Lest We Forget
Spirituality is a subject that affects us all, in one way or another, throughout our entire lives, but there is no time that tests our beliefs more than in the time of war. Of all man’s inventions, this is the creation that forces even the purest of heart and mind to contemplate and question their faith. When faced with the horror that unfolds before them, they can do nothing but wonder what sort of God would allow such nightmares to exist on this beautiful planet.
They are not alone in their struggles. Within the ranks, marching side by side, are men and women who have not only given their lives to God, but to helping our service men and women retain the faith they need to make it through just one more day on the battlefield.
Little talked about, they are given perhaps the most important task of all – the care of the hearts, minds and souls of soldiers who dedicate their lives to protecting our safety and freedom.
“’I’ll give you just three nights in the front line trench before your hair will turn grey.’”(1) So Rev. B.J. Murdoch was told by another priest during his early days in the military of the first World War, and which he recounts in his book "The Red Vineyard", which is then followed by the even less encouraging, “’You’ll not be very long in the army till you’ll wish yourself out of it again.’” (2)
Truer words were probably never spoken, but no matter how discouraging they may have seemed they could not stop the Reverend Murdoch from facing the horrors ahead. He was, if not prepared, then most certainly determined to continue his work despite being faced with such a dour outlook. His strong heart and mind, perhaps bred through his Irish heritage, would not turn away from such a worthy cause.
Quaint churches, glorious cathedrals, unwavering parishioners were not to be part of his life for quite some time as he joined the ranks of war. Indeed, the main tool of his trade was provided by the military in a small wooden box, which he recalls with a sense of fondness.
“After a few days a box about one foot and a half long, one foot high and nine inches wide, arrived. It was made of wood covered with a kind of grey cloth, with strips of black leather about the edges and small pieces of brass at every corner. There was leather grips on it so that it could be carried as a satchel. It was my little portable altar, containing everything necessary for saying Mass. One half opened and stood upright from the part containing the table of the altar, which when opened out was three feet long. Fitted into the oak table was the little marble altar-stone, without which one may not say Mass. In the top of the upright part was a square hole in which the crucifix fitted to stand above the altar; on either side were holders to attach the candlesticks. From the wall that formed a compartment in the upright portion, where the vestments were kept, the altar cards unfolded; these were kept in place by small brass clips attached to the upright. Chalice, ciborium, missal and stand, cruets, wine, altar-breads, bell, linens, etc., were in compartments beneath the altar table. The whole was wonderfully compact and could be carried with one hand."(3)
His whole life, his career, packed away in one small box that was able to be carried like a satchel. Looking about myself, taking in my own possessions, gathered with care and love and memories, I can’t imagine having my entire life put together in one small box, and yet Reverend Murdoch and those like him achieved perhaps their greatest feat with such limited resources.
They did not think of all they had left behind, but looked ahead to all that they would gain.
For Reverend Murdoch, it wasn’t about the battlefield or skirmishes. It was about lives, the lives of men he would have seen everyday, and the stories they’d have to tell. Repentance would be the norm from men afraid of what would happen from day to day, hour to hour, and yet he never questioned their motives, or their purpose. He remained an honoured confidante with the strength of character to listen to all these men had to confess, and offer them some form of salvation.
One afternoon Reverend Murdoch was approached by a soldier who, in his quiet manner, desperately needed to talk. For hours this soldier poured out his entire life history, stating over and over “’Father, I’ve led an awful life!’”(4) He seemed to feel it was important for Reverend Murdoch to know why he’d turned his back on God, and why he wasn’t deserving of any forgiveness for his sins. After hours of this conversation, when the soldier had apparently exhausted all he’d needed to say, he didn’t meet any form of recrimination or doubt, just an acknowledgement of the words spoken, and an offer to help. “’Yes,’ I said, ‘and now if you will come with me into the confessional and ask God’s pardon from the bottom of your heart for all those sins, I will give you holy absolution.’”(5)
It was late evening by the time Reverend Murdoch finished speaking with the solider, offering advice and hope, despite the soldier’s initial thought that he deserved none of it. One small step, to make such a great difference in the life of one man, and in doing the same for one more, and then one more, making a greater difference to all who had contact with him in such a dangerous time.
Perhaps Reverend Murdoch thought his war-time counsel would have ended with WWI, but he was most certainly mistaken. Many years later, as Canadian soldiers once again gathered to be sent overseas, he was approached by a former student, the young Reverend R. Myles Hickey (Picture at left).
