CCHA, Historical Studies, 69 (2003), 64-84
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Faith on the Battlefield:
Canada’s Catholic Chaplaincy Service
during the Second World War.1
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Yves-Yvon J. Pelletier
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In the midst of a fierce Allied attack on German positions in Italy in 1944 and with cannon fire lighting up the night sky as bright as day, Father Alphonse Claude-Laboissière, padre of the Royal 22e Régiment, was bringing the sacraments to his soldiers who could not leave their outpost near the front line. During this unscheduled visit, the padre surprised two soldiers – each holding a machine gun in one hand and a rosary in the other – reciting their prayers. Said one of the French-Canadian soldiers to the padre: “Here, we don’t forget to say all our prayers.”2
This account illustrates the work of Catholic chaplains in the Canadian forces during the Second World War and suggests the theme of this paper – the organization of the Canadian Catholic Chaplaincy Service during this period and the activities of Catholic chaplains at the regimental level. By examining the Second World War experience of the Royal 22e Régiment (R22R) through the eyes of its padres, and by tracking the number of soldiers in the Second Canadian Infantry Division who took part in religious services, I will seek to evaluate the effectiveness of Catholic chaplains in the conflict.3 I will argue that, by taking into account the lessons learned during the First World War, the Canadian Catholic Chaplaincy Service was able to be more effective during the Second World War, and that some evidence for this effectiveness can be found in the participation rate of Canadian Catholic soldiers in religious activities during wartime.
When the Government of Canada declared war on Nazi Germany on 10 September 1939, the Canadian Roman Catholic Church was quick to react with calls to serve. However, the lessons learned from the First World War incited many church leaders to suggest organizational improvements in the rules and responsibilities of chaplains and senior military officials. Among those calling for such improvements was Bishop Joseph Francis Ryan, who in a letter to Prime Minister Mackenzie King on behalf of the Catholic Bishops of Ontario, “courteously but earnestly request[ed] that in the matter of Chaplain organization, a distinct Canadian Catholic Director of Chaplain Services, not subject, directly or indirectly, to any chaplain of another religious denomination be named.”4 This position was also echoed by the Council of Canadian Bishops, which believed two distinct branches of the military chaplaincy would better ensure the spiritual well-being of all soldiers.5
These requests by some of Canada’s most senior Catholic clerics for separate but equal chaplaincy services derived from their own struggles as well as those of their Protestant colleagues during the First World War. Their proposal did not fall on deaf ears, militarily or politically. During the First World War, the overall effectiveness of Canada’s military chaplaincy had been seriously compromised by delays in creating the chaplaincy service, by promoting chaplains based on political or family ties instead of experience, and by uniting all religious denominations under the same corps.6 Thus, the Department of Militia's refusal to allow the chaplaincy service to organize around its two large denominational groups ensured perpetual conflicts between Catholics and Protestants.
After the last Canadian contingent returned home in 1921, this complete organizational debacle within the chaplaincy corps, which had deprived many Canadian soldiers of a vital source of moral and spiritual leadership from their own faith, led the federal government to issue an Order-in-Council disbanding the Canadian Military Chaplaincy.7 Historian Duff Crerar concluded that these conflicts were one of the primary reasons the Chaplaincy service was disbanded.8 Chaplains who wished to continue ministering to a particular regiment during the interwar years were forced to do so as volunteers, without any official recognition of their commitment or contributions.9
Seeking to avoid the problems that had compromised the chaplaincy’s effectiveness during the First World War, and recognizing the importance of and necessity for strong moral and spiritual leadership in military regiments, the government approved the creation of separate but equal Catholic and Protestant Chaplaincy Services. This decision made Canada the only country to create a dual chaplaincy service: a Protestant division for all non-Catholics and a Catholic division for Roman and Orthodox Catholics.10 While discussions among the Protestant churches led to the early appointment of George Anderson Wells, Bishop of Cariboo, as the Principal Protestant Chaplain, the Catholic bishops awaited the decision of the Holy See.11 In early October 1939, Pope Pius XII recognized Charles Leo Nelligan, Bishop of Pembroke, as the Principal Canadian Catholic Chaplain.12 The Minister of National Defence approved the nomination of both candidates on 21 October 1939.13
Recognizing the important role of chaplains, the Department of National Defence (DND) established, in consultation with the Catholic Chaplaincy, the rules and responsibilities of chaplains and senior military officials. Prior to overseas service, newly-recruited chaplains first had to undergo physical training, basic military education, and to demonstrate competence and experience in war-time counselling.14 During the mandatory six-month training at the Chaplain School at Camp Borden near Barrie (Ontario), chaplains received instructions from military officers on army methods and military life and from religious leaders on how to provide spiritual and moral guidance during periods of extreme hardship. The Department also expected that in addition to celebrating mass and administering the sacraments, chaplains would visit the sick, wounded, and incarcerated, and offer religious instruction. Furthermore, chaplains were charged with strengthening regimental unity, maintaining high morale, encouraging and assisting soldiers to write to their families, censoring letters, actively participating in mess duties, and assisting medical staff in treating the wounded.15 Most importantly, the Department had learned during the First World War that a ‘jovial’ chaplain visiting the front lines boosted troops’ morale more than endless hours of counselling and religious guidance in the regiment’s chapel.16 Accordingly, chaplains were encouraged to forge friendships with all military personnel and to inspire them in these times of war. In addition, chaplains were expected to maintain records of wounded and deceased military personnel and to inform the families of these tragedies, as well as to help the men relax by organizing sporting and social events.17 In fact, commanding officers needed the chaplains to help keep their men on the path of morality and self-restraint, so that despite the daily hardships, the men would be able to fight another day.
