Hunt for Marriage Certificate Discovers Heroic B’klyn Priest

By Father Brian Jordan, O.F.M.

Father Jordan
Father Jordan

During the last week of July, I went to SS. Peter and Paul parish, Williamsburg, to retrieve a new copy of the marriage certificate of my maternal grandparents. Paul Murphy married Catherine Farrell on Aug. 4, 1915. My extended family on my mother’s side planned a 100th anniversary memorial Mass on the closest Saturday, which was Aug. 1 of this year.

What was meant to be an ordinary anniversary celebration turned out to be an extraordinary, startling discovery! Upon receiving the marriage certificate from the ever-gracious Waleska Soto, parish secretary of SS. Peter and Paul, I noticed that the name of the priest who officiated at the wedding Mass was Father W.B. Farrell.

Not Your Typical Priest

I returned to my office at St. Francis College, Brooklyn Heights, and conducted research. I learned that though Father Farrell was the pastor of SS. Peter and Paul from 1908 to 1917, he was not your average parish priest!

One of the front-page stories on the July 29, 1910 edition of The New York Times was entitled, “One Dead, Many Shot in Sugar Strike Riot.” The story explained that days before the shooting, workers went on strike at the American Sugar Company’s largest plant which was the Havemeyer and Elder Branch located on Kent Ave. between South 1st and South 2nd Sts., only a few blocks from SS. Peter and Paul church. Rioting began when the company was bringing in non-union replacement workers, which incensed the union workers who were just looking for a just wage. Fighting between union and non-union workers occurred with a strong police intervention. Violence ensued.

The company realized their tactical errors and called the local pastor, Father Farrell, for help. The article states: “Father Farrell was asked by the company to act as a peacemaker and try to get the men to return to work. He promised to do so and later went into a conference with the strikers.” He convinced the men to return to work with the promise of increased wages. Father Farrell ministered at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in the U.S. He epitomized the words of Pope Leo XIII 1897 papal encyclical, “Rerum Novarum” (“On the Condition of Labor”), which emphasized dignity for the human worker. Part of that dignity was a just wage.

Defending Catholic Institutions

Besides being a pastor at SS. Peter and Paul, Father Farrell was the Supervisor of Catholic Charities for the Diocese of Brooklyn. Tensions arose between the city and the state over public funding for private institutions for orphans from 1913 to 1916.

In 1914, the City Commissioner of Public Charities, John A. Kingsbury, appointed a commission to inspect these private institutions (both Catholic and Protestant) and to determine whether they were worthy of public funding or recommend that all institutions caring for widows and orphans be put under government control.

This incensed many Catholic religious leaders both in the Archdiocese of New York and the Diocese of Brooklyn. They charged that this investigation was based in a covert, anti-Catholic bias.

On Nov. 18, 1915, Gov. Charles S. Whitman of New York appointed his friend, Charles H. Strong to head a state commission to investigate public funding for private institutions. It appeared that both the office of the Mayor of New York and the office of the governor of New York State were determined to discredit Catholic institutions caring for orphans and widows.

An excellent, unbiased academic article written by Dr. June Hopkins, supported this claim.

Dr. Hopkins details the prophetic response by Father Farrell who wrote open letters to the governor to criticize what appeared to be anti-Catholic bias both in the Kingsbury and Strong Commissions. These pamphlets were distributed to every church in New York City. The front page of the March 6, 1916 edition of The New York Times blared: “Subpoena Served on Father Farrell: Charity Investigator Strong Wants Brooklyn Priest to Explain Charges.”

Commissioner Strong issued a subpoena to be served for Father Farrell to testify at the Strong Commission. The March 11, 1916 edition of The New York Times reported that Father Farrell could not report that day and sent a family friend who was a lawyer because “his assistant was sick and that he himself was busy with Lenten services.” The subpoena was carried over to the following Monday so Father Farrell could appear without worrying about the Stations of the Cross.

On Monday, March 11, 1916, one of the front-page stories of the New York Times was “New Strong Attack by Father Farrell: Priest on Eve of Appearance Before Charities Inquiry Calls It a ‘slander factory.’”

The reaction by Mayor John P. Mitchel and Commissioner Kingsbury was both unfortunate and set a dangerous precedent. According to the article by Dr. Hopkins, Commissioner Kingsbury with Mayor Mitchel’s approval, directed the New York City Police Department to wiretap the telephones of Father Farrell, Msgr. John F. Mooney, vicar general of the archdiocese; Msgr. John J. Dunn, chancellor of the archdiocese and notable lay Catholic leaders.

Invasion of Privacy

This may have been the first time that the telephones of Roman Catholic priests were wiretapped for eavesdropping for possible criminal intent. The police commissioner at the time, Arthur Brown, refused to answer any questions on the particular case.

The lawyer for the New York Telephone Co. was asked about the extent of police wiretapping phones.

“Nobody knows just how far they extend,” he said. “There has never been a judicial interpretation of the powers of the police under the statute passed in 1905, giving them certain rights of this kind.”

Father Farrell was justifiably angry by this invasion of privacy and responded, “The matters which have been discussed over the telephone in the hearing of eavesdropping have mainly concerned questions of matrimony and other sacred substances of private life.”

According to legal scholars and historians, this case and many others led to judicial reform in which wiretapping of phones were only warranted through a court order.

Charges against Father Farrell were dropped in Manhattan by the insightful Judge Samuel Greenbaum.

Delivering Services to the Poor

The Kingsbury Commission released its final report in October, 1916 and recommended that all matters concerning widows and orphans be controlled by the government, and that religious institutions work in unison with the government on these matters. This meant that despite the separation of church and state, both can be partners in delivery of services to the poor and unfortunate.

This led to some state laws strengthening their control and a reformulation of how Catholic Charities conducts its ministry while abiding by state law and eventually with federal law when the New Deal was introduced in the early 1930s. Catholic Charities USA today is the largest, nonprofit social service agency in the country. By the way, the clear majority of those they serve are not even Roman Catholic.

As a Franciscan priest born in Brooklyn, I am so proud that Father Farrell officiated the wedding of my maternal grandparents. Who would think that retrieving a new copy of a marriage certificate can lead to such an amazing discovery! Blessed anniversary Grandma and Grandpa! May you and Father Farrell rest in peace!

Father Brian Jordan is the chaplain at St. Francis College, Brooklyn.