read by Father Patrick J. Hayes, who would later become a cardinal and archbishop of New York. Mass included a patriotic sermon by Rev. Dr. Joseph A. Mulry S.J. of Fordham University. “Dr. Mulry assailed the slacker who uses religion as a cloak for his cowardice,” wrote The New York Times. “He declared it was not only the country that is calling the men of the fighting nations, but God also.”
“We must not enjoy a dishonorable peace,” Mulry said. “Go forth, Christian men, to aid the boys who are in the trenches. They are holding them for you. Victory will come. God wills it.”
Mulry had long supported the Allied war against Germany. At a Knights of Columbus field Mass in May 1915, Mulry said 20 million Catholic men were prepared to back President Woodrow Wilson should the United States join the war. His sermon stressed the idea of a patriotic Catholic, something that was often under attack by Protestants.
“The Catholic of today puts into the state not the wavering intellectual culture of Athens, not the physical splendor of Rome, nor the deadly energies fostered by materialistic evolution,” Mulry said. “Not the ungodly tendencies of modern mechanical idealists, but the undying strength featured by the brotherhood of man and the fatherhood of God.”
“If the crisis were to come today, the Knights of Columbus would be the first to rally to the flag,” The New York Times wrote, quoting Mulry. While he gets his religion from Rome, Mulry told the gathering, “the Catholic soldier will lay down his life for his country and as he clasps the cross in his hands, his heart blood will ebb for faith, for country and for God.”
The Knights of Columbus put its young men up to fight, but that was only part of the expansive, unprecedented war work carried out by the K of C locally and abroad between 1917 and 1921. The Order pledged an initial $1 million to establish a war relief fund. The money helped establish a vast network of more than 300 war relief centers in the U.S. and across combat zones in Europe. These Knights of Columbus “huts” offered a place to unwind, but also supplied soldiers with scarce creature comforts like chocolates, cigarettes, candies and hot chocolate. (The large K of C hut at Camp Dix is visible at left in the panoramic photo.) Soldiers from many countries and religious denominations came to know the K of C emblem as a welcome sight. Each K of C war center hung a prominent sign for all to see: “Everyone Welcome. Everything Free.” The nickname “Casey” became synonymous with the Knights of Columbus staff at the relief centers. A typical soldier’s response upon meeting a K of C worker was, “Hello, Casey. Have you got any chocolates and doughnuts?”
Father Mulry attempted twice to retire from his job at Fordham so he might go to France and enter war work. On the third attempt in 1919, he did retire from his post at Fordham. He was so anxious to go overseas that he offered to pay $5,000 a year toward the salary of his successor. He died in Philadelphia in August 1921 at age 47 after a long illness.Two of his brothers were also priests. His other brother, Thomas M. Mulry, was a bank president, philanthropist and 1912 winner of the Laetare Medal from the University of Notre Dame.
Sadly, Father Mulry’s patriotism isn’t always remembered fondly. Fordham University’s archivist in 2014 described Mulry as “sort of a warmonger” whose speeches did not sound like those of a Catholic priest. The patriotic fervor in his talks, she contended, “was all for image.” This modern attitude fails to appreciate the deeply held patriotic views of many priests during World War I. Men like Father Raymond Mahoney, former pastor of St. Rose Catholic Church in Racine, Wisconsin. Father Mahoney was known for his patriotic sermons, including a memorable talk on liberty and the American flag. That will be the subject of a forthcoming article.
©2015 The Hanneman Archive