A Franciscan priest and GI chaplain from Brooklyn, who was killed 75 years ago while tending to a wounded soldier during World War II, is still remembered for his ultimate sacrifice.
A 75th memorial Mass for Father Dominic Ternan, O.F.M., was celebrated on June 19 at St. Francis of Assisi Church in Manhattan, which is where he had his first pastoral assignment as a newly ordained priest in the late 1930s. St. Francis of Assisi was also the site of Father Ternan’s funeral Mass.
Father Ternan enlisted as a chaplain in the U.S. Army in 1942. As head chaplain of the 79th Infantry Division, he sailed to England in May 1944 for the invasion of Normandy. After surviving the Allies’ landing and battle on D-Day, Father Ternan was killed during the Battle of Cherbourg in France on June 19.
As U.S. forces battled German soldiers trying to protect the port city of Valognes, France, Father Ternan and his colleagues came under fire from Nazi forces. The Franciscan priest was performing last rites on a wounded sergeant on the battlefield, when a sniper bullet tore into his back as he continued to pray, the Daily News reported.
Father Ternan died on the spot, according to the Franciscan Friars of Holy Name Province, in the same prostrate position as he was when he took his solemn vows at ordination. He was 41 years old.
He received a posthumous Silver Star medal, and a plaque with the medal was rededicated and blessed at the June 19 Mass in the presence of relatives and fellow Franciscans.
Father Joseph Ceriello, pastor of Queen of All Saints, Fort Greene, concelebrated and gave the first reading at the Mass.
“He was a loving, compassionate guy, a wonderful athlete and certainly intelligent — he just simply wanted to serve, and of all the things he could become, he became a Franciscan friar,” Father Ceriello told The Tablet. “It was the ethic of service, sacrifice and selflessness. His example makes me want to be better priest.”
Father Brian Jordan, O.F.M., a fellow Franciscan at St. Francis of Assisi, gave the homily at the Mass.
Last year, Father Jordan made a pilgrimage to the site of Father Ternan’s death in Normandy, where a stone column in a battlefield cemetery pays homage to his sacrifice. Father Ternan converted more than 150 soldiers during his time as a chaplain, Father Jordan said.
“It was his courage and bravery that moved me. I was preaching at Mass, and it hit me then — he preached the same pulpit as I did, he celebrated Mass as I did, he heard confessions in the same confessionals I did, he served in the same church breadline as I do. I was moved and touched by his sacrifice,” Father Jordan told The Tablet. “Today at St. Francis of Assisi, we serve the same poorer, imprisoned, working-class people Father Dominic would have served. Those who lay down the foundation of the U.S.”
Father Ternan’s nephew, James Doran, grew up hearing stories of his heroic uncle.
“I knew his whole message and life was centered around mindfulness, metanoia. He deeply understood and shared in the lives of the poor, and his bravery was a dime a dozen. He was someone who … allowed his heart and mind to be filled by the needs of others.”
Born in Cypress Hills in 1902, Father Ternan had a solid Catholic upbringing, according to Father Jordan.
He was educated by the Jesuits both at the now-closed Brooklyn Prep H.S. in Crown Heights and at Fordham University in 1927. Ternan worked for New York Telephone Co. before he entered the Franciscan novitiate in 1934. He was ordained a priest in 1937.
Father Ternan was the first American Franciscan to die on a World War II battlefield, and the only military chaplain of the Franciscan Friars Holy Name Province to die in combat. He is buried at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in New Jersey.