Editorial — Remembering sacrifice

It’s been nearly seven decades, yet the memory of his uncle’s death in World War II still brings a catch to Father Clarence J. Howard’s throat; still produces a tear or two and causes him to pause in the middle of a conversation.

Father Howard was just nine years old when his uncle, himself a priest and an Army chaplain, Father Clarence Hagan, was killed in Italy.

As far as anyone knows — and Father Howard is certain — Father Clarence Hagan is the only priest and chaplain from the Archdiocese of Louisville to be killed in the line of duty, to die in the midst of a war.

In a letter to Father Dale Cieslik, the archivist for the archdiocese — and in a telephone conversation last week — Father Howard recounted the details of his uncle’s death, the facts surrounding his sacrifice.

Father Hagan, who was just 33 years old at the time, was a chaplain for the Army’s 10th Mountain Division and had been in Europe only two weeks before he was killed near Leghorn, Italy.

“He and a medic were walking along a railroad track, going to assist another soldier who had been struck by a land mine,” Father Howard wrote. Unfortunately, the medic stepped on a land mine himself, and the resulting explosion critically injured Father Hagan, too.

“He died later in a field hospital,” the letter said, and Father Howard tried to repeat that information in last week’s interview, but he couldn’t finish the sentence. “I get so emotional when I think about him,” he said later.

His uncle was taken to an Army field hospital where doctors and nurses said his injuries were so severe that he was beyond help.

“They asked him to prepare for the Maker,” Father Howard’s letter said.

In the movies they make about war these days, there are often scenes of men in uniform arriving at the homes of war’s victims, fulfilling the sad duty of telling relatives about the death of loved ones.

In World War II, such notification was far less personal.

“The news came by telegram,” Father Howard recalled. “He’d sort of made his home with us after his mother died. …” There was a long pause here. “It came by telegram,” he continued.

In fact, the telegrapher called the family and said “there was a message waiting in the office there for my uncle. That’s how we found out,” Father Howard explained. And that telegram is in a scrapbook about Father Hagan that his family has kept over the years, his nephew said.

There was another telegram, too, when the Army notified the family that the body of their beloved son and uncle would be returned to Kentucky. But there were services before that happened, Father Howard noted.

“There was a funeral Mass conducted in a small Italian church, and the celebrant was an Italian priest,” he wrote. “He was buried in the military cemetery” in the Italian town.

But the family asked the Army to send Father Hagan’s body back to the U.S. so he could be buried in his hometown of New Haven, Ky. And the Army complied.

“A funeral Mass was offered at St. Catherine Church by Archbishop John A. Floersh,” Father Howard’s letter said. “And my uncle was then buried in St. Catherine Cemetery.”

In the telephone interview, Father Howard said that there were two books written about his uncle that are in the archdiocesan archives.

“His purple heart is in the museum across the street from the Cathedral,” said the retired priest, who is now 79.

“My mother wouldn’t allow me to serve in the chaplaincy corps,” he said. She’d seen the cost the war had brought to other families in Kentucky as well as to her own. She’d seen the sacrifice.

Sacrifice. That’s what’s really the bottom line of Father Howard’s memories and his request that we all remember the chaplains from the archdiocese, especially as we prepare to celebrate our Independence Day.

It’s an independence won and protected by sacrifice. There have been dozens of priests from the archdiocese who have served as chaplains in the military — Father Patrick Dolan, who retired recently and is a Brigadier General in the Army, is one. Father Anthony Chandler was also chaplain; Father Ben Brown was the only chaplain we in Louisville know about who won a bronze star for his actions in battle during the war in Iraq. There are no doubt others whose names should be included here; forgive us for their omission.

The point is they have all sacrificed to bring the word of God and the sacraments of the church to men and women in battle. Men and women who are in harm’s way, in the midst of their own sacrifices. We all should remember them — as we remember Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross.

And as we put out our flags or light our firecrackers this Fourth of July, let us also take a moment to remember the late Father Clarence Hagan and the hundreds like him. They lie buried across the face of the globe; their personal sacrifices represented only by the white crosses that stand in mute testimony to what they have done for us all.

Glenn Rutherford
Record Editor

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One reply on “Editorial — Remembering sacrifice”
  1. says: Betty Blandford SCN

    Fr. Charles Bindner was also a Chaplain in the US Army for over 20 years, serving in Germany, VietNam, Korea and many other missions including the Leavenworth Peneteniary.

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