During his time away from the trenches Fr Doyle often stayed in a convent in Locre. If my memory serves me correctly, he had an uninterrupted 13 hour sleep after one particularly trying period at the front, and on one occasion he got locked out and had to sleep on a bench outside.
In any event, these nuns of St Anthony’s Institute obviously held Fr Doyle in very great esteem. They were heartbroken when they heard of his death, and on August 21 1917 they sent the following note to Fr Frank Browne, requesting that Fr Doyle’s body be buried in their convent.
What very sad news I have received! Our good brave holy Fr. Doyle has been killed! Compassionate Lord Jesus give him eternal rest! Rev. Fr Browne will accept my condolence, my feelings of sympathy in the great loss of our good Fr. Doyle, your confrere. Notre petit saint, he has now received his recompense for his holy life, his great love for God and neighbour. Oh! he was so much loved by everybody and we shall never forget him. We are all very glad to have had him with us in the convent and to have made his life as comfortable as possible. Were it not possible Rev. Fr. to bring his holy body to the convent? It were a great honour to us to have it.
Of course, Fr Doyle’s body was never found, and so the “holy body” of the “petit saint” never returned to St Anthony’s Institute.
On this day in 1917, 4 days after Fr Doyle’s death, Fr Frank Browne, the famous photographer and Jesuit military chaplain, wrote the following in a letter expressing his esteem for Fr Doyle. Fr Browne worked closely with Fr Doyle, and these words come from the pen of one who knew Fr Doyle intimately.
All during these last months he was my greatest help, and to his saintly advice, and still more to his saintly example, I owe everything I felt and did. With him, as with others of us, his bravery was no mere physical show-off. He was afraid and felt fear deeply, how deeply few can realise. And yet the last word said of him to me by the Adjutant of the Royal Irish Rifles in answer to my question, ‘I hope you are taking care of Fr. Doyle?’, was, ‘He is as fond of the shells as ever.’ His one idea was to do God’s work with the men, to make them saints. How he worked and how he prayed for this! Fine weather and foul he was always thinking of them and what he could do for them. In the cold winter he would not use the stove I bought for our dug-out. He scoffed at the idea as making it ‘stuffy’ – and that when the thermometer was fifteen to twenty degrees below zero, the coldest ever known in living memory here.
And how he loathed it all, the life and everything it implied! And yet nobody suspected it. God’s Will was his law. And to all who remonstrated, ‘Must I not be about the Lord’s business?’ was his laughing answer in act and deed and not merely in word. May he rest in peace — it seems superfluous to pray for him.
Ronan McGreevy of the Irish Times has produced a fascinating documentary about the Irish involvement in World War 1. Today the Irish Times published the segment featuring the Battle of Passchendaele and the Irish involvement therein. Fr Doyle features extensively, and we get a glimpse of the terrain where he worked and was killed.
Thanks to Ronan for his hard work in keeping the memory of these Irish soldiers alive and for his ongoing interest in Fr Doyle.
Darling Mother Mary, in preparation for the glorious martyrdom which I feel assured thou art going to obtain for me, I, thy most unworthy child, on this the first day of thy month, solemnly commence my life of slow martyrdom by earnest hard work and constant self-denial. With my blood I promise thee to keep this resolution, do thou, sweet Mother, assist me and obtain for me the one favour I wish and long for: To die a Jesuit Martyr.
May 1st, 1893.
May God’s will, not mine, be done! Amen.
These words were written in Fr Doyle’s private diary. He kept his part of the bargain – the remaining 24 years of his life were literally a slow martyrdom of “earnest hard work and constant self-denial”. Mary kept her part of the bargain, and won for him the grace of “martyrdom” on August 16, 1917: 100 years ago today. Of course, Fr Doyle is not a martyr in the formal, classical sense of the term – he was not killed out of hatred for the Faith. The concept of being a “martyr of charity” – one who dies while serving others or administering the sacraments – can be traced back to heroic Christians who died after nursing plague victims in the 3rd century. Some background on the concept of a “martyr of charity” can be found here:http://newsaints.faithweb.com/new_martyrs/martyrs_charity.htm
Interestingly, since July if this year, there is a specific pathway towards canonisation for martyrs of charity. More on this in a later post today.
