17 February 1916

Fr Doyle left his training camp and headed to the continent 101 years ago today. Here are his sentiments on this occasion, as captured in a letter written to his father just half an hour before departure.

I set out to face to future with a certain amount of trepidation…Strange to say, I have not the smallest anxiety about the possible dangers of warfare, not so great for me, as for others, but I do dread the horrors of the battlefield which all say no words can picture. Still it is a consolation to know what a comfort the mere presence of a priest is to both officers and men alike. They are one and all going to face their duty with the joy of heart which comes with a clear conscience; many of them had not been to confession for over twenty years.

14 February 1916

We are having desperate work these days. The good God is simply pouring out His grace on these poor fellows and reconciling them before they die. It has to be quick work, no time for ‘trimmings.’ I have positively a pain in my arm giving Absolution and Communions in the morning. I was able to manage Exposition all day last Sunday, which bought in many an erring sheep. I realise that from this on my life will be a martyrdom in a way I never thought of. I have got to love my brave lads almost like my own brothers and sisters. They are so wild and reckless, and at the same time so full of faith and love of God and His Blessed Mother. Yet soon I shall have to see the majority of them blown to bits, torn and mangled out of shape. Our Brigade is leaving tomorrow for France. I am waiting till Friday night, so as to get in all the confessions I can. Do pray I may be able to say daily Mass. I shall carry everything necessary on my back, and so may manage the Holy Sacrifice in the train.

“Holiness was as natural to Fr Doyle as wings to a bird”

Monsignor Quinn
Monsignor Quinn

 

Some time ago I read the Life of Father William Doyle, the Irish Jesuit-Chaplain, who was killed in the late World War. It was made up chiefly from a Diary which he kept, and which, I am sure, he never intended for eyes other than his own. What struck me most in his life was the fact that this good missionary priest had never done anything extraordinary. One day, not long ago, I met a Good Shepherd nun who had known Father Doyle very intimately in Ireland. I asked her if she could tell me anything about the secret of his holiness. She told me that holiness was as natural to Father Doyle as wings are to a bird. She had known him in his youth, and she had greeted him upon the occasion of his ordination. Like (Saint) Therese, he had always the desire of going on a foreign mission where he might suffer martyrdom.

He was never singular. In a gathering he was just one of his brethren, earnest in his work, and just as eager as the rest in his play. He practiced mortifications, but they were simple ones. For example, he ate everything at table just as it came from the kitchen. He refrained from using salt, and only when he was away from home did he take butter. This he did to avoid being noticed. This may all sound very childish, but have you ever noticed that those who appeal most to the worldliest and busiest of men are the orphan child and the old man who has been reduced once more by the ravages of age to a second childhood? The charge our nuns in the orphan asylums, and those Little Sisters of the Poor in our homes for the aged never want sympathy.

Hence we find that our little Saint performed no exterior works of greatness. She used to speak of her way to holiness as “The Little Way for Little Souls”. Like the holy Jesuit whom I have just mentioned, she did the common things of life uncommonly well. Herein lay the secret of her sanctity. Herein lies for us the happy thought that we, too, and will become saints of God, if we but perform the ordinary duties of our state in life extraordinarily well.

Holiness was as natural to Fr Doyle as wings to a bird! What a wonderful testimony!

These words were written by the Servant of God Servant of God Monsignor Bernard Quinn, who was born on this day in 1888 in New Jersey. His father and mother were both Irish – from Counties Cavan and Offaly respectively. Monsignor Quinn was himself a chaplain in the First World War, and perhaps this is why Fr Doyle’s life and example impressed him so much. They both also shared a great devotion to St Therese. Fr Doyle also went to Lisieux; he visited Therese’s grave but it is not recorded if he said Mass in the room in which she was born.

Monsignor Quinn was renowned for his remarkable pastoral care for the black people in his area, long before this was seen as normal or acceptable. He was known as a second St Peter Claver, after the Jesuit saint who tended to the black slaves in South America in the 17th Century. In this stance he showed great courage and a pioneering spirit, something else that he shared with Fr Doyle (Fr Doyle was a pioneer in encouraging retreats for lay people in the face of some clerical opposition; he also organised very effective fundraising campaigns for the missions through what he called his “Black Baby Crusade”).

