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.'” 

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