This is O’Rahilly’s brief account of Fr Doyle’s death:
Fr. Doyle had been engaged from early morning in the front line, cheering and consoling his men, and attending to the many wounded. Soon after 3 p.m. he made his way back to the Regimental Aid Post which was in charge of a Corporal Raitt, the doctor having gone back to the rear some hours before. Whilst here word came in that an officer of the Dublins had been badly hit, and was lying out in an exposed position. Fr. Doyle at once decided to go out to him, and left the Aid Post with his runner, Private Mclnespie, and a Lieutenant Grant. Some twenty minutes later, at about a quarter to four, Mclnespie staggered into the Aid Post and fell down in a state of collapse from shell shock. Corporal Raitt went to his assistance and after considerable difficulty managed to revive him. His first words on coming back to consciousness were: “Fr. Doyle has been killed!” Then bit by bit the whole story was told. Fr. Doyle had found the wounded officer lying far out in a shell crater. He crawled out to him, absolved and anointed him, and then, half dragging, half carrying the dying man, managed to get him within the line. Three officers came up at this moment, and Mclnespie was sent for some water. This he got and was handing it to Fr. Doyle when a shell burst in the midst of the group, killing Fr. Doyle and the three officers instantaneously, and hurling Mclnespie violently to the ground. Later in the day some of the Dublins when retiring came across the bodies of all four. Recognising Fr. Doyle, they placed him and a Private Meehan, whom they were carrying back dead, behind a portion of the Frezenberg Redoubt and covered the bodies with sods and stones.
The book The Cross on the Sword: Catholic Chaplains in the Armed Forces claims that another military chaplain by the name of Fr Fitzmaurice heard Fr Doyle’s confession 15 minutes before his death. If this is true, then Fr Doyle himself had the great grace of confession just moments before death – this is a great gift to one who lost his own life while bringing this sacrament to others.
Those who wish to know more about Fr Doyle’s service as a military chaplain, and who wish to know the identity of the officers that Fr Doyle ran to help when he was killed, should purchase a copy of Carole Hope’s Worshipper and Worshipped. Other books focus on different aspects of Fr Doyle’s life, and all include extensive treatment of the war (including KV Turley’s CTS booklet and my own To Raise the Fallen which includes about 60 pages of war letters); but it is Worshipper and Worshipped that is the definitive scholarly guide to the specific military aspect of Fr Doyle’s life.
Of course, Fr Doyle’s body was not properly buried and preserved. There are various suggestions that he was hastily buried under rocks, and that soldiers who found his body removed some of his uniform buttons and his Pioneer pin and gave them to Fr Frank Browne for safe keeping. There are other suggestions that the location of Fr Doyle’s body was noted, and when men returned to bury him, that it was no longer to be found, presumably having been hit by another shell. Ultimately, we don’t know where his body is so we have no physical remains or monuments to him. In this regard, one of the later editions of O’Rahilly’s biography quotes the words of St Ignatius of Antioch which are very fitting:
Entice the wild beasts to become my tomb and leave no trace of my body so that in falling asleep I may be a burden to no one. Then shall I be really a disciple of Jesus Christ, when the world will not even see my body.
St Patrick wrote in a similar vein:
I beg of God whom I love to grant me that I may shed my blood with those strangers and captives for His name’s sake, even though I be without burial itself, or my corpse be most miserably divided, limb by limb, amongst dogs and fierce beasts, or the birds of the air devour it. I think it most certain that if this happens to me, I shall have gained my soul with my body.
And so it was with Fr Doyle.
How does one sum up someone who lived such a varied and remarkable life as Fr Doyle on this, his anniversary? Perhaps only the words of Christ Himself would do him justice:
Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends (John 15:13).
Thank you Fr Willie for this love that you showed to the wounded soldiers in the Great War and for the example of your struggle to grow in virtue throughout your life.
The feast of the Assumption was an important feast for Fr Doyle. He made his religious vows on this feast in 1893, and always felt that that Our Lady obtained special graces for him on this day. Perhaps our Blessed Mother will have special graces in store for us as well today?