Monsignor Quinn died at the early age of 52 in 1940 and his cause was officially opened in 2010. More information on Monsignor Quinn can be found at www.fatherquinn.org Monsignor Quinn wrote a booklet and novena in honour of St Therese (from which today’s quote was taken). It can be found here: http://www.fatherquinn.org/docs/writings/THE_LITTLE_FLOWER_BOOKLET_1925.pdf

In the example of the Servant of God Monsignor Quinn we find another holy soul who admired, and was inspired by, Fr Doyle.

13 January 1917: Fr Doyle gives the last rites to dying soldiers

100 years ago tonight Fr Doyle was awoken to absolve some dying soldiers. This is his description of the event, sent home in one of his regular updates to his family. Two things really stick out. Firstly, his dedication to his family, and to keeping them informed and easing their fears. This would have taken some time to write, and probably not in very comfortable circumstances. He could easily have taken some much needed rest instead of writing this letter. Secondly we see his dedication to his priestly duty. He faced some danger in trying to reach the soldiers and came under significant fire as he tried to reach them, but for him that danger was of no consequence, for as he said himself: “what priest would hesitate for a second with two dying men at the end of the trench”.

‘Two men badly wounded in the firing line, Sir.’ I was fast asleep, snugly tucked up in my blankets, dreaming a pleasant dream of something ‘hot.’ One always dreams of lovely hot things at night in the trenches, sitting at a warm fire at home, or of huge piles of food and drink, but always steaming hot.

‘You will need to be quick, Father, to find them alive.’ By this time I had grasped the fact that someone was calling me, that some poor dying man needed help, that perhaps a soul was in danger. In a few seconds I had pulled on my big boots, I know I should want them in the mud and wet, jumped into my waterproof and darted down the trench.

It was just 2 a.m., bitterly cold and snowing hard. God help the poor fellows holding the tumbled in ditch which is called the Front Line, standing there wet and more than frozen, hour after hour; but more than all God help and strengthen the victims of this war, the wounded soldier with his torn and bleeding body lying out in this awful biting cold, praying for the help that seems so slow in coming.

The first part of my journey was easy enough, except that the snow made it difficult to keep one’s feet, and I began to realise that one cannot run as easily at 44 as one could at 24.

All went well till I reached a certain part of the trench, which rejoices in the attractive name of ‘Suicide Corner,’ from the fact that the Germans have a machine gun trained on it and at intervals during the night pump a shower of lead on that spot in the hope of knocking out some chance passer-by.

It was just my luck that as I came near this place I heard the ‘Rat-tat- tat’ of the beastly gun and the whiz of the passing bullets. It was not a pleasant prospect to run the gauntlet and skip through the bullets ‘made in Germany’ but what priest would hesitate for a second with two dying men at the end of the trench? I ducked my head and ‘chivvied’ down that trench. (I do not know what this word means, but I believe it implies terrific speed and breathless excitement.)

In the dark and at that distance I was quite invisible to the German gunner, but I think the Old Boy himself was turning the handle that night, but luckily for me was out of practice; the cold I expect upset his aim. Away on my left as I ran I could hear in the stillness of the night the grinding ‘Rat-tat-tat’ of the machine gun, for all the world as if a hundred German carpenters were driving nails into my coffin, while overhead ‘crack, crack, whiz, whiz’ went the bullets tearing one after another for fear they would be too late.

It was a novel experience to have a whole machine gun all to yourself, but it is a pleasure I am not particularly anxious to repeat. At the same time I do not think I was really in any great danger as judging by the sound the leaden shower was going too high.

The guns make all movement by night very unpleasant. Both sides have any number of them firing all night, from time to time at fixed points, for example cross-roads, ‘dumps,’ light railways etc., everywhere in fact where men are likely to be. Yet in spite of the fact that each fires about 10,000 rounds each night and bullets are flying about like mosquitos, it is very rare indeed that anyone is hit, weeks at a time without a casualty and scarcely never if one takes the ordinary precautions.

The first man was ‘in extremis’ when I reached him. I did all I could for him, commended his soul to the merciful God as he had only a few minutes to live, and hurried on to find the other wounded boy.

A journey along the Firing Line in the day time is not an easy matter, but in the darkness of the night it baffles description. A star shell from time to time gave me light and I made good progress, only to end in blackness and a pool or a shell hole full of mud and water.

