Chapter XI: The Father Duffy Connection

In the fall of 1946 we had brought about the leasing of School 40 by Aquinas Institute from the school board of the City of Rochester. The entire freshman class was housed in the school, renamed Aquinas Annex. Father Fergus Sheehy was its first principal. There were over five hundred boys and they developed a wonderful school spirit.

It had an excellent combination gym-auditorium which became the setting for an important event in the campaign for the beginning of St. John Fisher College. We set up the clergy luncheon there in the fall of 1947. I brought Father McCorkell over from Toronto to give the Basilian Fathers' side of the commitment and our pledge to the clergy of the diocese. Bishop Kearney, of course, would speak for the diocese., Father Randall would explain the organization of the parish part of the campaign.

I remember our giving the kids a holiday that day, as we took over the school for the gathering. Leo Lewis, who had catered for so many events around Aquinas, did the catering for this occasion. Father (Doc) George Kettell, pastor of downtown St. Mary's, took an active part in this clergy affair. When we formerly lived in the old Mercy Convent, which St. Mary's owned, "Doc" was our landlord. His presence and enthusiasm were necessary ingredients for success in all city and church projects.

It was a wonderful turnout of priests from all over the diocese, but especially those from the Rochester area. We were to repeat this on a smaller scale in other cities, namely, Geneva, Auburn, Corning and Elmira.

The purpose of the meeting was to have the clergy understand thoroughly Bishop Kearney's wish for their cooperation in this fund raising campaign. Father Randall proved to be a superb chairman on this occasion. Certainly there could be no doubt in the mind of any pastor or his assistants about the Bishop's wish to have all the parishes cooperate in the campaign for St. John Fisher College. Looking back now, this clergy luncheon was a most important event in the putting together of our campaign.

Another equally important event in the fall of 1947 ought to receive some mention. This was a meeting at the Sagamore Hotel. We invited many persons who would be the card workers for the Special Gifts part of the campaign. This was the part of the campaign over which I assumed responsibility, just as Father Randall had assumed responsibility for the parish donation part.

We invited many Catholic and non-Catholic leaders to this dinner meeting. At the end of it I asked Bishop Kearney to speak. The Bishop declared in very definite language that he wanted a Catholic college for men in the Diocese of Rochester. Therefore, he would ask all these leaders to join in providing the Basilian Fathers with at least the beginning funds of the college for men.

It was at this meeting that I first realized there was opposition in Catholic circles to the St. John Fisher College effort. A layman, whom I highly respected and still respect, stood up after the Bishop's remarks and declared that he and several others had studied this affair; they felt that the number one need of the diocese in the City of Rochester was not a Catholic college for men, but rather, the need of another Catholic high school in the southeast part of the city. They felt that this was a much more urgent need than a college for men.

It was a direct challenge to what the Bishop had just said. Always courteous and kind, he nevertheless was taken aback. As chairman, I sensed this, and asked the Bishop if I might respond. I had done considerable research on how many Catholic boys were in the various schools, Catholic and public, in the principal cities in the diocese. I never did know just how I would use this material, but much of it surged to the forefront of my mind at this very moment.

I took the tack that as of this day, Aquinas Institute had never turned down a boy for any reason, be it transportation or finances, or whatever. If he wanted to come to Aquinas, Aquinas would try to accommodate him. "As recently as last year," I explained to the group, "the Basilian Fathers at Aquinas went to considerable effort to secure School 40 over in the area west of the main building on Dewey Avenue. This Freshman school now accommodates some five hundred boys."

The point of all this was that there had never been any clamor for a high school for boys, other t an Aquinas. The Catholic citizenry seemed satisfied that Aquinas was meeting the needs for the Catholic high school boys of the area, with a total registration of some seventeen hundred boys.

This was precisely the point which the Bishop had explained at earlier meetings; namely, we have a fine Catholic high school for boys, we have fine Catholic high schools for girls, we have a fine Catholic college for girls, Nazareth College, conducted by the Sisters of St. Joseph, but we have no Catholic college for men.

"Aquinas Institute will be graduating some four hundred boys each year," I went on. "These boys must, of necessity, go out of town if they are going to receive a Catholic college education. St. John Fisher College would be an institution of higher learning for these and other boys in the City of Rochester." The storm blew over.

