Soldiers await chaplain service and free coffee in Arras (near Calais) France, September 1918. Photo courtesy of Library and Archives Canada

Story of Great War chaplain lives on in Newfoundland

  • November 5, 2017

In the years following World War I, it would not be unusual for a Catholic family in Newfoundland to have three portraits hanging in their home: Pope Benedict XV, Newfoundland Archbishop E.P. Roche … and Fr. Thomas Nangle.

Nangle, a respected First World War chaplain who served with the Royal Newfoundland Regiment, was born in St. John’s in 1889. He was ordained a priest in 1913 and served at St. Michael’s Parish on Bell Island. When war was declared in 1914, the 25-year-old Nangle wanted to enlist with the Newfoundland Regiment as their chaplain. Initially, the archbishop denied the request, but finally gave his permission in 1916.

Thus began a journey that has become legendary, and Newfoundlanders have not forgotten the chaplain who cared for their ancestors on the battlefield. There are no more soldiers from The Great War left to parade on Nov. 11, and the memories of sacrifice may fade a little more with each passing Remembrance Day, but Nangle continues to fascinate.

His story was told in a 2006 book, Soldier Priest in the Killing Fields of Europe. In 2016, he was named a person of national significance by the Canadian government. In September 2017, a plaque was installed in his honour at his alma mater, St. Bonaventure College in St. John’s.

After the war, Nangle was appointed Newfoundland’s representative to the Imperial War Graves Commission, which led him to return to France and Belgium to exhume the bodies of dead soldiers and give them proper military burials. That story became the basis for the opera Ours, which debuted in 2016 with Newfoundland’s Opera on the Avalon.

“There was no Facebook or email in 1918,” said Cheryl Hickman, artistic director of Opera on the Avalon. “Once they went overseas, the families had no idea where their loved ones were or what they were doing. They would get a letter in the mail saying their loved one had been killed and that was it.”

Nangle was tasked with uncovering the bodies of the unaccounted for and moving them to actual graves. “He had to negotiate with French landowners to get permission to dig up the bodies, which he did himself,” said Hickman.

Nangle fought to have a memorial erected in St. John’s to commemorate the 1916 battle of Beaumont-Hamel in France, which left 700 of the Newfoundland Regiment’s 800 soldiers dead, wounded or missing. He lost that fight, as the official monument was erected at the site of the battle in Beaumont-Hamel. Later, he oversaw construction of The National War Memorial in St. John’s, which was erected in 1924. 

“The people of Newfound-land were so grateful to him,” said Hickman. “He even took photos of the gravestones while he was in Europe so the families could see them.” 

DURING THE FIRST two years of the war, there was a great shortage of Catholic chaplains. The ones who were sent overseas were responsible for thousands of men and burnt out rapidly.

Matters were made worse in early 1917 when the British took horses away from the chaplains, calling it a “waste of horseflesh and hay.” At the battles of Passchendaele and Vimy Ridge, the centennial anniversaries of which are this year, there were 357 Protestant chaplains but only 83 Roman Catholic chaplains. Soldiers wore discs around their necks identify-ing them as Catholics or Protestants so they could be blessed by a respective chaplain.

Following the gruesome battles of early 1917, the Knights of Columbus began to provide welfare agency support to Catholic padres, establishing “Catholic army huts” or makeshift chapels, stocking them with both religious and practical supplies like food and canteen goods. Though padres were ordered to stay back and care for the dead or wounded b ehind the battle lines, many bravely defied orders, risking their lives to administer the last rites and care for the wounded alongside physicians.

“When the first fleet of soldiers approached the front lines of battle, the chaplain was often right behind them, carrying a stretcher over his shoulder,” said Duff Crerar, a military historian and author of the essay “In the Day of Battle.” “There were no real age restrictions for chaplains. Some were in their thirties. Others were in their sixties. But they were all robust and full of moral courage, they were driven to help in any way they could.”

As chaplain, Nangle was responsible for the spiritual health of his Regiment, including administering Last Rites to dying soldiers.

“In the Day of Battle,” Crerar also tells of Fr. R.C. MacGillivray’s experience baptizing a dying soldier during the Battle of Pass-chendaele:

“‘Father, I am dying and I want you to baptize me.’ Another dying soldier gave the chaplain a ring after he had blessed him. ‘Souvenir, Father,’ were the last words he spoke to me. MacGillivray kept the ring always and valued it above money.”

AT THE TIME, Newfoundland’s population was just over 242,000. Nangle knew many of the soldiers he went overseas with and had to give last rites to boyhood friends.

“He did a lot of recruiting during the war, many of the young boys signed up because of Nangle’s speeches,” said Gary Browne, author of Nangle’s biography Soldier Priest.

“That played havoc on his mind. He was shaken to the core, I don’t know how he couldn’t have been. He had to see the faces of the wives, children and family members of the boys he’d watched die every day at Mass. Post-traumatic stress disorder was not a diagnosis at the time, but clearly he was suffering from just that.”

Nangle’s guilt and suffering led him to make a drastic decision: In 1925, he left the priesthood and began a new life in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe.) He married, had four children and became involved in farming and local politics. He never returned to Newfoundland and seldom spoke of his wartime experiences. It was Nangle’s son, Hugh, who got his father talking about his experiences as a chaplain.

Nangle died in 1972 at age 83. He is survived by two of his four children, Hugh, who lives in Ottawa, and Mavourneen Galbraith, who lives in New Zealand. Galbraith visited Newfoundland for the first time in September 2017 and was part of the unveiling ceremony for her father’s commemorating plaque.

“Hugh was the only child who knew much of anything about his father’s experiences because he was the one who asked,” said Robert Chafe, a Newfoundland-based playwright who wrote Ours after reading Browne’s book.

“While reading about Nangle, I had this gut feeling,” said Chafe. “I wanted to tell a story of the aftermath of Beaumont-Hamel but I wanted a human narrative to centre it around. Nangle’s story was the perfect fit. It was one I’d never heard before yet here I was, living in a land that had been changed by the incredible legacy he left behind.”

The final scene of the opera shows Nangle walking into the archdiocese in 1925 and leaving the priesthood forever.

“It’s a story of patriotism,” said Hickman. “It attempts to explain the scar Beaumont-Hamel left on Newfoundland.”

In many ways, Nangle’s story mirrors that of Beaumont-Hamel — an event that changed the course of history for both a province and a man of faith.

“He was a person who had such a monumental affect on the zeitgeist of this province,” said Chafe.

“In Newfoundland in the early 1920s, people had a picture of the Pope and the Archbishop on the wall and beside it, a picture of Thomas Nangle.

He was a superstar in this country and he was greatly loved. As soon as he quit the priesthood, those pictures on the wall came down.”

Chafe is optimistic that portraits of Nangle will begin to reappear in homes.

“He disappeared from our history for so long, but we are bringing Nangle back.”

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