A Final Salute

Sixty years after his death, a volunteer chaplain from Baltimore is remembered for his faith and courage

August 25, 2005|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,SUN STAFF

He didn't know much about his uncle then; after all, Eugene Patrick Hines was only 6 when they brought the man home. All he remembers from those somber days in the family home on Fayette Street was wanting to peek inside the casket.

"All the grown-ups said my uncle was such a great man," said Hines, 63, yesterday, at a special ceremony for the man for whom he was named, Father Eugene Patrick O'Grady, the Baltimore-born priest who became, at 35, the only Maryland National Guard chaplain to die on a European battlefield during World War II. "My mother couldn't tell me why I couldn't look in. I guess it was too delicate for a little boy."

Fifty-seven years later, Hines is old enough to know that his uncle, a beloved captain in the U.S. Army's 115th Infantry Regiment, was killed just after Thanksgiving 1944, when an enemy shell exploded near him near Kirchberg, Germany.

Yesterday, some 200 people, including more than 50 relations from across the country, gathered at the Camp Fretterd Military Reservation in Reisterstown, where the Maryland Army National Guard commemorated O'Grady's service and his life by dedicating its newly renovated chapel to a man his battalion nicknamed, simply, Father Pat.

Most in attendance never knew Father Pat personally, and those who did are now in their 80s and 90s. But like his nephew long ago, they spent the afternoon trying to gain as clear a final glimpse as they could of a man still remembered as one of the most influential ever to serve in the historic 29th Infantry Division.

Eugene Patrick O'Grady was the third of six children born to Patrick and Delia O'Grady, both of whom had emigrated to Baltimore from Ireland in the late 1800s. He grew up in the family home on West Fayette Street, in a household his mother, a pianist, filled with "music and wonderful cooking," according to family lore. Eugene thrilled his kin by resolving to enter the priesthood, studied at St. Mary's Seminary in Baltimore, and was ordained a Roman Catholic priest in Rome in 1935.

A year later, he accepted a position as assistant pastor at Shrine of the Sacred Heart in Mount Washington, where he quickly became known as a man who would seek out people of all faiths. His pastor, the Rev. Louis Stickney, noting O'Grady's modesty, compassion and boundless energy, called him "the finest priest I have ever known."

In 1941, he voluntarily left that comfortable posting. President Roosevelt had issued a warning order for the mobilization of the entire 29th Division, a National Guard unit drawn mainly from Maryland and Virginia.

"His parents had instilled in him a love of country and family," says Patricia Supik, an O'Grady niece who is a Baltimore nurse and the family's unofficial historian. "And he always had a wonderful feel for the people of this area. He didn't take long to volunteer."

After training at Fort Meade, he and his fellow 29ers shipped out for Europe. Within a year and a half, he was with the 115th Infantry as it hit Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944.

"Here he was, almost fresh out of seminary, and this was his first duty station?" said an incredulous Rev. Monsignor John FitzGerald of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, addressing yesterday's gathering. "That's the deep end of the pool. Boys were dying on his left, being maimed for life on his right.

"He survived, but not all of them did. He had to write a lot of letters home. No seminary teaches how to do that."

The Rev. Joseph Estabrook, an auxiliary bishop for the Archdiocese of the Military, recalled that, on that windswept morning, Father O'Grady came upon a young soldier desperately digging a slit trench in the sand amid the shelling.

"Father let him have his gloves," Estabrook said.

Such acts of kindness typified a man who seemed never to tire in his selflessness. "He had the Irish twinkle in his eye and the gift [of gab]," said Supik yesterday. Even amid the worst of the bitter fighting, as the 29th slogged across Normandy, his troops, according to surviving accounts, rarely saw him without a smile on his face.

"Danger meant nothing to this chaplain," wrote his battalion commander, Lt. Col. Arthur Sheppe, upon awarding him the Bronze Star for valor in July 1944. "It may be said without exaggeration that the greatest single contribution to the morale of the personnel of this battalion has been the work of Chaplain O'Grady. He epitomizes the militant man of God."

Though spiritual contribution can be difficult to quantify, yesterday saw no lack of anecdotes. O'Grady routinely "appeared out of nowhere in his jeep, gathered everybody around him and had a chat," remembers Bob Griffin, 89, a Silver Spring resident who was a friend and a lieutenant in the 115th in 1944. "It didn't matter to him if you were Catholic, Baptist or Jewish. He reached out."

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