As for the religious responsibilities of senior military officials, they were given the task of promoting the spiritual well-being of their troops. As such, commanding officers were required to make available to chaplains the tools they needed to accomplish their mission: a chapel to celebrate mass, a private office to hear confession, and an acceptable method of transportation to visit the troops. In addition, commanding officers had to limit the number of soldiers taking part in military exercise when mass or other religious activities were taking place.18 And finally, senior military officers had to lead by example, taking part in all religious activities.19 Despite the good will of the DND, no list of rules and responsibilities could have completely eliminated the social and personal conflict between senior military officials and chaplains. For the first time, however, the roles and responsibilities of both groups had been made much clearer, which helped strengthen the chaplaincy's effectiveness.
With these rules and responsibilities laid out as clearly as possible, Nelligan turned his complete attention to recruiting clerics for the Canadian Catholic Chaplaincy Service. For his vicars-general, Nelligan selected Fathers T. J. McCarthy of Sarnia and J. G. Côté of Québec City, both veterans of the First World War. They were given the tasks of organizing the Canadian Catholic Chaplaincy’s activities overseas and assisting Nelligan in recruiting clerics.20 However, before Nelligan was able to launch a national recruiting campaign for clerics, the government announced its decision to despatch to Great Britain the First Canadian Infantry Division, which included a dozen regiments. Having fought for the right of each Catholic soldier to practice his religion wherever he was, Nelligan and his vicars-general had to move quickly to recruit at least twenty clerics needed to fill positions in the First Division alone. Nelligan recruited mainly veteran chaplains to fill these positions. Then, in each of Canada’s eleven military districts, Nelligan mounted a recruitment drive for clerics – both parish priests and members of religious orders – who could function well as military chaplains.
At the start of the war, the DND had established the requirement for Catholic chaplains at one cleric for every 500 Catholic soldiers.21 Unable to meet this requirement from the start, Nelligan continuously lobbied archbishops, bishops, and superiors of religious orders to nominate more clerics for military service. For example, Nelligan frequently sent letters to ecclesiastical authorities across Canada thanking them for the great sacrifice they were making in allowing such high quality priests to become military chaplains, and concluding with another request to free up a few more priests. Most challenging for Nelligan, the Department had asked that all chaplains be less than 50 years of age, and even better if they were under 40, a constraint that limited the pool of available candidates.22
Recognizing Nelligan’s lobbying efforts, the military eventually allowed chaplains older than 50 years old to enlist, and who would be sent overseas only if they were assigned administrative duties. Therefore, Nelligan recommended the “despatch of older and battle-worn chaplains to hospital units,” allowing the younger chaplains to accompany the units into battle.23 By 1945, Nelligan had managed to recruit 201Catholic clerics, of whom 157 saw active duty in theatres of war, wherever Canadians served.24 Falling short, however, of the requirement of one padre for every 500 catholic soldiers, the demands on a padre’s time were considerably increased. In addition, regiments feared they could be deprived of the service of a chaplain in case of injury or death. As such, some chaplains were encouraged not to follow their regiment into battle; rather they stayed behind the soldiers, helping to minister to the wounded. This was a hard decision to accept for some padres. “A padre in times of war follows his boys and his boys are happy to have him,” said one padre. “We do what we can to help everyone. Normally we shouldn’t go (on the battlefields) because, if you lose your padre, you might have to wait three to four years before another chaplain can be found.”25
The support Catholic Chaplains received from the DND was also mirrored by the Holy See’s support and its approval of wartime religious faculties. Although these faculties had been permitted during the First World War, their reintroduction provided the religious flexibility needed again in these new troubling times. For example, chaplains requested and received permission to celebrate three masses on Sunday or statutory holiday mornings – an important permission, given that regimental units were often scattered over a long distance and were unable to regroup for mass.26 In recognition that soldiers typically had military duties in the mornings, the Chaplaincy received permission to celebrate mass on Sunday evenings.27 Furthermore, when chaplains did not have sufficient time to hear individual confessions – before sending soldiers into battle, for example – they were permitted to grant general absolution. In addition, since the need to fast prior to receiving the Eucharist was difficult for men in active wartime service, this requirement was reduced to four hours instead of eight. On the battlefield, moreover, soldiers could receive Holy Communion at any time, without any need to fast.28 To simplify the already complex business of feeding the troops, soldiers were also allowed to consume meat on Fridays.29 And in December 1943, the Holy See recognized for the first time that the religious obligations of Catholic soldiers were secondary to their military duties.30
Despite the reintroduction of many wartime faculties, the Roman Catholic Church could not address the rising incidence of venereal disease, drunkenness, and blasphemy that signaled a moral and spiritual decline in the Canadian Armed Forces. This phenomenon, however, was not limited to Canadian troops. With the objective of reinforcing soldiers’ religious values, Bishop Nelligan adopted an innovative British Army practice called the “Padre’s Hour,” introduced by Royal Air Force Commander Sir Frederick Browning in December 1942. The Padre’s Hour, which took place for an hour each week, required that chaplains discuss with the troops, among many other social and personal topics, the role of a Catholic soldier and one’s relationship with God, the state, and family.31 Padre's Hour was also seen as a first step in the reintegration of military personnel into the larger Canadian society following the war.
