The First


James K. Polk, President of the United States, had a problem.  The year was 1846 and the US was at war with Mexico, a Catholic nation.  A large fraction of the American army was Catholic, usually fairly recent Irish immigrants.  Mexican propaganda portrayed the war as a wicked onlslaught by Protestants against a Catholic people and appealed to Catholics in the US army to desert to them, promising them land and a position in the Mexican army.  Some troops took them up on their offer, with deserters eventually forming the San Patricios Battalion and fighting for Mexico during the war.  To stem such desertions, Polk wanted to appoint Catholic chaplains to the US Army.  Although Catholic chaplains had served informally in prior American wars, none had served officially in that capacity.  To remedy that, Polk had a quiet private meeting with Archbishop John Hughes of New York.  While Dagger John suspected Polk’s political motivations, he agreed to recommend two priests to serve as chaplains:  Father Anthony Rey, vice-president of Georgetown and a Jesuit, and Father John McElroy, also a Jesuit, who went on to found Boston College and who will be the subject of a future post.

Father Rey, like most of the Catholic troops serving in the US Army during the Mexican War, was an immigrant.  He had been born in Lyons, France on March 19, 1807.  Originally planning on a career in business, while studying at the Jesuit college in Fribourg he decided to enter the priesthood and become part of the Society of Jesus.  In 1840 he was sent to the US and became a professor of philosophy at Georgetown.  In 1845 he became vice-president of Georgetown.

Joining the army of Zachary Taylor in northern Mexico following his appointment, Chaplain Rey took part in the siege and battle of Monterrey from September 20-23, 1846.  Coming from a sheltered academic environment and being tossed swiftly into vicious urban combat, I doubt if anyone would have blamed Father Rey, a newcomer to the Army, if he had remained safely out of the fight and tended the dead and dying afterwards.   However, that is not what he did.  What he did do during the battle is set forth in this account from an admiring Protestant:

“The bulletins of your generals, and the glowing eulogiums of letter-writers of particular deeds, present no examples of heroism superior to this.  That jesuit priest, thus coolly, bravely and all unarmed, walking among bursting shells, over the slippery streets of Monterrey, and the iron storm and battle steel that beat the stoutest, bravest soldier down, presenting no instrument of carnal warfare, and holding aloft, instead of true and trusty steel, that flashed the gleam of battle back,  a simple miniature cross;  and thus armed and equipped defying danger, presents to my mind the most sublime instance of the triumph of the moral over the physical man, and is an exhibition of courage of the highest character.  It is equal to, if not beyond, any witnessed during that terrible siege.”

Moving at the front with the troops throughout the battle, Father Rey tended the wounded and administered the last sacrament to the dying.

After the battle Father Rey was part of the garrison of the town.  He kept busy by not only assisting the wounded, but also by preaching missions in the towns and the surrounding areas, especially the rancheros which often went many months without seeing a priest.  Warned by officers in the garrison that the surrounding areas were bandit infested, Father Rey felt obliged to carry out his functions as a priest no matter the danger.  On January 19, 1847 he said mass at the village of Ceralvo.  His body was found a few days later, pierced with lances.  His death was a blow not only to the US troops, but also to the Mexicans for whom he was simply a priest, for he had dedicated himself to serving them no less than  his own men.

6 Responses to The First

  1. Foxfier says:

    Thank God for folks like that.

  2. What would Ignatius, the former soldier who gave it all up, have to say about the choice of ‘his’ men for such an expedition?

  3. Donald R. McClarey says:

    Probably nothing since Jesuits were serving as military chaplains during the lifetime of Saint Ignatius. Google Nicholas Bobadilla and James Lainez.

  4. Donald R. McClarey says:

    Oh, and although I can’t find it online, Saint Ignatius wrote a long letter of advice to Emperor Charles V in which he encouraged him to launch a naval offensive against the Turks in order to stop their raids on the costs of Christian nations.

  5. Foxfier says:

    By the Catholic Encyclopedia, it seems he approached the life of a saint as a logical extension of his life as an officer.

    So far Ignatius had shown none but the ordinary virtues of the Spanish officer. His dangers and sufferings has doubtless done much to purge his soul, but there was no idea yet of remodelling his life on any higher ideals. Then, in order to divert the weary hours of convalescence, he asked for the romances of chivalry, his favourite reading, but there were none in the castle, and instead they brought him the lives of Christ and of the saints, and he read them in the same quasi-competitive spirit with which he read the achievements of knights and warriors. “Suppose I were to rival this saint in fasting, that one in endurance, that other in pilgrimages.” He would then wander off into thoughts of chivalry, and service to fair ladies, especially to one of high rank, whose name is unknown. Then all of a sudden, he became conscious that the after-effect of these dreams was to make him dry and dissatisfied, while the ideas of falling into rank among the saints braced and strengthened him, and left him full of joy and peace. Next it dawned on him that the former ideas were of the world, the latter God-sent; finally, worldly thoughts began to lose their hold, while heavenly ones grew clearer and dearer. One night as he lay awake, pondering these new lights, “he saw clearly”, so says his autobiography, “the image of Our Lady with the Holy Child Jesus”, at whose sight for a notable time he felt a reassuring sweetness, which eventually left him with such a loathing of his past sins, and especially for those of the flesh, that every unclean imagination seemed blotted out from his soul, and never again was there the least consent to any carnal thought. His conversion was now complete. Everyone noticed that he would speak of nothing but spiritual things, and his elder brother begged him not to take any rash or extreme resolution, which might compromise the honour of their family.

    Please pardon the extensive cut-and-paste!

  6. Matt McDonald says:


    not to pile on, but, the mission of those priests was not military but spiritual.

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