The Fighting Chaplain
William Henry Ironsides Reaney was a cradle Catholic. He was also cradle Navy, having been born to Commander Henry Aubrey Vailey Reaney and his wife Anne on July 21, 1863. His middle name was Ironsides after the steamer his father was serving aboard. Some accounts say that his birth came unexpectedly as his mother was visiting his father aboard ship. The proud father then asked the crew what name they should call the baby boy and they shouted out, “Ironsides”! Probably apocryphal, but it was a fitting beginning for the man if true.
After the Civil War, Henry Reaney stayed in the Navy, eventually reaching the rank of Captain, while he and his wife had six children in addition to their first born, William. The family settled in Detroit, and William graduated from Detroit College. Deciding on becoming a priest, William enrolled at the Saint Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore. He was ordained by Cardinal Gibbon at the Cathedral in Baltimore in 1888. From 1889-1891 he was pastor of Our Lady of Mount Carmel parish in Emmitsburg, Maryland.
The ancestral lure of the sea called to Father Reaney, and in 1892 he was appointed a chaplain in the Navy, the second Catholic chaplain in that branch of the service. He served on many ships as a Navy Chaplain, perhaps the most notable being the Olympia, the flagship of Admiral Dewey during the Spanish-American war.
Throughout his naval career, Father Reaney always focused his efforts on the enlisted men, helping with their problems, organizing amusements and athletic organizations for him. This feature of his service was quickly appreciated by the crew of the Olympia. The ship’s newspaper, the Bounding Billow, noted in an article, “The evening concerts inaugurated by Father Reaney of the OLYMPIA are a series of roaring successes (no pun is meant) and are working wonders on passing away the time, making everybody happy and the Father himself more popular if it is possible to do so. He has won the hearts of this crew as well as of all others with whom he has come in contact.” When a piano that the crew had laid their hands on in a less than honest manner was confiscated by an officer, for the officer’s mess, the Chaplain purchased a replacement for the men out of his own funds. This was not unusual for him. Throughout his service with the Navy he would often use most of his pay to help out the families of sailors, even selling his watch on one occasion to raise funds.
Father Reaney joined the Olympia just after the battle of Manila Bay in which the US fleet destroyed the Spanish fleet at Manila. The Chaplain helped in diplomatic negotiations with the Archbishop of Manila before Manila was surrendered to the US by the Spanish. He was also involved in attempts to win the release of Spanish priests held captive by Phillipino insurrectos, and which are detailed here.
First and last, Chaplain Reaney was a priest. Therefore he took considerable umbrage when a sailor, Tom Sharkey, created a disturbance while he was saying Mass. After Mass, Father Reaney challenged the man to put on the boxing gloves with him, although he knew that Sharkey, who would have a distinguished career as a boxer, was formidable in the ring. Before a packed audience of sailors, Father Reaney, who was a great amateur boxer, defeated Sharkey. Ever afterwards he was known as “The Fighting Chaplain”, alongside his more regular nickname of Chaplain Ironsides. Throughout his career he organized boxing clubs for the sailors, and among his sparring partners was President Theodore Roosevelt, a personal friend of the Chaplain.
Attaining the rank of Captain as his father had, Chaplain Reaney was chaplain of the Brooklyn Naval Yards in 1915 when he became ill from what is described as a severe stomach ailment. (I suspect stomach cancer.) After entering the Polyclinic Hospital on October 17, 1915, he died there on November 18 of that year. His funeral Mass was said at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, with thousands of mourners standing outside, because the cathedral was filled to capacity with those wishing to say Bon Voyage to the Fighting Chaplain. His obituary in the New York Times is here.
His eulogy was delivered by his old friend Father John Chidwick, the hero of the Maine.
“There are some folk who would tear from the soldier and sailor the uniform they wear, who would demolish our statues of heroes, because that is their idea of peace. Those men may not look on Chaplain Reaney as you and I, but can there be anything more glorious, more eloquent, than a man who has two objects in life – one to work for God , the other for his country. For twenty-three years Father Reaney did that.”