James K. Polk, President of the United States, had a problem. The year was 1846 and the US was at war with Mexico, a Catholic nation. A large fraction of the American army was Catholic, usually fairly recent Irish immigrants. Mexican propaganda portrayed the war as a wicked onlslaught by Protestants against a Catholic people and appealed to Catholics in the US army to desert to them, promising them land and a position in the Mexican army. Some troops took them up on their offer, with deserters eventually forming the San Patricios Battalion and fighting for Mexico during the war. To stem such desertions, Polk wanted to appoint Catholic chaplains to the US Army. Although Catholic chaplains had served informally in prior American wars, none had served officially in that capacity. To remedy that, Polk had a quiet private meeting with Archbishop John Hughes of New York. While Dagger John suspected Polk’s political motivations, he agreed to recommend two priests to serve as chaplains: Father Anthony Rey, vice-president of Georgetown and a Jesuit, and Father John McElroy, also a Jesuit, who went on to found Boston College and who will be the subject of a future post.
Father Rey, like most of the Catholic troops serving in the US Army during the Mexican War, was an immigrant. He had been born in Lyons, France on March 19, 1807. Originally planning on a career in business, while studying at the Jesuit college in Fribourg he decided to enter the priesthood and become part of the Society of Jesus. In 1840 he was sent to the US and became a professor of philosophy at Georgetown. In 1845 he became vice-president of Georgetown.
Joining the army of Zachary Taylor in northern Mexico following his appointment, Chaplain Rey took part in the siege and battle of Monterrey from September 20-23, 1846. Coming from a sheltered academic environment and being tossed swiftly into vicious urban combat, I doubt if anyone would have blamed Father Rey, a newcomer to the Army, if he had remained safely out of the fight and tended the dead and dying afterwards. However, that is not what he did. What he did do during the battle is set forth in this account from an admiring Protestant:
“The bulletins of your generals, and the glowing eulogiums of letter-writers of particular deeds, present no examples of heroism superior to this. That jesuit priest, thus coolly, bravely and all unarmed, walking among bursting shells, over the slippery streets of Monterrey, and the iron storm and battle steel that beat the stoutest, bravest soldier down, presenting no instrument of carnal warfare, and holding aloft, instead of true and trusty steel, that flashed the gleam of battle back, a simple miniature cross; and thus armed and equipped defying danger, presents to my mind the most sublime instance of the triumph of the moral over the physical man, and is an exhibition of courage of the highest character. It is equal to, if not beyond, any witnessed during that terrible siege.”
Moving at the front with the troops throughout the battle, Father Rey tended the wounded and administered the last sacrament to the dying.
After the battle Father Rey was part of the garrison of the town. He kept busy by not only assisting the wounded, but also by preaching missions in the towns and the surrounding areas, especially the rancheros which often went many months without seeing a priest. Warned by officers in the garrison that the surrounding areas were bandit infested, Father Rey felt obliged to carry out his functions as a priest no matter the danger. On January 19, 1847 he said mass at the village of Ceralvo. His body was found a few days later, pierced with lances. His death was a blow not only to the US troops, but also to the Mexicans for whom he was simply a priest, for he had dedicated himself to serving them no less than his own men.