It was at this same meeting in the Sagamore Hotel of this Special Gifts Committee that I told a story which proved to serve many purposes. It took the heat off the Bishop and myself and it helped to dispel any misgivings or doubts as to whether the Basilians could conduct colleges. As I recall, it went something like this:

The Basilians here in Rochester go all over the city and diocese each weekend, helping the diocesan clergy and ministering to the needs of the Catholic people, in addition to their teaching schedule at Aquinas. This has been a tradition of the Basilians in the United States and in Canada.

To inform you further on this, I am going to tell the story of a young boy who many years ago lived in Cobourg, Ontario. just as today, wherever the Basilian Fathers work, so then an old Basilian priest named Father Ryan took the train from Toronto each weekend to do Sunday work in Cobourg. One day after his Sunday Mass, he asked the young lad who had served him what he was going to do with his life. He was a bright young fellow with a good scholastic record and he answered promptly, 'Father, I'd like to go to college but my parents can't afford it.' Father Ryan told him: 'Son, come down to see me at St. Michael's College this summer.'

The young lad subsequently came to do his college studies at St. Michael's. He made an admirable record and after two years was added to the staff as a part-time teacher and study hall master while he finished his course.

He never became a Basilian, though he was always one at heart. After graduation, he edited the Catholic Register, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Toronto. Then he decided to train for the priesthood at Troy, New York, for the Archdiocese of the City of New York. His great teaching prowess gained for him a position later as a professor at Dunwoodie Seminary, just outside New York City. At a time when secular universities were starting to interest themselves in the teaching of Catholic philosophy, he added to his already heavy schedule the post of visiting lecturer at Columbia University. (Bishop Kearney said that he was the greatest teacher he ever had.)

World War I broke out and he joined the Chaplains Corps of the United States Army. He went overseas with the famous Rainbow Division. The poet Joyce Kilmer was a soldier in its ranks. The priest from Canada had a magnificent war record in Europe, and on his return, was made pastor of Holy Cross Church, on Forty-Second Street near Broadway, in New York City. His life so fired the imagination of the American people that this son of St. Michael's College has been immortalized in a popular movie entitled, "The Fighting Sixty-Ninth." Pat O'Brien, the noted Hollywood actor, played the role of Captain Francis Duffy, the beloved Father Duffy.

It's a long story from Cobourg, Ontario, through St. Michael's College and the Basilians to the City of New York, but it's a story which ought never to die and it likely never will.

For today there is one section of the City of New York, indeed the very heart of New York, called Times Square, and at its northerly end there is a life size statue cast in bronze of Father Duffy. I try to see that statue every time I go to New York and never see it without thinking of Father Duffy as I knew him. Perhaps these are selfish memories, perhaps they are too intensely Basilian, but in any case, they are delightful.

Later, on the stage of the Eastman Theatre in Rochester, when Cardinal Spellman of New York, as a complete surprise, presented us with a check for $25,000 to initiate our campaign, I saw in this generous contribution a recompense to the Basilian Fathers from the priests and people of New York, a token of appreciation for the work of Father Duffy, the poor boy from Canada, trained at St. Michael's College, beloved by American Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

The president of the Rochester Telephone Corporation, John Boylan, came to me after I had told this story at the Special Gifts Committee meeting and said, "That story must be the keynote of the St. John Fisher College campaign." He had assisted at every drive for funds in the City of Rochester, for a new hospital, a new Y.M.C.A., Veteran's Memorial, black colleges and others.

The Father Duffy story turned out to be a great opening for any campaign address. I gave it at least twice more in the hustings and in stumping throughout the diocese. To this day I feel that this story, rather this priceless gem in the crown of U.S.-Canadian history, contributed in great measure to the success of the campaign.

In 1927, Father Duffy appeared at a reunion of St. Michael's College as the toastmaster for the occasion. I remember well the two or three days he spent as a returning alumnus at St. Michael's. He insisted on visiting the various flats of the college and mingling with the students of the school. One day a number of us gathered about him on the steps of old St. Basil's Church. We were spellbound not only by his stories of World War I and his career in New York, but especially by his story of the old days at St. Michael's. I remember how he told us of the great Basilian teachers of years ago. I remember his tributes to those great teachers of the past. It means more to me now that I know his own story of the poor Catholic boy which I did not know then. What he said that I remember is this, "The Basilians always knew how to give, they never learned how to get."

Somehow, Father Duffy's story and his tribute to the Basilians stuck through twenty years. I know very definitely that it helped the Basilians to get their million dollars in Rochester.

Go to Chapter XII
Back to the Table of Contents

Copyright © St. John Fisher College • 3690 East Avenue, Rochester, New York 14618 • (585) 385-8000
Questions/Comments? - Email the Webmaster Website Terms of Use