By Eileen Connelly, OSU
The faith, compassion and courage of four military chaplains who gave their lives on a fateful day during World War II was remembered by veterans, their families and parishioners at St. Boniface Church in Cincinnati, Ohio on Feb. 3.
Approximately 400 people gathered for the 50th annual Mass, celebrated by Br. Matthias Crehan, OFM, with Br. Larry Dunham, OFM, as concelebrant. The liturgy was deeply meaningful for the friars, who are both former Navy chaplains.
The story of the Four Chaplains
The story of the Four Chaplains continues to be an inspiration more than 80 years after the transport ship Dorchester was struck by a German torpedo in the icy waters of the North Atlantic on Feb. 3, 1943. Amid the fear and chaos as the ship sank, the voices of four chaplains – Lt. George L. Fox, Methodist; Lt. Alexander D. Goode, Jewish; Lt. John P. Washington, Roman Catholic; and Lt. Clark V. Poling, Dutch Reformed – offered reassurance. They ministered to the men, helping them search for life jackets, guiding them topside and helping them into lifeboats.
When no more life jackets could be found, the chaplains removed theirs and gave them to four frightened young men. Only 299 of the 904 men on board survived. Their last sight of the Dorchester, as she slid beneath the surface, revealed the chaplains standing on the deck, hand in hand, each praying in his own faith to the God of them all.
Shortly after the Dorchester sank, the American Legion and its honor society, the Forty and Eight (40&8), began a program to memorialize the Four Chaplains’ sacrifice, explained Bob Schinaman, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran who served with the 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion in Vietnam during 1969. Wounded in action and medically retired due to injuries, Bob belongs to multiple veterans’ organizations and has organized the annual Mass at his home parish since 1999, following in the footsteps of his father, William.
A light of faith
Presiding at the 2023 Four Chaplains Memorial Mass was a “privilege,” said Br. Larry, who joined the Navy as a chaplain in 1989 and ministered during Desert Storm and Desert Shield in Iraq.
He recalls learning about the Four Chaplains as a child through a 1948 commemorative stamp released in their honor.
“Their light of faith shown out and touched the survivors, touched the country, touched the world, and inspired and touched me years later as a youngster.” Br. Larry said. “I’ve used, on more than one occasion, the four chaplains and their incredible sacrifice as a real-life embodiment of St. Francis’ Peace Prayer. Every phrase of that prayer was on display that horrible night."
The congregation gathers at St. Boniface Church in Cincinnati to honor the Four Chaplains. (Photo courtesy of Tony Tribble)
Br. Matthias Crehan lights a candle in honor of Chaplain Washington as Br. Larry Dunham looks on. (Photo courtesy of Tony Tribble)
Bob Schinaman, primary organizer of the annual Mass, speaks to the crowd gathered at St. Boniface. (Photo courtesy of Tony Tribble)
Veterans salute during the playing of “Taps.” (Photo courtesy of Tony Tribble)
Br. Matthias gives the homily during the Four Chaplains Memorial Mass. (Photo courtesy of Tony Tribble)
Franciscans as military chaplains
Br. Matt said it is somewhat of a tradition for Franciscans to serve as military chaplains.
“I am a military guy, like St. Francis of Assisi and my father and grandfather,” he said. Br. Matt spent three years as a Navy chaplain, with assignments that included wing chaplain to the USMC–2nd Marine Air Wing in Cherry Point, North Carolina, and the Naval Recruit Training Command, Nuclear Power School and Naval Hospital in Orlando, Florida. After separating from the Navy, Br. Matt spent 20 years as chaplain for the Veterans Administration.
“I’m grateful to have served, and being at the Mass, looking out and seeing all the veterans gathered, was so inspiring,” he said. “In my homily, I used the example of the Four Chaplains in light of the Gospel (Mark 1:29-39), which portrays Jesus as a person of action and prayer. We can often speak by our actions more than our words, and as one survivor of the Dorchester said, the chaplains’ greatest homily was the one they gave in being unified and knowing what they had to do.”
Bringing God to man and man to God
An especially moving part of the Mass was a memorial candle service for the chaplains. In introducing the service, Bob read: “It is said that everyone finds religion in the heat of battle when our worldly abilities and those of our comrades appear insufficient. We are looking for some help from above. But we too forget our promises when things get better.”
“The duty of a chaplain to bring God to man and man to God,” he continued. “Many of us here today are attending the only religious service we will attend this year. Perhaps the true legacy of these four men of God is that 80 years after their death they are still performing their mission as chaplains – to bring God to man and man to God.”
While the focus of the Mass “has been on their sacrifice and military chaplains who have served or are serving, we also honor the sacrifices of every veteran, the families who awaited their safe return, and their widows and orphans,” Bob noted. “It is also a chance for all present to pray for peace and the safety of active duty military personnel.”
Lisa Biedenbach also contributed to this article.