In spite of the innovative approach of Padre’s Hour, Nelligan told his chaplains to expect neither many participants nor immediate success.32 However, in the month of June 1943, for example, the chaplain of the Canadian Armed Forces Reinforcement Unit stationed in the United Kingdom noted that more than 2,000 men who had not regularly taken active part in church activities were now doing so.33 Although it is difficult to assess its success, Padre’s Hour did help to create greater personal bonds between soldiers and chaplains and to encourage soldiers not to be afraid to turn to their padre for help. The effectiveness of Padre’s Hour, however, rested mainly with the commanding officers. While most encouraged this initiative to increase moral conduct and morale, some commanding officers feared Padre’s Hour was another attempt to increase the role of the Church within the regiments. Some commanding officers cancelled Padre’s Hour frequently, with or without advanced warning to the padre. In some instances, Padre’s Hour was “treated with indifference, which in its practical results, is the equivalence of hostility.”34 On other occasions, Padre’s Hour coincided perfectly with unscheduled but mandatory military exercises.35 Even when Padre’s Hour could take place, the padre might have a difficult time accessing a room large enough to welcome the military personnel.36
There also exists other anecdotal information that supports senior military officers' infringement of their responsibilities toward chaplains. For example, some commanding officers refused access to a vehicle despite the fact that some regiments were scattered over long distances. Anecdotes suggest that some padres were often forced to carpool with other padres, or call upon his divisional chaplain, to visit his flock.37 Private quarters were also a luxury in wartime, but a much needed tool to celebrate mass or hear confession. In some instances, commanding officers refused to construct a common room for their soldiers for such purposes. In another instance, a colonel attempted to take over a padre’s confessional for his own purposes.38 As well, many chaplains resented the lack of access to their military personnel. In spite of directives reinforced by Canadian Army Headquarters in London prohibiting military duties during mass and times of religious activities, like Padre’s Hour, some padres complained that these directives were not always obeyed. On countless occasions, mass and other religious meetings were cancelled or the timing was changed without consulting the chaplain.39 As such, for some chaplains, their access to the troops was curtailed by commanding officers, limiting them to one-on-one encounters and exponentially increasing the time needed to minister to the soldiers. These anecdotes, however, do not represent a widespread occurrence among the Canadian forces; in large part, commanding officers provided the support chaplains needed, recognizing that their role contributed to strengthening the regiment’s unity and efficiency.
Despite the expected challenges padres’ faced in ministering to their soldiers, their position was strengthened through three new initiatives: the creation of a separate but equal Canadian Catholic Chaplain Service defending the rights of all Catholic military personnel; clearer guidelines from the DND outlining the military’s expectations of padres, as well as governing the relationship between commanding officers and padres; and the availability of Padre’s Hour as a means of engaging soldiers on topics beyond mass and the sacraments, and forging bonds between participants and the padre. Although these three initiatives did not always eliminate every source of tension, Catholic chaplains could more easily focus on their principal task, their raison d’être – ministering to soldiers. As we will see, the effectiveness of the chaplaincy enabled its members to respond to an increasing participation rate of soldiers to religious activities of the Royal 22e Régiment as well as the Second Canadian Infantry Division.
Sitting in the rectory of Saint-Ambroise parish in Montreal listening to Mackenzie King’s announcement of 1 September 1939 placing Canada’s militia on active service was 38-year old Father Joseph Armand Sabourin. Three days later, Sabourin, feeling compelled to respond to his nation’s call for help, assumed his duties as chaplain of the Montreal-based Fusiliers Mont-Royal (FMR), one of the sixteen regiments that made up the Second Canadian Infantry Division. Among the other fifteen regiments were the Régiment de Maisonneuve (RdM), the only other almost exclusively French-Canadian and Catholic regiment within the Division, and fourteen mainly English-Canadian and religiously diverse regiments, including the Cameron Highlanders and the Royal Regiment of Canada.40
While the wartime experience of these sixteen regiments differed, senior Catholic chaplains within the Second Canadian Infantry Division used the monthly reports provided by each Catholic chaplain to compile a monthly account of the numbers of military personnel attending mass and receiving communion or confession. Although most padres’ logs submitted to headquarters did not find their way into military or public archives, these divisional monthly reports, from November 1941 to March 1945, did survive. Today, they provide a valuable tool for examining religious participation throughout the war years.41 The double vertical scale graph compares the number of communions and confessions that took place each month with the number of burial services.42 Since this chart represents Catholic activities in all sixteen regiments, the war experience of two almost exclusively Catholic regiments of the Second Canadian Infantry Division – the FMR and the RdM – will be used to help explain this graphic.
