Harvesting the "Red Vineyard": Catholic Religious Culture in the Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1914-1919

By McGown, Mark G. | Historical Studies, Annual 1998 | Go to article overview

Harvesting the "Red Vineyard": Catholic Religious Culture in the Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1914-1919


McGown, Mark G., Historical Studies


After only six months of service in the Canadian Expeditionary Force as a chaplain, Father Bernard Stephen Doyle of Toronto was clearly unimpressed with the spiritual exercises of the men in his care. "I have become more firmly convinced," he wrote to Archbishop Neil McNeil, "that war and soldier's life do not promote the welfare of religion. The ordinary man is not any more fervent out here than he was at home." (1) Doyle complained of fairweather Catholics who seemed to eager go to the sacraments before the heat of battle but who also "forgot their good resolutions afterwards." Soldiers, according to Doyle, were mired in irreligion, immorality, and blasphemy, and many were remiss in making their Easter duty during the war, continuing what seemed to be the bad habits they possessed well before they ever donned khaki. Such rotten fruit in the "red vineyard," was, in Doyle's mind the harvest of a domestic Church that had failed to nurture young men in the faith. His only words of hope came when he described Catholic youth from the Maritimes and the Ottawa Valley. (2)

What are we to make of Doyle's observations? Did they reflect accurately the religious lives of Catholics serving in the Canadian Expeditionary force? One might attribute Doyle's diatribe to his limited experience in the variety of postings typical to the life of a CEF chaplain. (3) Perhaps his observations were evidence of the disappointment and shock experienced by a zealous young priest who, ordained less than four years, received a strong dose of reality in his first significant pastoral assignment. (4) Whatever the difficulties of filtering Doyle's comments through the unrequited expectations of an eager and committed priest, his observations prompt some rather significant questions about the spiritual life of priests and Catholic laity in the CEF. How did priests serving as chaplains understand the nature of their ministry? How can one characterize their relations with the lay men and women serving in the CEF? How ardent were Catholic service persons in their reception of the sacraments? How closely did soldiers and nursing sisters maintain strict Catholic moral norms?

Contemporary historical writing on the Canadian Expeditionary Force is of little help when addressing the questions arising from Doyle's letter. Few military historians are concerned with the interplay of military life and spirituality. Even in his lucid and vividly detailed social history of Canadian soldiers, When Your Number's Up, Desmond Morton relegates the religious life of the CEF to a very brief statistical postscript. (5) The implication of the virtual omission of religion from Morton's fine study is that religious life was a minor consideration of service personnel at best. Duff Crerar's recent tome Padres in No Man's Land, however, suggests otherwise. This richly documented study of the Canadian Chaplains Service reintroduces the religious element to the CEF and argues that the war did not create widespread religious disillusionment among the padres. Crerar also challenges the memoirs of such veterans as Charles Harrison and Will Bird, for whom the soldiers were "godless, cynical and profane," and their chaplains were "irrelevant." (6) Despite this ground breaking study, however, several problems remain unresolved: how to decipher the conflicting reports of religious participation by Roman Catholic service personnel; how Catholic priests came to be more highly regarded than their Protestant colleagues in the myth and lore of the soldiers themselves; and how much truth there was in the rather unflattering portrait of Catholics painted by Father Doyle. (7)

In the face of conflicting testimony regarding Catholic religious life, this study attempts to blend the insights drawn from chaplains' reports, war diaries, and episcopal correspondence, with an extensive survey of the personnel records of Catholics who served in the CEF. For most of the 1,472 male Catholic service personnel and sixty Catholic nurses sampled for this paper, the military service file is the only personal evidence that remains of their participation in the Great War. …

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