Fr. Peter Whelan - Priest of Heroic Generosity
A Remarkable Life
How would you react if you suddenly found yourself in the midst of prison camp horror, with diseased and dying men around you all day every day, with no food and no clean water, so many suffering and dying that it seemed an overwhelming task for you to make any difference at all?
Fr. Peter Whelan immersed himself in some of the worst human suffering, and saw the worst of human nature, during the American Civil War but despite this, and many possibilities for easier duty, this heroic Catholic chaplain served both Confederate and Union soldiers, in appalling conditions, without discrimination.
Peter Whelan was born in Wexford, Ireland and was privileged to receive the best Classical education available there. Near the end of his studies he discerned that he was being called to the priesthood. After further education, he made his way to the American missions and was ordained a priest in 1830 in the then far-flung diocese of Charleston, South Carolina. While serving parishes all over the Southeast, he became known as a humble and dedicated priest. At the outbreak of the Civil War, he left his position as rector of an orphanage in Savannah in order to serve as a military chaplain. By this time Fr. Whelan was in his sixties, but he did not let his age or health hinder him.
The Civil War
During the difficult and terrible years of the Civil War, Fr. Whelan served both Confederate and Union troops. In New York state he served with captured Confederate soldiers in very difficult conditions at the Union prison camp on Governors Island, New York. While there Fr. Whelan would rise at dawn each morning to take a brisk walk and say Mass before attending to the needs of the prisoners. One day he was presented with a new suit, by the officers, as his own had grown so threadbare. The next day he was seen wearing his old suit and was asked where his new suit was. He explained that he had given his new suit to a soldier who had been captured wearing nothing but his underclothes. He was asked why he hadn't given his old suit to the soldier. Fr. Whelan said “When I give for Christ's sake, I give the best.” That statement was to be the rule he followed his entire life.
Later during the war, in Georgia, he served captured Union soldiers in the notorious Andersonville prison camp. Until World War II, when news of the horrors of the Nazi camps was spread, the most infamous prison camp in the world had been Andersonville. In a facility built for 6,000 prisoners, the Confederate Army imprisoned some 45,000 - without shelter, clean water, or adequate food. Over 13,000 Union prisoners died in the horror that was Andersonville. Fr. Peter Whelan was the only chaplain, from any denomination, who served the men there - he spent each day, from sun up to sundown, hearing confessions, baptizing the unbaptized, giving the Last Rites, sprinkling holy water on the many bodies of the dead, and seeing that the dead were given Christian burials. It was truly a living Hell on earth. Other priests, and even his bishop, were so moved by his selfless service amidst the horror of Andersonville that they came for very short periods to assist him. None of them could handle the experience for more than a very few days. Fr. Peter never left the men who needed him and he served in Andersonville until the armistice.
The diaries of men who survived the horrors at Andersonville, whether they were Catholic or Protestant, are filled with the greatest of admiration for Fr. Whelan and everything he did for them. Many of the non-Catholics remarked that the ministers of their denominations should be "forever shamed" because they did nothing. Indiscriminate of their confession, Fr. Whelan was there for these prisoners, to comfort them and to bring them Christ – day after day. Fr. Peter Whelan really understood St. Paul's words "No longer I, but Christ who lives within me" better than many.
When Fr. Peter Whelan died in Savannah, some few years after the war, the turnout for his funeral was the largest the city had ever seen. His funeral procession extended for two miles. So great was the affection for this man who had poured himself out in the service of others. He truly lived the life of a "saint" although no cause, remarkably, has ever been opened for his canonization by the diocese of Savannah.