From November 1941 to March 1944, when most regiments of the Second Canadian Infantry Division were waiting in the United Kingdom for the Allied high command’s strategic planning, the number of sacraments received remains fairly constant, with a slight, but expected, increase during the Easter and Christmas periods. Since these regiments were not engaged in active fighting, death rates were low. Similarly, each padre had the opportunity to get to know and build up a pastoral relationship with his soldiers. The only exception to the general “quiet” during the pre-March 1944 period was August and September 1942, the period of the Dieppe Raid, and its immediate aftermath. Aware of the intense battle that lay ahead for the FMR and the heavy casualties expected, many soldiers and officers, turning to Padre Sabourin for reassurance, received the sacraments in great numbers. Without sufficient time to hear individual confessions, chaplains benefited from the Holy See’s permission to grant general, rather than individual, absolution. Padre Sabourin accompanied his soldiers in prayer, granted them general absolution for their sins, and invited them all to receive communion before they boarded their landing craft for Dieppe.43
While the risks had been deemed high by senior military officials, few could have predicted the human cost or the lasting scar of the Dieppe Raid. Out of 794 officers and soldiers who had prayed with Sabourin prior to the raid, 587 were killed. This left Sabourin with the harrowing task of providing the last rite en masse for many of the men he had cared for since leaving Canada three years earlier. Far from immune to the traumas of war taking place around him and with hundreds of his soldiers and friends dying on the beaches in gallant but pitifully hopeless attacks, Sabourin – emotionally scarred from this conflict – could no longer cope with ministering to the survivors. Returning him home became the most practical solution for both religious and military authorities.44 Padre Charles E. Beaudry, a parish priest from Joliette known to many officers and some soldiers of the Montréal- and Joliette-based regiment, was called upon to replace Sabourin.45 Without a full complement, the FMR was given time to reorganize itself, increase its numbers and train as a unit. For Beaudry, this time proved important, allowing him to comfort his flock and reassure them that God had not abandoned them.46 As for Sabourin, following a seven-month counseling and rest period, he returned to active military duty, taking up the position of senior Catholic cleric for Canadian troops stationed in Newfoundland.47
While the FMR took part in the Dieppe Raid, the RdM had been ordered to maintain their position in England, a position held since August 1940. Despite a Nazi air raid on the night of 19 August 1942 – the Regiment’s first encounter with the enemy – which caused no casualties, the regiment waited until the Invasion of Normandy for their baptism of fire.48 Throughout this long period of waiting, Father Guy Laramée, a well-known Jesuit youth pastor from the Montreal region appointed to the RdM in October 1939, took this time to prepare his soldiers for the hardships ahead. In fact, some officers were continuously preoccupying themselves with the spiritual well-being of their soldiers, and were pleased with Laramée’s ability to bond with these young men.49 In a sermon, Laramée implored officers and soldiers to “confide in the Virgin Mary for this war will be fatal for many among us. Never can we have too much love for the Virgin Mary and never can we have too much confidence in her protection.”50 After four years of valued service, the RdM was sad to lose Laramée following his promotion within the chaplaincy ranks.51 Replacing him was Padre Gérard Marchand, a former Voltigeurs de Québec chaplain, who benefited from a year’s experience with the regiment before heading to the battlefield.52
In May and June 1944, as Allied troops prepared for D-Day, chaplains were instructed to prepare their soldiers for combat by “furthering the comfort and general welfare of the men.”53 Despite the tragedy of the Dieppe Raid, the lessons learned proved useful. For example, for the first time, chaplains received explicit instructions on conducting mass burials. With such information in hand, the padres acknowledged the upcoming hardships, prepared their men spiritually as best as they could, and offered them the sacraments. A few weeks after D-Day, the RdM joined the other regiments fighting in France, with a “great number going to communion” before leaving for the battlefield.54
The most intense battles against the Nazis took place from June 1944 to May 1945 in a war of constant movement. As the intensity of the fighting continued, soldiers and officers lived every hour knowing that their lives were in constant danger, and they turned to their padre in unprecedented numbers for the sacraments of communion and confession. Between June and December 1944, the FMR and the RdM both lost nearly one-third of their men.55 A telling example: in September 1944, the Second Canadian Infantry Division conducted 441 burial services, laying to rest thousands of its own soldiers – this contrasts vividly to the less than 25 burial services per month conducted between January and May 1944. As for those who survived, they turned to the Church in greater number than ever before for comfort: September 1944 saw the number of communions quadruple and the number of confessions double compared to April of the same year.
As the war dragged on through another winter and the casualties kept mounting, commanding officers turned to their “jovial” chaplain for help in raising the spirits of the men and in encouraging them to fight on. Chaplains continued to visit soldiers wherever they were, often at considerable personal risk. They listened to their fears and encouraged them. They offered them the sacraments, which were rarely refused. In these difficult times, the devotion of many chaplains to their men remained firm. Armed with faculties to minister to their men in wartime, some chaplains accompanied their troops to the most advanced outposts on the battlefields, disobeying chaplaincy guidelines. Father Rémi Dalcourt was one of these many committed padres. On 28 February 1945, after performing a burial service, Dalcourt’s car hit an enemy landmine, and he was killed instantly. In a letter received posthumously, Dalcourt described to a friend his dedication to his soldiers. “I only have one desire, one mission: to be with my soldiers, under the rain of God and under the rain of the enemy.”56 Despite the recognition of the chaplains’ work, Dalcourt became the third, and final, Canadian Catholic padre to lose his life in this war.
During battles in France and Belgium, Padre Beaudry followed the regiment onto the battlefields, offering the sacraments of confession and communion, and celebrating mass whenever and wherever possible. Beaudry likened his role during such battles to an “ambulance attendant working close to enemy fire;” he did whatever he could to provide the sacraments to his “boys.”57 As for Padre Marchand, he used his sermons and other encounters with his soldiers and officers to encourage them on in their fight and to request that they thank God through prayers for the ongoing protection of members of the regiment.58 Up to the time of the final ceasefire, soldiers continued to receive the sacraments in large numbers and the requests on a padre’s time were limitless.
While the experience and the effectiveness of padres can be analyzed at the divisional level, there is also considerable value in examining the situation from the regimental perspective. By looking at the war through the eyes of the various padres who accompanied the Royal 22e Régiment we will be able to see how these chaplains served their troops.
On 1 September 1939 – nine days prior to Canada’s declaration of war – the federal government approved the use of article 64 of the Militia Act, placing its regiments on active service. For the Royal 22e Régiment (R22R), mobilization came at a time when the number of soldiers had been permitted to dwindle to 300 men during the interwar years. As a result of this announcement, R22R recruitment drives quickly took place in Chicoutimi, Roberval, Saguenay, and Mont-Joli, rapidly increasing the regiment’s complement to over 800 men by early December.59 Welcoming new R22R recruits to Québec City’s Citadel was Msgr J. G. Côté, Nelligan’s francophone vicar-general and a R22R chaplain during the First World War.