I found the dying lad, he was not much more, so tightly jammed into a corner of the trench it was almost impossible to get him out. Both legs were smashed, one in two or three places, so his chances of life were small as there were other injuries as well. What a harrowing picture that scene would have made. A splendid young soldier, married only a month they told me, lying there pale and motionless in the mud and water with the life crushed out of him by a cruel shell. The stretcher bearers hard at work binding up as well as they may his broken limbs; round about a group of silent Tommies looking on and wondering when will their turn come. Peace for a moment seems to have taken possession of the battlefield; not a sound save the deep boom of some far off gun and the stifled moans of the dying boy, while as if anxious to hide the scene, nature drops her soft mantle of snow on the living and dead alike. Then while every head is bared come the solemn words of absolution, ‘Ego te absolve,’ I absolve thee from thy sins. Depart Christian soul and may the Lord Jesus Christ receive thee with a smiling and benign countenance. Amen.

Oh! surely the gentle Saviour did receive with open arms the brave lad who had laid down his life for Him, and as I turned away I felt happy in the thought that his soul was already safe in that land where ‘God will wipe away all sorrow from our eyes, for weeping and mourning shall be no more’.

4 January 1917

I did not get my work finished till rather late tonight and as I had to turn out again shortly it was not worth while turning in. Some of my men were to make a raid on the enemy trenches in the early hours of the morning, dangerous work and heavy casualties often, so I make it a point to go round the line and give each man Absolution before he ‘goes over the top.’ It is a hard and anxious time and a big strain waiting for the word to be given and I know it is a comfort to them to see the priest come round and a cheery word bucks them up. All went well with the raid. We should have had more prisoners only a hot-blooded Irishman is a dangerous customer when he gets behind a bayonet and wants to let daylight through everybody.

I got back to my bunk at six and slept like a top till seven, not too long you will say, but if you come out here you will find all the old-fashioned ideas about food and sleep and wet clothes and the rest of it rapidly vanishing. It is wonderful what you can do with a cup of tea and one hours’ sleep in the twenty-four. (Personally I would vote for two hours, and two cups of tea with a wee bit of bread.)

28 December 1916

Fr Doyle wrote the following in his diary on this day in 1916:

I have celebrated Mass in some strange places and under extraordinary conditions but somehow I was more than usually impressed this morning. The men had gathered in what was once a small convent. For with all their faults, their devil-may-care recklessness, they love the Mass and regret when they cannot come. It was a poor miserable place, cold and wet, the only light being two small candles. Yet they knelt there and prayed as only our own Irish poor can pray, with a fervour and faith which would touch the heart of any unbeliever. They are as shy as children, and men of few words; but I know they are grateful when one tries to be kind to them and warmly appreciate all that is done for their soul’s interest.

American soldiers at Mass in the ruins of Cologne cathedral. This image calls to mind the scene described above from 28 December 1916.
American soldiers at Mass in the ruins of Cologne cathedral. This image calls to mind the scene described above from 28 December 1916.

Thoughts for St Stephen’s Day from Fr Willie Doyle

The following two excerpts from a letter written by Fr Doyle recount two incidents that happened on St Stephen’s Day, 1916. They give us a further insight into the harshness life in wartime, as well as Fr Doyle’s own cheerfulness in the face of the horrors of war. May we never have to face these trials in our own day, and if we do, may we face them with the strength and calm that Fr Doyle obtained through his intense life of prayer.

On St. Stephen’s Day the men were engaged in a football match, when the Germans saw them, sent over a lovely shot at long range, which carried away the goal post — the umpire gave a ‘foul’ — and bursting in the middle of the men, killed three and wounded seven. The wounded were bandaged up and hurried off to hospital, the dead carried away for burial; and then the ball was kicked off once more, and the game went on as if nothing had happened. The Germans must have admired the cool pluck of the players, for they did not fire any more. This is just one little incident of the war, showing how little is thought of human life out here; it sounds callous but there is no room for sentiment in warfare, and I suppose it is better so…

I was riding on my bicycle past a wagon when the machine slipped, throwing me between the front and back wheels of the limber. Fortunately the horses were going very slowly and I was able, how I cannot tell, to roll out before the wheel went over my legs. I have no luck, you see, else I should be home now with a couple of broken legs, not to speak of a crushed head. The only commiseration I received was the remark of some passing officers that ‘the Christmas champagne must have been very strong!’

St Stephen