Diocesan News

Brooklyn Chaplain Made Ultimate Sacrifice Ministering to a Fallen Soldier After D-Day 

Soldiers of the 79th Infantry Division captured the deep-water port city Cherbourg (shown here) during the Normandy invasion 80 years ago. But they did it without chaplain Father Dominic Ternan of Brooklyn, killed in action on the first day of the battle, about 12 miles from 79th’s objective. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

CYPRESS HILLS — Father Brian Jordan, as a kid attending Mass at Blessed Sacrament Church, would pause by a list of World War II veterans — living and dead — from the parish.

He’d look for the names of his dad and uncles, and then find a pew. 

Among the names he didn’t recognize was Leonard Ternan, killed in action. He also didn’t know this man was a Franciscan friar, who became Father Dominic Ternan at ordination in 1937.

Father Ternan of Cypress Hills stored his brown Franciscan habit in 1942, but he remained a priest, instead wearing the khaki and olive uniforms of an Army chaplain.

He accompanied the 79th Infantry Division during the Allied invasion of Normandy that began on June 6, 1944.  

As chaplain, Father Ternan looked after the spiritual needs of the troops. On June 19, he lay among them, fatally shot by a German sniper. He was 41.

Now, 80 years later, Father Jordan, also a Franciscan friar, is the pastor of St. Camillus Parish in Silver Spring, Maryland. The friars who mentored him told him about Father Ternan. 

The younger friar was surprised to learn he grew up in the same parish as the chaplain. During a visit he rechecked the World War II roster; he then recognized Father Ternan’s name.

The chaplain was born in 1902 to Bernard and Julia Ternan of Brooklyn. He was the oldest child ahead of two sisters, Dorothy and Catherine. 

He received a Catholic education at the old St. Malachy Parish school, but the Ternans’ move to Cypress Hills placed them at Blessed Sacrament. 

He also attended Brooklyn Prep High School, now closed, in Crown Heights.  

In 1927, Father Ternan graduated from Fordham University where he played football and basketball. Next, he went to work for the New York Telephone Company’s Bronx office.

His progression to the priesthood formed as a member of Father John Corbett’s St. Patrick’s Clerical Club which fostered later-in-life vocations, Father Jordan said.

Father Corbett was a Jesuit, but Father Ternan entered the Franciscan Novitiate at Paterson in 1934. His ordination was Sept. 30, 1937. 

A year later, Father Ternan was appointed to the Church of St. Francis of Assisi in Manhattan, where Father Jordan also served many years later.

There, Father Ternan happily ministered to the underprivileged and hospital patients. 

Brooklyn-born Father Dominic Ternan served the needy during the 1930s as a Franciscan friar in Manhattan. He did likewise as a U.S. Army chaplain during the allied invasion of Normandy 80 years ago. He died in combat on June 19, 1944. (Photo: The Tablet Archives)

After a few years, he realized he could bring his pastoral ministry to soldiers, so he joined the U.S. Army Chaplain Corps.

Father Ternan is famous among fellow clergy for helping more than 150 soldiers convert to Catholicism.

“That’s unheard of nowadays,” Father Jordan said. 

As 1st Lt. Ternan in April 1944, he sailed with the 79th to England to stage for the Normandy invasion.

Father Ternan came ashore unscathed with the 79th. On June 19, the division received orders to execute a right-hook push farther up the Cotentin Peninsula. 

The mission was to oust German occupiers still holding the key deep-water port city at the far end of the peninsula — Cherbourg. 

Allied commanders prized the port in order to offload more troops, weapons, food, and medical supplies to support the invasion. The Germans, with their backs to the English Channel, waged a fierce last-ditch fight. 

On the drive to Cherbourg, the troops met heavy resistance at the city of Valognes, about 12 miles from their objective. A severely wounded sergeant dropped, and Father Ternan rushed to help him. 

That’s when a German sniper fatally shot the chaplain.

St. Francis of Assisi Church held a solemn requiem Mass for Father Ternan, who was buried in France. His parents, however, requested that his remains be returned to the U.S. He is buried at the Franciscans’ Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in Totowa, New Jersey.

In 2019, his posthumous Silver Star medal was rededicated and blessed during a Memorial Mass at St. Francis of Assisi Church. Father Jordan concelebrated.

He said one can only speculate if Father Ternan was one of the friars who inspired another Brooklyn youth, Robert Emmett Judge, during the Great Depression. The lad frequented St. Francis of Assisi Church during breaks as a shoeshine boy at nearby Penn Station. 

This kid became Father Mychal Fallon Judge, a Franciscan friar appointed to St. Francis of Assisi Church.

Father Judge was the chaplain for the New York City Fire Department who died while serving with first responders during the terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. 

As a friend of Father Judge, Father Jordan was shocked to learn he died at the WTC, which inspired him to also respond to the attack, caring for first responders and others.

Still, while it’s interesting to consider Father Ternan and Father Judge might have crossed paths in the late 1930s or early 1940s, Father Jordan said he knows of no proof of that.

These days, Father Jordan works to keep the fallen chaplain’s name from falling into obscurity. 

“We need to have a contemporary retrieval of the importance of Father Dominic Ternan,” he said. “Here’s a Franciscan priest who made the ultimate sacrifice for God and country.”

The chaplain’s nephew, Jim Doran of Little Falls, New Jersey, was only a year old when his uncle went to France. Years later, he learned the friar was already considering his next ministry after the war — serving black Catholics in the southern U.S.

Doran, son of Father Ternan’s sister, Dorothy, said his uncle’s life “shed light on the meaning of the Gospel.”

“I think Dominic recognized that you have to do the Gospel as well as preach the Gospel,” Doran said. “And the Gospel says take care of people.”