Since Côté’s age exceeded the limits imposed by the DND in 1939 for overseas enrolment and with the government’s sudden inclusion of the R22R as part of the First Canadian Infantry Division, Nelligan was obliged to find a new, and younger, padre to look after this regiment overseas.60 Impressed by a young cleric named Maurice L. Roy, a theologian from Université Laval (who would later become the military’s principal chaplain as well as cardinal), Nelligan encouraged him to sign up, and to accompany Canada’s first French-Canadian regiment overseas.61 While the R22R left Canadian soil on 4 December 1939, accompanied by Padre Roy, the regiment was not called upon to play an active role until July 1943. Without any serious incident during these initial years, the regiment focused on training.
With boredom quickly setting in, and lasting for more than three years, Roy used his time to organize several social events, including movie screenings, dances, and music concerts, thus helping his soldiers forget – albeit for short periods of time – the waiting game. Roy benefited from these quiet times to help officers and soldiers understand the role of a padre. During his interactions with soldiers and officers, and in particular in a letter to his soldiers, Roy implores them to come and see him, for a padre’s role is to help, not to punish: “I await you, as a friend and as a brother, to whom I wish to provide my services and give you a bit of joy.”62 A victim of his own success, Roy’s dedication to his regiment did not go unnoticed by his superiors. On 21May 1941, this popular chaplain was promoted to senior chaplain with responsibilities for all chaplains serving Canada’s First Infantry Division.63 In his farewell sermon to the regiment, Roy expressed his regret at not being able to accompany the R22R until the very end, but kept his promise of visiting the regiment often.64
Although most padres underwent a six-month military and religious training prior to being sent overseas, it did not guarantee an enhanced ability to acclimatize oneself to new working conditions. This was indeed the case for Roy’s replacement, 39-year old padre Édouard Desilets, a native of Ste-Anne-du-Sault, Québec. Due to the lack of Canadian clerics overseas, Nelligan took advantage of the arrival of Desilets in the United Kingdom in April 1941 to appoint him immediately to the R22R.65 From the beginning, Desilets could not provide the guidance and leadership a regiment needed in troubling times. Following Desilets’ inability to console the victims of air raids, the commanding officer of the R22R met privately with the divisional chaplain, to request that prior to being sent to the battlefield, a new chaplain would be named to the regiment.66 Despite Desilets’ difficulties in adapting to his wartime responsibilities, his cleric colleagues never abandoned him, supporting him in his functions until a replacement could be found a year later, in December 1942.67
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Life for the R22R changed dramatically on 10 July 1943. Under Lieutenant-Colonel Bernatchez’s command, the R22R took part in the Allied invasion of Sicily, a 38-day journey which resulted in the Allied troops taking control of the island. But marching into the town of Messina, the centre of Sicilian control, did not come without sacrifice. On 17 July 1943, the R22R experienced its first battle, with seven of their own losing their lives, and another 24 being injured. Other battlefields, including Valguarnera, Catenanuova, and Adrano, which bear witness to more sufferings, remain enshrined in the regiment’s history. Throughout these trying times, the regiment benefited from Padre Léo Gratton’s ministering to the troops on the battlefields. Despite being one of the oldest members of the regiment, at the age of 46 (in 1943), his physical abilities, especially during long, endurance testing maneuvers, inspired even the youngest members.68
Despite the hardship of life on the battlefields, Gratton expressed his profound affection for the soldiers of the R22R: “If you only knew how much I love my soldiers and how ready I am to do anything I can for them. I will follow them always and I will follow them everywhere, and nothing will separate me from them, especially in the most critical and dangerous times.”69 Holding true to his promise, Gratton accompanied the regiment in its next move: the invasion of Italy. With a mounting casualty rate during the Italian campaign, Gratton’s dedication to providing the sacraments did not diminish. In fact, to his divisional chaplain, Gratton remarked that, since the invasion of Italy, a dramatic change had taken place in the piety of his men, such that “many have come out of a nonchalant profession of their faith.”70 For another six months, the R22R helped to push back Nazi troops, with more of their own becoming the ultimate sacrifice. On 14 December 1943, for example, the battle of Casa Berardi cost “C” company the life of 23 soldiers and 107 more were injured. While the R22R continued to serve with great distinction, the list of the deceased continued to increase, and so did the activities of Padre Gratton.
Following the exhaustive battles in Sicily and Italy, Allied commanders looked to reserve units to strengthen the complement of many regiments and to replace soldiers during a well-deserved rest period. Gratton’s senior chaplain, recognizing his physical exhaustion after several months on the battlefields, approved a two-month rest period. In the interim, Alphonse Claude-Laboissière, a Franciscan father who had served with reserve units of the R22R in Italy since September 1943, replaced Gratton.71 Accompanying him were hundreds of the reservists he had served with during the previous months. Although keeping personal war diaries was strongly prohibited, Claude-Laboissière kept a personal log of his activities, which provides a rich source of historical information on a padre’s wartime experience.72 His hesitancy in allowing its publication reflects his uneasiness with being its central figure. However, without a predetermined public, this journal remains a valuable source for the analysis of the rates of religious participation, a statistic not taken into account in most official military records. Using the entries of his diary for the weeks from 31 October 1943 to 16 April 1944 – weeks where the men were not involved in fighting and during part of which they were – it becomes possible to analyze variations in rates of participation in religious activities (Table 1).73
On 9 October 1943, Claude-Laboissière had arrived in the Algerian port city of Oran, joining the R22R reserve units, where he spent nearly three full months. Although life in Algeria was hard – extreme heat, lack of proper supplies and equipment, and shortage of food – the R22R reinforcement units found themselves at a considerable distance from the main theatres of war. Claude-Laboissière’s diary indicates that a comfortable routine was established, with training during the week, one religious service on Sundays, and one other sacrament, usually confession, performed during the week. The padre organized sporting events and discussion groups to help the men relax and to help him get to know them better on an individual, personal level.
