Peter Paul Cooney was born in County Roscommin, Ireland in 1822. He went with his family to America at the age of 5. Raised on a farm in Monroe, Michigan. Studying at Notre Dame it was perhaps fated that he would become a Holy Cross priest, although he wasn’t ordained until the age of 37. When the Civil War broke out Father Cooney was at Notre Dame. Although at 39 he was rather old for a military chaplain, he enlisted in the 35th Indiana Infantry, nicknamed the First Indiana Irish, and served 44 months, the entire War, with the 35th.
In a regiment of brave men, mostly Irish, Father Cooney stood out. After the battle of Murphreesboro the Colonel of the regiment, Bernard F. Mullen, wrote:
To Father Cooney, our chaplain, too much praise cannot be given. Indifferent as to himself, he was deeply solicitous for the temporal comfort and spiritual welfare of us all. On the field he was cool and indifferent to danger, and in the name of the regiment I thank him for his kindness and laborious attention to the dead and dying.
After the battle of Nashville, Brigadier General Nathan Kimball summed up the chaplain:
Of Father Cooney, chaplain of the Thirty-fifth Indiana, I commend him as an example of the army chaplin; meek, pious, and brave as a lion, he worked with his brave regiment in the valley of the shadow of death, affording the ministrations of his holy religion to the wounded and dying, and giving words of encouragement to his fellow soldiers.
Before battles, Father Cooney would stand before the regiment, lead the men in prayer and give them mass absolution. The commander of the Army of the Cumberland, Major General William S. Rosecrans, a fervent Catholic convert, was so taken by this that he ordered the Protestant chaplains in the Army to do likewise!
Father Cooney noted in his letters home to his brother that Protestant soldiers would often attend Mass, especially before a battle, and some of them converted. He believed that the courage of Catholic soldiers in the Army helped break down prejudice against the Faith that some of their Protestant fellow soldiers had originally harbored.
I have been for the last two months very busy in preparing the men to complete their Easter duty, otherwise I would have written oftener, to you. Our division consists of about twelve thousand men and there are Catholics in every regiment. Protestants attend the sermons by thousands in the open field. I have baptized
many of them and prejudice against to the Church is gone almost entirely.
A short time ago I baptized and gave his first Communion to the Major General commanding our division. He is now a most fervent catholic and his example is powerful over the men of his command. I have every assistance from him in anything that I require for the discharge of my duties. He is extremely kind to me.
In a book published during the War in 1864, Indiana’s Roll of Honor, the fondness of the troops for their chaplain was set forth in this vignette:
Around a blazing camp fire sat a few comrades smoking their “dudgheens,” (short pipes) and discussing strategy with all the intensity of Irish controversialists. Father Cooney came hurriedly along, evidently bent on a visit to some sick soldier. The little squad
instantly rose to their feet with the hand to the cap. “Good evening, boys,” said the Father, with one of his pleasant smiles, and hurried towards the hospital. “There he goes,” said one of the group, “he’s always where he can do good, and niver idle. The likes iv him, God bless him, is not to be found betwixt here and the giant’s causeway.” ” Thrue for ye, Tim, by gorra; his match coud’nt be found iv ye thraveled from Dan to Barsheeba,” said his comrade. “He’ll be sayin his bades among the stars, whin many of his callin’ will be
huntin’ a dhrop of wather in a very hot climate.” This last remark was received
with a hearty acquiescence by the entire group. Rough and witty as it was, it
expressed the feelings of the soldiers for their Chaplain.”
After the War Father Cooney served as a priest at South Bend, Waterton, Wisconsin and New Orleans. He was briefly Provincial Superior of the Congregation of the Holy Cross. He died in 1905 and is buried at Notre Dame.