“I am a very Irish, very Catholic, very American person, if anybody challenges my convictions. But normally and let alone, I am just plain human.”
And that is how Father Francis Patrick Duffy described himself in the preface to his 1920 autobiography “Father Duffy’s Story.” New Yorkers, however, disagreed. Father Duffy was anything but “just plain human.”
Things started out calmly enough for the priest. He was ordained in 1896 and, upon graduating from the Catholic University of America in Washington DC, he was sent to St. Joseph’s Seminary in New York as Professor of Psychology and Ethics. Duffy had been Army chaplain during the Spanish-American War and, after becoming pastor of Our Savior Catholic Church in the Bronx, was made chaplain of the 165th National Guard Unit of the 42nd Division – formerly the 69th Infantry Regiment – the year World War I broke out in Europe.
And that’s when things changed for the Irish priest.
The unit was dubbed “The Fighting 69th” by Confederate General Robert E. Lee and remembered in an Irish-American folk tune “The Fighting 69th” for its Civil War exploits. The 165th would always be the 69th to its soldiers.
With America’s entry into the war in 1917, the regiment was shipped off to fight. Among the soldiers was poet Joyce Kilmer, a sergeant. On the ship transporting the troops across the Atlantic, he described the men lining up for confession with Father Duffy “as long as the mess-line.”
If officers expected the chaplain to wait passively for the soldiers to return so he could administer rites and dispense priestly wisdom, they were wrong. By the end of the war, Duffy was the most highly decorated chaplain in U.S. Army history – earning the Distinguished Service Cross and the Distinguished Service Medal from the U.S. and the Legion d’Honneur and Croix de Guerre from the French military.
While on the front lines, Joyce Kilmer was writing the story of the regiment in battle. A year after the unit’s deployment, the writer was killed at the Second Battle of the Marne in 1918, at 31 years old. Father Duffy picked up Kilmer’s notes and finished the project.
When the war was finally over, Duffy quietly returned to New York City to take up his duties as pastor of Holy Cross Church in Hell’s Kitchen, just a block from Times Square – a gritty area of mostly Irish immigrants living in poverty. He died on June 26, 1932.
Almost immediately a movement was begun to honor the hero priest with a monument. On September 10, 1935 the Municipal Art Commission gave preliminary approval to a model of a statue designed by sculptor Charles Keck to be erected in the large, triangular traffic island in Times Square where Broadway and 7th Avenue intersect above 47th Street.
The dramatic and powerful design depicted Duffy in the uniform of the 69th, helmet at his feet, holding a bible. Behind the soldier-priest a monolithic green granite Celtic cross rose.
The monument was completed in the Spring of 1937 and as the city prepared for its unveiling, renowned photographer Berenice Abbot chanced upon the tightly-wrapped statue one day in April. The unusual subject was too much to pass up and Abbot began assembling her tripod and setting up the shot.
Before long a curious crowd assembled to watch the photographer’s work. A Times Square beat cop was not as interested in her art. Berating her for causing a public disturbance he ordered her to move on. Abbott took one hasty shot and packed up. “I wasn’t smart about fighting back them,” she later lamented.
A few days later, on May 2, the statue was unveiled. “Before the eyes of 30,000 persons massed in Times Square yesterday,” reported The New York Times, “white surpliced altar boys held aloft a crucifix and candles, there was unveiled the statue of a Roman Catholic priest in the uniform of a soldier of the A. E. F.”
|Berenice Abbot's pre-unveiling shot produced a curious crowd and the ire of a Times Square cop.|
The finished bronze statue is nearly 8 feet tall and the green granite cross tops 17 feet. The traffic island on which it sits was renamed Father Duffy Square. Only eight years after it was dedicated, the statue was nearly lost when the city considered melting it down in 1943 for scrap metal for the war effort.
|In 1941, the year the U.S. entered World War II, sailors admire the Duffy statue. Two years later the City would decide whether or not to destroy it for scrap metal -- Rodney McCay Morgan/New York City Parks Photo Archive|
Father Duffy Square has seen dramatic changes since that Spring day in 1937 when the statue was unveiled. Throngs of tourists and New Yorkers alike pass the monument daily in bustling Times Square. The modern TKTS booth now forms the statue’s backdrop.
The monument was restored in 1997 with money provided by the Times Square Business Improvement District when it was conserved and repatined. The powerful depiction of Duffy was included on the National Register of Historic Places in 2001.