Diocesan News

Belle Harbor Parish Honors Four Chaplains, Parishioner, Lost on the Dorchester

Each February, the St. Francis de Sales Parish in Belle Harbor has a special Mass to honor the Four Chaplains who died on the troop ship Dorchester. But parishioners and members of the American Legion throughout Queens also honor a local soldier who died on the Dorchester — Pvt. Daniel O’Connor. (Photo: Screenshot, Currents News report)

BELLE HARBOR — As a luxury steamship in the 1930s, the SS Dorchester accommodated 314 people on its coastal runs from Boston to Miami. But as a troop ship during World War II, its passenger manifest tripled.

None of the 904 servicemen crowded on the Dorchester when a torpedo fired by a German U-boat sunk it on Feb. 3, 1943, received more notoriety than the legendary “Four Chaplains.” They perished after giving their life jackets to other men.

But they were just four of the 674 men, most of them Army soldiers, lost during the Dorchester’s doomed voyage across the North Atlantic Ocean to U.S. military bases in Greenland.

St. Francis de Sales Parish in Belle Harbor claims one of them — Pvt. Daniel O’Connor, an honor student from the parish’s Catholic academy. The congregation will honor him at noon on Sunday, Feb. 5, during the parish’s annual Mass for the Dorchester’s dead.

But O’Connor was not part of the Mass until several years ago when Msgr. John Bracken was still the pastor of the oceanside parish on the Rockaway Peninsula.

“I had heard that a boy by that name was on the Dorchester,” he said, but nobody seemed to know much more than that.

Msgr. Bracken, now retired as pastor, is also a former vicar general for the Diocese of Brooklyn. He remains busy as the current administrator of the diocese patrimony — a repository of church statues, pews, stained-glass windows, and other furnishings.

St. Francis de Sales Parish in Belle Harbor has honored the Four Chaplains of the Dorchester with a special Mass started by Msgr. J. Jerome Reddy after the end of World War II. Msgr. Reddy, an Army chaplain during World War I, also led the parish in planting this memorial plaque for the chaplains at the flagpole outside the church. (Photo: Msgr. John Bracken)

But to learn O’Connor’s story, he took on the role of “investigator.” He began by combing through the records now stored digitally at St. Francis de Sales Catholic Academy.

“I found his address,” Msgr. Bracken said. “He lived right up the street from the church. And I do have him graduating from St. Francis de Sales school, and I have him receiving his first Communion and confirmation at the parish.”

The school records show that he was a good student with a 92 average. Also, he got an “A” in conduct. He graduated from elementary school in 1932, but aside from his confirmation, the parish had no other information about him.

“So, I wasn’t able to pursue it any further,” Msgr. Bracken said. But, he added, O’Connor’s name is on the massive East Coast Memorial in Battery Park in Lower Manhattan dedicated to service members who died in the North Atlantic.

The inscription reads, “O’CONNOR, Daniel E., Private, Air Corps, U.S. Army Air Forces, Service #32412872, State of Entry: New York, Death: 3-February-1943, Purple Heart, World War II.”

This year is the 80th anniversary of the Dorchester’s loss. Members of American Legion posts throughout Queens County have attended this Mass for many years.

That annual Mass began when Msgr. J. Jerome Reddy was pastor, Msgr. Bracken explained. Msgr. Reddy had the job from 1937 to 1966 and was director of Catholic Charities Brooklyn and Queens from 1930-1959.

Students from St. Francis de Sales Catholic Academy in 2019 joined in recognizing an alumnus, Pvt. Daniel O’Connor, who died along with the famed “Four Chaplains” in the sinking of the troop ship USAT Dorchester during World War II. (Photo: Screenshot, Currents News report)

But Msgr. Reddy also had a profound appreciation for military chaplains, having been one himself for the U.S. Army during World War I. The Four Chaplains particularly impressed him because of the interreligious sacrifice they shared.

One was Catholic: Father John Washington; two were Protestant: Rev. Clark Poling and Rev. George Fox; and one was Jewish: Rabbi Alexander Goode.

Msgr. Reddy led the parish in planting a memorial plaque for the chaplains that remains today at the flagpole outside the church.

The annual Mass is co-sponsored by the 20-plus posts that comprise the American Legion of Queens County.

“We’ve been doing this a long time now,” said Mike Honan of Rockaway, a longtime American Legion member and leader. “Members from all the posts in Queens County come marching in with their flags. We fill up the first couple of pews. Then, after the Mass, we go outside and lay a wreath at the plaque.”

The parish and its school also honor O’Connor each Memorial Day at their annual Mass and parade to a memorial park for fallen service members. There, a plaque and a tree offer remembrance for the one-time parishioner.

“His story connects with the chaplains,” Msgr. Bracken said. “And this parish has a history of honoring those chaplains for many years.”

A commemorative stamp honoring the Four Chaplains was created soon after the end of World War II. (Photo: U.S. Postal Service via Wikimedia Commons)