Australian Jesuits in the First World War

Province archivist Fr Michael Head SJ relates the lives and fates of several Jesuits who worked with Australian soldiers or served during the First World War.

Quite a few Jesuits worked with Australian soldiers or served in the First World War. Many suffered a great deal — Fr Patrick Tighe SJ, a chaplain from 1915 to 1917, came home ill and died of chest infections and ill health in 1920.

Some were giants, like Fr Joseph Hearn SJ, who after 18 years as parish priest of Richmond, Vic., joined the army as a military chaplain in 1914, even though he was 60 years old. He served in the Dardanelles campaign and then in France until late in 1917. He was known as ‘blood and iron Joe’ and his sardonic humour suited him very well for his chaplaincy work.

His superior officers thought so highly of him that he was awarded a Military Cross to honour his service.

Some chaplains were lucky, like Fr Gerald Corr SJ. When in Dunkirk, the house he was in was bombed. He was in the cellar at the time and survived unhurt. But two of the chaplains serving with Australian forces died in their service.

Fr Edward Sydes SJ was born off the coast of Queensland, educated in Ipswich, and then came to study at Melbourne University. While there, he graduated with a BA, MA and LLB, and was admitted to the bar in Melbourne in 1891. While preparing for his legal work, he tutored in history and maths at Xavier College.

In 1903 he, joined the Jesuits, did his novitiate in Tullamore under the famous Fr Michael Browne, continued his studies in Ireland, and was ordained in 1909.

At the age of 53, in 1917 he took up the role of chaplain with the AIF in France. A protestant minister wrote about him, ‘a distinguished minister of his church, a man quite out of the common, was there in the disorder and distress and agony of the time, mingling with his direct spiritual counsel the very lowly service of handing out cocoa and cigarettes — lending a hand in any way he could.’

Air raids, bombardments and attacks did not disturb his work; he was visiting parts of the front line on a more or less daily basis. He regularly just dropped into dugouts and carried on conversations with any people who were there.

Many people wrote about their experience of meeting a man with such intellectual gifts and charming manner. During one attack, when the hospital became full of casualties, Australian, British and German, he was working among the wounded. The fact he could speak German helped the staff a good deal.

In October 1918, in one of those unhappy mischances, he was gassed by some of his own men during action at Le Cateau. He was taken to hospital with chronic bronchitis and later moved to Wandsworth Military Hospital in the UK. He developed pneumonia and died on 15 November, four days after the armistice.

He was buried in the UK, but around Australia many people gave eloquent panegyrics, including the well-known Archbishop Duhig in Brisbane, who remembered him as a man from home.

The second casualty was Fr Michael Bergin SJ, who was born in 1879, educated at Mungret and entered the novitiate in 1897. After the novitiate ended he went with two others to the Jesuit mission in Syria, which was administered by the French provinces but needed some help from people who could speak English.

In 1906 he was transferred permanently to the Syrian mission and then went to Hastings in England to finish his theology studies. He was ordained in August 1910 and returned to Syria.

With the onset of the war, the Turks did not want foreigners in their territory and the Europeans were arrested, imprisoned and expelled from the country.

He arrived in Egypt in January 1915 and lived in a French Jesuit College. The first Australian troops had arrived the month before and were seeking a chaplain. He said Masses, heard confessions and performed various religious practices for the Light Horse Brigade at Maadi.

The brigade was sent to Gallipoli and as a ‘civilian’ priest he could not go with them. Some Australian troops, just before departure, took him into a tent, and shortly afterwards he appeared as ‘Trooper Bergin’ in full uniform.

Although a private, he did a lot of chaplaincy work until his commission arrived later. He lived close to the men, ate the same food, wore the same clothes, shared the hardships. He worked as a priest, tended the wounded and buried the dead.

After four months he caught the flu and was sent back to England to recover. There he managed to visit his family dressed in khaki, with ostrich feathers in his slouch hat and rising-sun badges. They were delighted to see him.

He returned to the Middle East and worked in a hospital in Egypt before going to France in July 1916, now part of the 13th Infantry Brigade. He wrote regularly to his family, but his service continued without a break, and he was with the men in all sorts of actions and duties: Masses, absolutions and care for all types in need.

In October 1917, during the offensive near Ypres, he was attending the wounded at an advanced aid post. German shelling was a fair way away, but on 11 October a heavy shell exploded just next to the aid post while Bergin was standing at the door. He was killed instantly.

His battalion commander wrote: ‘I am sure no man was, or could be, more popular and loved, not only be members of his own flock, but by all the others.’

Another senior officer wrote: ‘His death has been a great blow to all ranks, not only to his own Battalion and Brigade, but in the whole Division, in which he was well known and loved by all … He was one of the bravest and best men, among those who have made the supreme sacrifice.’

In the middle 1990s, Fr John Eddy SJ claimed Michael Bergin’s ANZAC Gallipoli medal and it is still in Canisius House, Pymble. Bergin remains honored in the military memorials of Australia and in several Australian churches. He was one of the great men who gave his life for Australia.

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