Here is his account of Mary’s protection on August 15th, 1916 (a year before his death) during one German shell attack:
Knowing there were a good number of my boys about I hurried back as quickly as I could, and made my way up the long, narrow street. The shells were all coming in one direction, across the road, not down it, so that by keeping close to the houses on the shady side there was little danger, though occasional thrills of excitement enough to satisfy Don Quixote himself. I reached the village cross-roads in time to lift up the poor sentry who had been badly hit, and with the help of a couple of men carried him to the side of the road. He was unconscious, but I gave him absolution and was half way through the anointing when with a scream and a roar which made our hearts jump a shell whizzed over our heads and crashed into the wall directly opposite on the other side of the street, covering us with brick dust and dirt. Bits of shrapnel came thud, thud, on the ground and wall around us, but neither I nor the men were touched.
“Begorra, Father, that was a near one, anyhow”, said one of them, as he brushed the dust off his tunic, and started to fill his pipe. “It was well we had your Reverence with us when Jerry (a nickname for German) sent that one across”.
“You must not thank me, boys” I said, “don’t you know it is our Lady s feast, and Mary had her mantle spread over us to save us from all harm?
“True for you, Father”, came the answer. But I could see by their faces that they were by no means convinced that I had not worked the miracle.
Though it was the 15th of August I was taking no risks, especially with this reputation to maintain ! So, the poor boy being dead, I bundled the rest of them down a cellar out of harm’s way, and started off again. Heavy as the shelling was, little damage was done thanks to the fact that the sports had emptied the town. One man was beyond my aid, a few slightly wounded, and that was all. As I came round the corner of the Church I met four of my boys calmly strolling along in the middle of the street as if they were walking on Kingstown pier. I won t record what I said, but my words helped by the opportune arrival of an unpleasantly near H.E. (high explosive) had the desired effect, and we all took cover in the church. It was only then I realised my mistake, for it soon became evident the Germans were firing at the church itself. One after another the shells came in rapid succession, first on one side then on the other, dropping in front and behind the building, which was a target with its tall, white tower. It was madness to go out, and I do not think the men, some score of them, knew of their danger, nor did I tell them, but man of little faith, as I was, I cast anxious eyes at the roof and wished it were stronger. All’s well that ends well, they say. Not a shot hit the church, though the houses and road got it hot. Our fiery ordeal ended at last, safely and happily for all of us. And August 15th, 1916, went down on my list as another day of special grace and favour at Mary’s hands.
I have told you all my escapes, dearest Father, because I think what I have written will give you the same confidence which I feel, that my old arm chair up in Heaven is not ready yet, and I do not want you to be uneasy about me. I am all the better for these couple of days rest, and am quite on my fighting legs again. Leave will be possible very shortly, I think, so I shall only say au revoir in view of an early meeting. Heaps of love to every dear one. As ever, dearest Father, your loving son, Willie. 14/8/17.
COMMENT: These are probably Fr Doyle’s last written words, written 100 years ago today, just two days before his death. As ever, Fr Doyle was thinking of others, even amongst the mess and strain of the trenches. Could we honestly say that we would have a similar concern for others if we found ourselves in the same situation that Fr Doyle was in?
Today of course, is also the feast of St Maximilian Kolbe, one of the shining examples of holiness and apostolic zeal of the twentieth century. It is interesting that St Maximilian, who was so devoted to Mary, was given the grace of martyrdom on the eve of the feast of the Assumption, while Fr Doyle, who always reported receiving special graces from Mary on this particular feast, received his long desired wish for “martyrdom” immediately after this feast. Their “martyrdoms” are also quite similar. St Maximilian volunteered to take the place of a husband and father who was to be killed in the concentration camp as an act of revenge by the Nazis for the escape of a prisoner. Fr Doyle was blown up while trying to rescue some wounded soldiers. Both St Maximilian and Fr Doyle laid down their lives to save others. This is significant in terms of the changes to the laws on canonisations. I will write more about this in coming days.
Like Fr Doyle in the trenches of World War 1, and St Teresa Benedicta at Auschwitz (who we discussed a few days ago), St Maximilian’s body was entirely destroyed by the Nazis, although there are still some first class relics of St Maximilian due to a barber who cleverly kept some of his hair when it was being cut.