In December 1943, the R22R reinforcement units’ quiet life in Algeria ended following the Battle of Ortona. As the fighting in Italy intensified, and the R22R contingent there began to suffer both increasing casualties and physical exhaustion, the R22R reinforcements unit were ordered to Italy to bolster the regiment’s strength. On New Year’s Day 1944, the R22R reinforcement units set sail for the Italian coast. During the two-day voyage across the Mediterranean and Adriatic Seas, the unit was subjected to two German bombing runs, but did not suffer any casualties. After arriving in Italy, but still several hundred kilometres from the battlefield, Claude-Laboissière and the men of the reinforcement units helped the local civilian population rebuild their homes. With the exception of one bombing raid, which caused no casualties, life remained fairly calm until the end of January. Claude-Laboissière records that Sunday mass remained a focal point for both the mainly Catholic Italian population and his soldiers.
However when the R22R reinforcement unit was ordered to the battlefield on 3 February 1944, the men’s lives changed forever. It was, for most of them, their baptism of fire. For the next two months, the R22R– which consisted now mainly of the reinforcement units – defended the Allied positions and succeeded in pushing the Nazis further north. During the offensive, the number of dead and wounded rose steadily. And, as the risk of death increased, so did the number of religious services, to an average of almost three masses a week. Claude-Laboissière also notes that his soldiers waited for him to grant general absolution before heading to the battlefield.74 While this period of intense fighting coincided with Lent, the padre and his soldiers were unable to reflect on the religious importance of this time of the year. In fact, Claude-Laboissière’s diary for 1944 makes no direct reference to Lent. However, soldiers requested the sacraments of communion and confession more often after the regiment’s arrival at the battlefield, perhaps motivated by fears that unabsolved impurities might prevent them from attaining eternal life. Indeed, the padre spent up to four evenings a week listening to confessions. The only exception during this period was during the Holy Week of April 2, 1944, when the commanding officer of the R22R, Colonel J. Allard, received permission from his military superiors to pull his troops away from the battlefield, in order to rest and to prepare themselves for Easter celebrations.75 Not surprisingly, during Holy Week, Claude-Laboissière celebrated five masses, although the men were away from the battlefield and, temporarily at least, out of danger.
Claude-Laboissière’s diary provides an historical account of what soldiers went through during the war. When the regiment found itself far from the dangers of battle, as in Algeria, the men’s religious concerns were less visible. However, as this padre’s diary clearly demonstrates, when the death and mutilation of battle became real, as on the Italian front, both the soldiers’ participation and the padre’s writings reflect intensified religious concerns. Claude-Laboissière’s official attachment to the R22R ended in May 1944, with the return of Gratton to the R22R and the promotion of Claude-Laboissière to the position of senior chaplain of the First Military Division, replacing Maurice Roy.
In the months that followed, the lives of his soldiers were marked by persistent battles, with many deaths and injuries. The possibility of an air raid did not prevent Gratton from celebrating mass. During one such occasion, Gratton described his sentiments in regards to celebrating mass on a battlefield: “What a wonderful sight to see officers and soldiers receiving, under enemy sky, the God of their first communion. Mass in active service is the biggest act of faith of the battalion. It is surely the source by excellence of these divine benedictions on one and all.”76 As the war raged on, the R22R was sent to France and then Holland to liberate these nations from Nazi occupation.
While the R22R played an important role during the Second World War, it came with a heavy cost. Of the 314 officers and 4,980 soldiers who served with the regiment during the Second World War, 382 lost their lives and another 1,265 men were injured, a rate of 31% for injuries and death.77 At no time was the regiment without the services of a padre. The qualitative nature of the war diaries of the R22R demonstrates the padres’ religious activities. Claude-Laboissière’s diary presents a brief microcosm from which we can analyze the increasing responsibilities of padres in proximity to the battlefield.
One of the DND’s preoccupations during the Second World War was the spiritual and moral well-being of its troops. By creating a dual chaplaincy service and by assigning rules and responsibilities to chaplains and senior military officers, the military confirmed the importance of the religious element in wartime. Under the leadership of Bishop Nelligan, the Canadian Catholic Chaplaincy Service was mandated to provide to the Catholic military personnel a religious encadrement, regardless of the events unfolding around them. Despite the attempts to increase the number of Catholic clerics, the shortage of priests ensured that those enlisted clerics found themselves overworked, especially as the participation rate of Canadian Catholic soldiers increased dramatically during the war’s most treacherous periods. The ties between chaplain and soldier were reinforced not only through wartime religious faculties but also through a new mechanism – Padre’s Hour. In times of war, a padre’s willingness to bring the sacraments onto the battlefield and visit the troops strengthened the padre-soldier relationship.
With the reintroduction of wartime religious faculties, with the lessons learned from the First World War that led to the creation of a dual chaplaincy service and a protocol of rules and responsibilities for chaplains and senior military officers, chaplains were indeed better able to meet the religious needs of their soldiers. With each new day, more soldiers and officers were injured or killed; food and rest were scarce; physical and moral exhaustion were commonplace. Recognizing the danger that lay around them—which resulted in the death of thousands of their brothers-in-arms – many soldiers took comfort in the promise of eternal life through the sacraments.
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1 This article is a revised version of a paper presented to the annual meeting of the CCHA, Quebec City, 2001. It is based on research done for my M.A. memoir, “La religion en guerre: le rôle des aumômoniers canadiens-français catholiques durant la Seconde Guerre mondiale,” University of Ottawa, December 1999. The author wishes to thank Prof. Jefrrey A. Keshen, Mélanie Brunet, Martin F. Auger, Dr. Joel Tatelman, and Andrea Budgell.
