Father Paul Gillen, CSC (1810-1882)

Civil War Chaplain: “The Damndest Clergyman I Even Saw”

Rev. Paul Gillen, C.S.C. (170th New York Infantry Regiment, October 1856—July 1862)

The following is quoted and adapted from Schmidt, James M. Notre Dame and the Civil War, Marching Onward to Victory, The History Press, Charleston, SC, 2010.

“The first of Notre Dame’s priests to go to war as a chaplain was Father Paul E. Gillen.  A native of County Donegal, Ireland, Gillen came to the United States in 1840, probably in his later teens. Shortly before the Civil War, he became a priest and entered the Holy Cross community at Notre Dame.

“When the war broke out, Father Gillen was on university business in the Northeast.  Impressed with the number of Catholic men joining the ranks—and concerned with their spiritual well-being—he appealed for permission to offer his services, and Father Sorin granted the request. [He] arrived in Washington, D.C., on July 20, 1861, on the eve of the First Battle of Bull Run, and immediately began his ministry among the soldiers. Although in his late fifties, Gillen – “a tall, thin, spared old gentleman of clerical appearance”—had seemingly endless energy and did not leave the service until after the surrender of Appomattox.

“Gillen preferred to roam from unit to unit as needed.  Because of the large compass of his ‘parish’, he needed a horse.  Appealing to Father Sorin and Major General George McClellan, he succeeded in not only getting the horse but an ambulance too.  He was able to put a bed and a portable altar in the ‘new and unique’ conveyance.  Setting the altar ‘within the frame of the bed, [he could] set up the buggy with candles, candlesticks and all requisites for the Mission.’ One solder commented that ‘No matter whether we were on the march or a scout, Mass was always offered every morning at Father Paul’s establishment.’

“Father Gillen’s good standing with the soldiers and officers was marred in 1861 over rumors of drunkenness.  The Archbishop of Baltimore and the Bishop of Philadelphia had heard that Gillen was seen ‘in a state of brutal intoxication.’  These prelates requested that Sorin call the chaplain back to Notre Dame.  Eventually, the rumors were proven to be false and both prelates apologized for becoming prey for rumor-mongering. Actually, the chaplain acquitted himself with courage on the battlefield.  ‘He would frequently expose himself to great danger in order to administer the rites of the Church to the dying men.’  A soldier was impressed that Gillen was not afraid of walking alone behind enemy lines after a battle, and exclaimed that he was ‘one of the damndest venturesome old clergyman I ever saw.'” 

May 8, 2021

The word ascesis literally means “exercise.”  This may sound funny to us as we try to imagine how many calories are being burned by the ascetic person who takes lukewarm showers, prays regularly, rises promptly in the morning, or makes any number of small sacrifices throughout a given day, but these are truly disciplines that make one healthy.  Indeed, the hours spent jumping rope or lifting weights or running on a treadmill – by which our muscles are challenged and we are physically strengthened – are symbolic of the soul’s deeper need for spiritual sculpting, that is, the revelation of a good and beautiful soul within.  And because there are no ankles to sprain or knees to blow out, spiritual exercise – needing only intellect and will and the courage to dig deep! – is a long-term game plan for our lives.  Let’s therefore look to the ascesis of Jesus who kept vigil (Lk 6:12), who fasted (Lk 4:2), who went to Church (cf. Lk 4:15), and who prayed on his knees (Lk 22:41) in a way that enabled him to hand over his very body to his heavenly father (Lk 23:46) and thus sound forth the lasting health of resurrected life (Lk 24:31).  Ave Crux, Spes Unica.

BROTHER ANSELM (ARTHUR) TATRO, C.S.C. (1891-1989)

Brother Anselm was born in St. Anne, Illinois in 1891.  He helped out on the farm and worked at a manufacturing company before he entered Holy Cross in January of 1917.  He served on the staff of the Notre Dame Post Office for eight years before going to the Ave Maria Press where he worked as a Linotype operator until 1980.  He was so accurate at his work that he was given much of the Notre Dame scientific writing to set into print. He lived in the same room on the second floor of Columba Hall from 1919 until 1981 when failing health forced his true retirement in 1981 at Dujarié House.

Anselm had three hobbies—he loved to hike, collect songs and solve word puzzles.  He was the “father” of exercise enthusiasts in Holy Cross. His legendary hikes were not short—they were 20 to 30 miles long, seldom more than a 15-mile radius around the University of Notre Dame. He enjoyed hikes on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays keeping him lean and trim.  Often, he would return with a pocket full of change and other items he had found along his various trails.  All his booty was dutifully turned in to whoever was the superior that day.  

He was in constant good spirits and became known as the smiling-brother of Columba Hall noted for gentleness, kindness and Trappistine simplicity. He would often stop some brother in the hallway asking them if they could name the tune; he then would either hum or la-la-la. The story was also told that when it was time for him to move from Columba Hall to Dujarié retirement house, it was nearly impossible to get into his room.  He had stacks upon stacks of South Bend Tribunes and Scholastics in his room—one brother estimated he had not tossed away any paper from as early as 1919!

Upon his death, his directory of prayers was filled with countless cards and slips of paper.  One read: “Lord, as I grow older, keep me from getting talkative, give me wings to get to the point, grace to listen to others, keep me sweet, make me helpful since I want a few friends at the end.”  He had far more than just a “few” friends.  Someone said, “If you seek creative ideas, go for a walk.  Angels whisper to a [person] when [they] go for a walk.” Angels must then have been in constant conversation with this good and gentle Holy Cross Brother.

May 1, 2021

Good biblical interpretation always begins at the literal level.  While we know that the veracity of the literal level is a matter of genre – think of how epic poetry differs from history in this regard – the meaning of all texts at that deeper spiritual level is always true. Indeed, the exterior drama simply serves as an invitation to the reader to take the risk of entering into the spiritual depths, and how could that act of trust ever result in anything but truth?! The Cross is the boundary marker that makes this kind of understanding possible.  When we make that move from the literal to the spiritual – and what courage is required to undertake that journey! – we are dying to self.  In that moment, the certainty, familiarity and comfort of the literal level give way to an openness, vulnerability and receptivity to the Word who is really and truly speaking to us in some distant still point in the soul.  Let’s not be content with a perpetually literal perspective on things or a fearful fundamentalist posture in life.  Let’s instead allow our restless hearts to feel and respond to those deep promptings of the Spirit.  Let’s make the Cross the lens through which we read scripture and thus understand ourselves and our lives.  Ave Crux, Spes Unica