Francis P. Duffy

Francis P. Duffy
Chaplain, Lieutenant Colonel
165th Infantry, 42nd Division
May 2, 1871 – June 27, 1932

Two Soldiers in World War I uniforms stand side-by-side smiling.

Col. William J. Donovan, left, and Father Francis Duffy, right, return from France after World War I. U.S. Army Signal Corps

Army Chaplain Francis P. Duffy was the most decorated chaplain in Army history. Duffy served both at home and abroad, providing spiritual guidance and comfort to American and European Soldiers alike.

Born May 2, 1871, in Cobourg, Ontario, Canada, Francis Patrick Duffy was one of 11 children born to first-generation Irish Canadians. He suffered from several illnesses during his childhood, but loved school when he was well enough to attend. Raised Roman Catholic, Duffy graduated from St. Michael’s College in Toronto (now the University of St. Michael’s College) and moved to New York City in 1893 to teach at the College of St. Francis Xavier (now Xavier High School). His time there motivated him to join the clergy. Duffy enrolled in St. Joseph’s Seminary in Troy, New York and was ordained in 1896. He then earned a doctorate from Catholic University in Washington, D.C., in 1905. He worked with the U.S. Army as a civilian chaplain in 1898 to serve Soldiers returning from the War with Spain. He served the sick and injured until falling ill himself with typhoid fever, after which he returned to St Joseph’s Seminary.

Duffy was deeply committed to his New York community. He enjoyed discussing faith, teaching at St. Joseph’s, and serving as an editor for the “New York Review: A Journal of Ancient Faith and Modern Thought.” A popular teacher, Duffy was known for his forward-thinking ideas and support for the modernism movement within Catholicism. The Catholic Church, worried modernism bordered too closely on heresy, dispersed the “New York Review’s” faculty and reassigned Duffy in 1912. His new assignment was in the Bronx, where he was to open Our Savior Church. He committed himself to the cause but wished for a greater challenge. His repeated transfer requests were denied, however.

Beginning in 1914, Duffy served as regimental chaplain in the New York National Guard’s highly decorated 69th Regiment. The 69th traced its linage back to the New York Irish Brigade during the Civil War. On the eve of World War I, the regiment was still filled mostly with Irish immigrants. Duffy said of the regiment, “They are Irish by adoption, Irish by association, or Irish by conviction.” He first traveled with the regiment to the Mexican border in 1916 during a campaign to quell a revolutionary movement led by Pancho Villa. When the United States entered World War I the following year, the regiment deployed to Europe. At that time that the 69th Regiment was re-designated as the 165th Infantry, though the men continued to identify as 69th Soldiers.

Duffy was a source of encouragement and inspiration for his regiment from the beginning. He participated in recruitment at the start of World War I, visiting local Catholic churches and leading mass in uniform to drum up support. His methods were so successful the regiment had to turn away potential recruits. Once in France, Duffy provided a listening ear and comfort to Soldiers across nationalities. He offered the religious guidance he felt was appropriate, though not always the guidance or support Soldiers wanted. He later said of French priests, “all [they] give is absolution … I give [Soldiers] hell first.” As one of the first American regiments deployed on the Western Front, the 165th faced intense fighting. Duffy offered last confessions to Soldiers before engagements and was regularly spotted in the thick of battle seeking out the wounded. He was reportedly considered for the position of regimental commander by Brig. Gen. Douglas MacArthur. His leadership earned him a Distinguished Service Cross, the Croix de Guerre, and several other military honors. Following the war, he published “Father Duffy’s Story,” a memoir of his time overseas. Famed poet Joyce Kilmer, a sergeant in the 165th, started the manuscript as an account of the regiment. Duffy continued and modified the manuscript into a memoir after Kilmer’s death in France.

Duffy returned to the United States with the 165th after the Allies occupation of Rhineland in 1919. He continued to serve in the National Guard and as priest at Holy Cross Church, living the rest of his life in New York. Duffy died of colitis and a liver infection in June 1932. His loss was felt around the city. Tens of thousands of New Yorkers lined the streets during his funeral procession to his burial site in the Bronx. Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke of his death, stating: “In Father Duffy’s death the nation has lost one of its great spiritual leaders, a real battler for a higher moral sense among men … I feel a sense of great loss for myself as well as for our state.” Today, Duffy is honored with a 17-foot statue in Midtown Manhattan, which overlooks Duffy Square. The statue was erected in 1937 by artist Charles Keck. Duffy was also portrayed in the 1940 movie, “The Fighting 69th,” by actor Pat O’Brien. His good friend Joyce Kilmer’s poem, “Rouge Bouquet,” was read at his funeral, just as it was at the funerals of each member of the 69th regiment. The end of the poem reads,

Comrades true, born anew, peace to you!
And your memory shine like the morning-star.
Brave and dear,
Shield us here.

Delaney Brewer
Co-lead Education Specialist


“Father Duffy Dead; Won Fame in War; Chaplain of the ‘Fighting 69th’ and Pastor of Holy Cross Succumbs at 61. Mourned by All Faiths High Tribute Paid to Soldier-Priest Who Was Honored for Service in France. Father Duffy Dead; Won Fame in War.” New York Times, June 27, 1932.

Harris, Stephen L. Duffy’s War. Washington, D.C.: Potomac Books, 2006.

“History of the 69th Regiment.” The 69th Infantry Regiment. Accessed February 3, 2022.

La Gorce, Tammy. “In Times Square, Looking for Father Duffy.” New York Times, March 3, 2017.

McGrath, Nick. “Chaplain (Lieutenant Colonel) Francis P. Duffy.” On Point 21, no. 3 (2016): 18–21.

“Roosevelt Pays Late Priest Tribute.” The Republican-Journal, June 29, 1932.——-en-20–1–txt-txIN———-.

The Catholic Encyclopedia and Its Makers. New York: The Encyclopedia Press, Inc., 1917.

Further Reading

Duffy, Francis Patrick, and Joyce Kilmer. Father Duffy’s Story: A Tale of Humor and Heroism, of Life and Death with the Fighting Sixty-Ninth. Pantianos Classics, 1919.
Shelley, Thomas J. “‘What the Hell Is an Encyclical?”: Governor Alfred E. Smith, Charles C. Marshall, Esq., and Father Francis P. Duffy.” U.S. Catholic Historian 15, no. 2 (1997): 87–107.