Reverend Hickey was making his own decisions of whether to go to war or stay home, wrestling with the same questions Reverend Murdoch had had some years before. His mentor offered encouragement, as repeated in Hickey’s book, "The Scarlet Dawn", and truth combined. “’Yes, go Father Raymond; you will make a good chaplain; and if you are killed, well you’ll save your soul.’”(6)
Reverend Murdoch’s last words would have shaken the strongest of men, and they did cause Reverend Hickey to realize, perhaps for the first time, that death was a great possibility. It might have made others turn aside from the service, but Reverend Hickey faced those fears and joined the men going to the war. Later, during some of the worst battles, Reverend Murdoch’s words came back to him, and in them Reverend Hickey found the strength to carry on. He might die on those fields so far from home, but in so doing he would save his soul, and perhaps the souls of the men fighting alongside him.
Later, when Reverend Hickey had occasion to speak with a Senior Chaplain who describes for him in vivid detail the horrific retreat at Dunkirk, Hickey wished to be back in his home at Jacquet River. His faith almost failed him, leaving him wondering, “My turn will come, and will I have the courage to go through it?”(7)
He finds, as the days continue to pass, that he does have the courage. He found the strength in his faith, and the faith of those around him to carry on, day by day, to continue administering to the needs of his men, and even to help them through their own little romances amidst the events that unfolded.
One evening Reverend Hickey is approached by a shy, young soldier who reminds him of an offer to write letters for the men who cannot read. Reverend Hickey might be a little surprised when the young man blurts out, “’Could you – could you – could you write a love letter.’”(8), but no matter how unusual the request for a chaplain, Reverend Hickey merely assured the man that he was a master at love letters.
A sweet moment during a terrible time; and a moment that came back to Reverend Hickey some four years later. When preparing the day’s dead he comes across a familiar face; the same soldier, who had been so anxious to write his love letter, now being lowered into a narrow grave. As Reverend Hickey whispers his prayer for the young man he recalls the struggle over that letter, the repeated “Dear Mary, Dear Mary,”(9) as the soldier tried to work out what to say to his love back at home. And later as the Reverend writes to her about the death of her husband, the same voice repeating “I love you, I love you as much as…”(10), to which the young man had eventually ended, “…as much as I love the Lord!” (11)
We hear so often of the struggles of soldiers, of the heroism on the battlefield. We’re asked to remember the war, in the hopes of learning from our mistakes. We’re taught about the great Generals of our time who led our men and women to victory. And here, almost silently, are a group of military service men who have put aside their comfortable lives and quiet service to God so that they may be beside our soldiers, marching across war-torn countryside, to offer some sense of hope and faith in a time that could easily destroy both.
It may be rare to hear their names, or think of their positions, but they remain the silent guardians of all hearts in war. May we remember them, and pray for them, like all those who fought so fearlessly for our great country.
(1) The Red Vineyard – Reverend B. J. Murdoch – Page 12
(3) The Red Vineyard – Reverend B. J. Murdoch – Page 19
(4) The Red Vineyard – Reverend B. J. Murdoch – Page 116
(6) The Scarlet Dawn – Reverend R Myles Hickey, UNIPRESS, Fredericton, N.B. – Page 12
(7) The Scarlet Dawn – Reverend R. Myles Hickey, UNIPRESS, Fredericton, N.B. – Page 97
(8) The Scarlet Dawn – Reverend R. Myles Hickey, UNIPRESS, Fredericton, N.B. – Page 40
(10) The Scarlet Dawn – Reverend R. Myles Hickey, UNIPRESS, Fredericton, N.B. – Page 41
Picture (above): Memorial in Carpiquet, France to the soldiers of the North Shore Regiment, 8th Infantry Brigade, Canada
Right Rev. Benedict J. Murdoch (1886 – 1973)
Born in Chatham, NB on March 21, 1886, son of Robert Murdoch and Mary Allen, Benedict J. Murdoch received his elementary and high school education in Chatham, and his univerity courses at St. Dunstan’s College, Charlottetown, PEI, from which he graduated in 1908. In September of that year, he entered the Grand Seminary in Quebec and was ordained to the priesthood by Bishop Barry on June 29, 1911.
Except for a few months spent in the Redemptorist Novitiate in Ilchester near Baltimore, Maryland, USA, in 1914, Father Murdoch’s early years in priesthood were given to the pastoral ministry in New Brunswick: in Balmoral, Charlo, Dundee and Newcastle. During World War I, in 1915, he enlisted as chaplain to the 132nd North Shore Battalion; and from then until the end of the war he served as chaplain with the Canadian Expeditionary Force in France, Germany and Belgium. From these harrowing years came the warp and weft of the material he presents in his best-known book, "The Red Vineyard." Here, he relives for his readers the experiences of those war years which, when it was all over, demanded an exacting toil from his human resources, as he recounts in a later autobiography, "Part Way Through."