We shall return to this issue of the destruction of the body of martyrs with some reflections from St Ignatius of Antioch and St Patrick on Wednesday when we remember Fr Doyle’s anniversary. In the meantime, those who want to read more about St Maximilian’s spirituality could fruitfully read some reflections from Fr John Hardon SJ here:
Today we have the last of Fr Doyle’s narratives from his letters home to his father in August 1917, less than a week before his death.
In this entry in his letter we see his close brush with death in the form of a shell landing very close to him.
Close beside us I had found the remains of a dug-out which had been blown in the previous day and three men killed. I made up my mind to offer up Mass there for the repose of their souls. In any case I did not know a better hole to go to, and to this little act of charity I attribute the saving of my life later on in the day. I had barely fitted up my altar when a couple of shells burst overhead, sending the clay tumbling down. For a moment I felt very tempted not to continue as the place was far from safe. But later I was glad I went on for the Holy Souls certainly came to my aid as I did to theirs.
I had finished breakfast and had ventured a bit down the trench to find a spot to bury some bodies left lying there. I had reached a sheltered corner, when I heard the scream of a shell coming towards me rapidly, and judging by the sound, straight for the spot where I stood. Instinctively I crouched down, and well I did so, for the shell whizzed past my head I felt my hair blown about by the hot air and burst in front of me with a deafening crash. It seemed to me as if a heavy wooden hammer had hit me on the top of the head, and I reeled like a drunken man, my ears ringing with the explosion. For a moment I stood wondering how many pieces of shrapnel had hit me, or how many legs and arms I had left, and then dashed through the thick smoke to save myself from being buried alive by the shower of falling clay which was rapidly covering me. I hardly know how I reached the dug-out for I was speechless and so badly shaken that it was only by a tremendous effort I was able to prevent myself from collapsing utterly as I had seen so many do from shell shock. Then a strange thing happened: something seemed to whisper in my ear, one of those sudden thoughts which flash through the mind: Did not that shell come from the hand of God? He willed it should be so. Is it not a proof that He can protect you no matter what the danger?
The thought that it was all God’s doing acted like a tonic; my nerves calmed down, and shortly after I was out again to see could I meet another iron friend. As a matter of fact I wanted to see exactly what had happened, for the report of a high explosive shell is so terrific that one is apt to exaggerate distances. An officer recently assured me he was only one foot from a bursting shell, when in reality he was a good 40 yards away. You may perhaps find it hard to believe, as I do myself, what I saw. I had been standing by a trellis work of thin sticks. By stretching out my hand I could touch the screen, and the shell fell smashing the woodwork! My escape last year at Loos was wonderful, but then I was some yards away, and partly protected by a bend in the trench. Here the shell fell, I might say, at my very feet; there was no bank, no protection except the wall of your good prayers and the protecting arm of God.
That night we were relieved, or rather it was early morning, 4.30 a.m., when the last company marched out. I went with them so that I might leave no casualties behind.
We hurried over the open as fast as we could, floundering in the thick mud, tripping over wires in the darkness, and, I hope, some of the lay members cursing the German gunners for disturbing us by an odd shot. We had nearly reached the road, not knowing it was a marked spot when like a hurricane a shower of shells came smashing down upon us. We were fairly caught and for once I almost lost hope of getting through in safety. For five minutes or more we pushed on in desperation; we could not stop to take shelter, for dawn was breaking and we should have been seen by the enemy. Right and left in front and behind, some far away, many very close, the shells kept falling Crash! One has pitched in the middle of the line, wounding five men, none of them seriously. Surely God is good to us, for it seems impossible a single man will escape unhurt, and then when the end seemed at hand, our batteries opened fire with a roar to support an attack that was beginning. The German guns ceased like magic, or turned their attention elsewhere, and we scrambled on to the road and reached home without further loss.
Today we also celebrate the feast of St Clare, the friend of St Francis of Assisi and the founder of the Poor Clares. We remember in a special way Fr Doyle’s dedication to this order and in particular the fact that he was instrumental in founding the Poor Clare convent in Cork City, and we remember this particular monastery in our prayers in a special way today.http://poorclarescork.ie/monastery