2 Alphonse Claude-Laboissière Journal d’un aumônier militaire, 1939-1945 (Montréal: Éditions franciscaines, 1948), 251. In French, the quote reads: “Icitte, me dit l’un deux (sic), on dit le gros chapelet.” All translations are those of the author.
3 While my University of Ottawa memoir dealt specifically with four predominantly French-Canadian regiments, this article is broader in scope. However, the qualitative statements provided apply almost exclusively to the war experience of the R22R, the Fusiliers Mont-Royal (FMR), and the Régiment Maisonneuve (RdM).
4 DND (hereafter DND), Directorate–History and Heritage (hereafter DHH), File 76/109, letter from Bishop Joseph Ryan Francis to Prime Minister Mackenzie King, 16 September 1939.
5 DND, DHH, File 76/109-B.
6 The organization of Canada’s Chaplaincy service during the First World War is the subject of Duff Crerar’s monograph: Padre In No Man’s Land: Canadian Chaplains and the Great War (Montreal & Kingston, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1995).
7 National Archives of Canada (hereafter NAC), Queen’s Privy Council for Canada Act, number 2002, 1921. The Order-in-Council was signed on June 13, 1921.
8 Duff Crerar, Padres in No Man’s Land, 221.
9 DND, DHH, File 113.7 (D3), Rev. Robert J. Ogle, “Inception, History and Growth of the Canadian Catholic Military Chaplains’ Faculties,” 16.
10 DND, DHH, File 76/109.
11 Albert Fowler, Peacetime Padres: Canadian Protestant Military Chaplains, 1945-1995 (St. Catherine’s, Ont., 1996), 16. See also the autobiography of Bishop George AndersonWells, The Fighting Bishop (Toronto: Cardwell House, 1971).
12 “Tributes to Bishop Nelligan,” The Catholic Register, 13 April 1974, 2.
13 DND, DHH, File 113.7 (D3), Rev. Robert Ogle, «Inception, History».
14 DND, Archives of the Chaplain School at Canadian Forces Base Borden, file “Change of Command – CGCHSC,” 11.
15 DND, DHH, File 86/81 – Instructions for the Canadian Chaplain Service: Canadian Active Service Forces (Ottawa, King’s Printer, 1939).
16 DND, DHH, File 76/109, Nelligan’s letter to all Canadian Catholic Chaplains, dated March 26, 1940.
17 Ibid., “The Royal Canada Army Chaplain Corps (RC),” 20 October 1954, 8.
19 Canada, Ordonnances et règlements royaux, 199.
20 Albert Fowler, Peacetime Padre, 15. Fowler claims that the choice of a French-Canadian Vicar-General, in addition to an English-Canadian Vicar-General was a political compromise requested by the Québec bishops and Cardinal Villeneuve in order to secure their support for Nelligan as Principal Chaplain. His source is a letter from Villeneuve to Mackenzie King (NAC, mf C3751, 238195) but, in fact, the letter does not mention such a compromise. However, Nelligan mentions in his war diary that his vicars-general were chosen following reflection and discussions. See NAC, RG 24, Vol. 15,628, Principal Catholic Chaplain war diary, vol. 1.
21 For Canadian Protestants, the ratio was set at one chaplain per 1000 men. See NAC, RG 24, vol. 15628, Principal Catholic Chaplain war diary, October 1939.
22 NAC, RG 24, vol. 15628, war diary of the Bishop Nelligan, October 1939, letter sent to the members of Canada’s Catholic Hierarchy.
23 NAC, RG 24, vol. 10236, file 47/reports/1/3, personal diary of Nelligan to an overseas visit, 1944.
24 NAC, RG 24, vol. 19182, file 2140-1/18, “Establishment of Royal Canadian Chaplain Corps, confidential letter on the Canadian Catholic Chaplain Service,” dated 1 May 1945. Out of the 201 chaplains, 92 (45%) were of French-Canadian origin; 27% were from religious orders; 63% were parish priests.
25 NAC, RG 24, military file of H/Col. Charles Édouard Beaudry, 04-49435. Taken from an interview with Beaudry dated 21 October 1983.
26 NAC, RG 24, vol. 15629, war diary of H/Lt-Col. M.C. O’Neill, 27 September 1941.
27 NAC, RG 24, vol. 10235, file 47report/1 – transcript of chaplains’ meeting on 15 October 1942, 368. See also DND, DHH, File 76/57 – Chaplains’ Conferences, 1939-1945, 6.
28 DND, DHH, File 76/57 – Chaplains’ Conferences, 1939-1945, 6.
29 NAC, RG 24, vol. 15629, war diary of H/Lt-Col. M.C. O’Neill, October 1943.
30 Ibid., December 1943, letter summarizing meeting of chaplains from the Third Canadian Infantry Division, dated 10 December 1943.
31 Topics discussed included the existence of God, service to God and country, marriage and the Catholic home, and sex within a divine context. See DND, Canadian Chaplain School Resource Centre, C.F.B. Borden, File ‘L’heure de l’aumônier: manuel de formation pour les aumôniers avec 31 leçons préparées’.
32 DND, DHH, File 76/57 - Chaplains’ Conferences, 1939-1945, 82 – Summary of the Conference of Senior Chaplains, held in Ottawa on 11-12 February 1942, 84-85.
33 NAC, RG 24, vol. 15629, war diary of H/Lt-Col. M.C. O’Neill, June 1943, annex – war diary of Senior Chaplain Keohan, 30 June 1943.
34 Ibid., July 1943, annex – war diary of senior padre MacIsaac, 28 July 1943.
35 Ibid., May 1943, annex – war diary of senior padre Malone, 8 May 1943. See also: NAC, RG 24, vol. 15629, war diary of H/Lt-Col. M.C. O’Neill, July 1943, annex – war diary of senior padre Keohan, 30 May 1943.