In his book about his WWI experiences, "The Red Vineyard", Father Murdoch provided this dedication:
"To the memory of all those men
With whom I walked up and down
The ways of The Red Vineyard;
But especially to the memory of those
Who stopped in the journey, and now
Rest softly in their little green bivouacs
In the shadow of the small white crosses,
This book is affectionately dedicated by their
Friend and Comrade"
Returning home from the war, he served as pastor at Jacquet River (1919 – 1921) and at Douglastown (1921 – 1930). By then, the ill effects of his years in military service were definitely manifesting themselves, so that he was forced to give up his pastoral duties and accept a prolonged period of rest. In 1932, he retired from active full-time participation in the ministry and spent several years at Bartibogue, where he produced most of his novels and meditative writings by which he has been recognized as one of the leading prose stylists of Canada. His tenth and last book, "Facing Into The Wind", arrived from the press on the very day of his death – the final visible achievement of this priest – soldier who has been described by one of his comrades-in-arms as "one of the very best".
In 1971, on the sixtieth anniversary of his ordination, Father Murdoch received from Pope Paul VI the special honour and title of "Honorary Prelate to His Holiness", a fitting recognition of his richly beautiful giving to the People of God during so many years. The last three years of his life were spent at Mount St. Joseph. He died at Hotel-Dieu Hospital on Wednesday evening, January 31, 1973.
Msgr. R. M. Hickey (Maj.) MC
Born in Jacquet River, NB, Raymond Myles Hickey attended the local school; St. Thomas University, Chatham; and Holy Heart Seminary, Halifax, NS.
After ordination in 1933, he did ministry in Bathurst, Campbellton, and Chatham, NB. For three years prior to the war, he was on the faculty of St. Thomas University.
His six years as Army Chaplain were a great experience. He won the Military Cross on D-Day at St. Aubin, France, and was invested by the late King George VI at Buckingham Palace on July 5, 1945. In 1956, he was made a Domestic Prelate with the title of Monsignor. In 1976, his Alma Mater conferred on him the degree of Doctor of Laws, Honoris Causa.
He is author of three books, “Scarlet Dawn,” “My Hobbies Three”, and “D-Day Memories.” He also collaborated with the Reader’s Digest in the three-volume “Canadians at War.”
In his book "Scarlet Dawn" Monsignor Hickey penned the following dedication:
"To all in the Army, Navy and Air Force who went out to meet the “Scarlet Dawn”, but especially to those for whom that Dawn was the Evening of their life, this book is dedicated."
"In 1979, Msgr. Hickey was chosen to attend the Ceremonies for the 35th Anniversary of D.Day in Normandy, France. On June 6, 1979, in the Beny-sur-mer Military Cemetery, where 2,400 Canadian Soldiers lie buried, Msgr. Hickey, speaking to the large crowd in French and English, ended his speech as follows:
"My dear friends, my dear confreres, my dear compatriots:
The prayer that I am going to say with you here this morning is the same prayer that I said here so often – oh, so often – 35 years ago.
You, too, from experience, know this prayer.
"They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old.
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun, and in the morning,
We will remember them; we will remember them."
I thank you for the honour of saying this prayer here this morning. Without a doubt, it is for the last time."(1)
In September, 1987, Father Hickey returned to France to take part in the unveiling of a monument to the men of the North Shore Regiment who died at Carpiquet on July 4, 1944. It was during this visit that Msgr. Hickey retired to his room for the night and quietly passed away in his sleep. As he so often prayed for others – he will be remembered.
(1)The Scarlet Dawn – Reverend R Myles Hickey, UNIPRESS, Fredericton, N.B. – Page xxxi
Links to other sites and stories about Chaplains BJ Murdoch and RM Hickey, and the war-time Chaplaincy in general:
In the Day of Battle: Canadian Catholic Chaplains in the Field,1885-1945 by Duff Crerar (CCHA, Historical Studies, 61 (1995), 53-77)
The Scarlet Dawn by by Melynda Jarratt, Webmaster, www.CanadianWarBrides.com – a brief biography of Msgr. RM Hickey
In addition to the two books mentioned above (The Red Vineyard by Rev. BJ Murdoch and The Scarlet Dawn by Msgr. RM Hickey), another book of interest about war-time Irish New Brunswickers is "North Shore (New Brunswick) Regiment" by Will R. Bird, Brunswick Press 1963. Please check with your local library or book store for availability of these books as one or more of them may no longer be in print.