36 Ibid., January 1944, annex – war diary of senior padre O’Leary, 30 January 1944.
37 NAC, RG 24, vol. 15628, war diary of H/Lt-Col. T. J. McCarthy, 31 January 1940 and 3 February 1941.
38 A. Claude-Laboissière, Journal d’un aumônier militaire, 1939-1945, 207.
39 NAC, RG 24, vol. 15629, war diary of H/Lt-Col. M.C. O’Neill, December 1942, annex – war diary of senior padre Cherrier, 2 December 1944.
40 J.L. Granatstein and Desmond Morton, A Nation Forged in Fire: Canadians and the Second World War (Toronto: Lester & Orpen Dennys, 1989), 269-70. For the religious affiliation of soldiers in regiments, see NAC, RG 24, C-5128, File HQC 8114 – Proposed New Units CASF – Chaplains. Letter from Brigadier J.P. Archambault, dated 8 December 1939, outlines the religious affiliation of FMR soldiers: 734 Catholics, three Protestants. For the RdM, there were 822 Catholics, five Protestants and nine of other religious denominations. See NAC, RG 24, vol. 15629, war diary of H/Lt-Col. M. C. O’Neill, September 1941 – annexed war diary of H/Major J. Georges Côté.
41 See Appendix A.
42 Burial services included the laying to rest of more than one soldier, and in some instances could include hundreds of men.
43 NAC, RG 24, vol. 17511, war diary of the FMR, August 1942.
44 Ibid., war diary of the Fusiliers Mont-Royal, August-September 1942,
45 NAC, RG 24, military file of H/Col.. Charles Édouard Beaudry, 04-49435.
46 NAC, RG 24, vol. 17511, war diary of the FMR, September 1942.
47 NAC, RG 24, military file of Padre Joseph Armand Sabourin, 203-S-61, 42-05198.
48 NAC, RG 24, vol. 15185, war diary of the RdM, August 1942.
49 La Presse, 27 November 1939, 2.
50 NAC, RG 24, vol. 15185, war diary of the RdM, 28 December 1939. In addition to his religious responsibilities, the commanding-officer requested that Laramée write the regiment’s war journal and coordinate the soldiers’ studies.
51 Ibid., 12 September 1943.
52 Padre Marchand wrote Le Régiment de Maisonneuve vers la victoire, 1944-1945 (Montréal, Presses Libres, 1980).
53 NAC, RG 24, vol. 15,180, war diary of the Régiment de la Chaudière, May 1944. Section XXVI of this ‘Top Secret Report’ deals with chaplains, and instructs them on general issues, on positioning of chaplains during invasion, and on identification of dead soldiers and officers before burial
54 NAC, RG 24, Vol. 15,188, war diary of the Régiment de Maisonneuve, July 1944.
55 Ibid., December 1944 and NAC, RG 24, vol. 17511, war diary of the FMR, December 1944.
56 Jacques Castonguay and Armand Ross, Le Régiment de la Chaudière (Lévis, Régiment de la Chaudière, 1983), 343.
57 NAC, RG 24, military file of H/Col. Charles Édouard Beaudry, 04-49435. In November 1944, Beaudry, promoted to senior chaplain, was replaced by Padre H. Plante, who accompanied the Regiment until the end of the war.
58 NAC, RG 24, vol. 15188, war diary of the RdM, 18 March 1945.
59 NAC, RG 24, vol. 15236, war diary of the Royal 22e Régiment, September-December 1939.
60 Jean Pariseau et Serge Bernier, Les Canadiens français et le bilinguisme des Forces armées canadiennes, Tome 1: 1763-1969: Le Spectre d'une armée bicéphale (Ottawa: Service historique de la Défense nationale, 1987), 114. Msgr. Côté was born on 8 November 1888. See NAC, RG 24, military file of H/Major J. G. Côté, HQ File 203-C-57, 05-35232.
61 NAC, RG 24, military file of H/Col. Maurice Roy, HQ File, 203-R-35, 41-07796.
62 NAC, RG 24, vol. 15236, R22R war diary, January 1941.
63 Charles-Marie Boissenault, Histoire du Royal 22e Régiment (Québec: Éditions du Pélican, 1964), 82.
65 NAC, RG 24, vol. 15629, war diary of the overseas principal chaplain, vol. 6, 20 April 1941.
66 Ibid., December 1941.
67 Ibid., December 1942.
68 Boissenault, Histoire du Royal 22e Régiment, 44-5
69 NAC, RG 24, vol. 15238, R22R war diary, vol. 49, letter written by Padre Gratton, May 1943, and addressed to the readership of Castor, the official overseas R22R social committee.
70 NAC, RG 24, vol. 15238, R22R war diary, vol. 49, September 29, 1943.
71 Padre Claude-Laboissière, born on 28 March 1901, in St-Hyacinthe, served as the rector of a Franciscan college in Edmonton prior to receiving his Provincial’s approval to join the armed forces on 17 June 1940. See NAC, RG 24, military file for H/Major Alphonse Claude-Laboissière, HQ File 203-L-52, 05-18832.
72 Claude-Laboissière, Journal d’un aumônier militaire, 1939-1945.
73 Ibid., 31 October 1943 to 16 April 1944.
74 Ibid., 3 February 1944
75 Ibid., 2 April 1944.
76 NAC, RG 24, vol. 15239, war diary of the R22R, August 1944, letter written by Gratton dated 10 August 1944.
77 Régie du Royal 22e Régiment, Historique du Régiment, la Deuxième Guerre mondiale, 1939-1945, http://www.r22er.com/fr/ww2/war2fr.html.