A Holy Grail: The Story of Father Cooney and his Civil War Chalice

Fr. Peter P. Cooney, C.S.C., chaplain of the 35th Indiana (originally published in William Corby’s Memoirs).

Descendants of the sister of Robert Gould Shaw, colonel of the famous 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry Regiment, recently rediscovered his long lost sword. The family then donated the weapon to the Massachusetts Historical Society, whose president dubbed it “the holy grail of Civil War swords.”[1] When it comes to important Civil War artifacts, however, some “holy grails” are more literal than others. Thanks to Sue Montalbano, coordinator of tours and hospitality at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart at the University of Notre Dame, I’m proud to be able finally to tell the tale of a remarkable Catholic Civil War chaplain and the extraordinary solid gold chalice his regiment gave him in gratitude for his devoted wartime service.

Notre Dame’s Father Peter Paul Cooney, C.S.C. (1822-1905), was one of the most tireless, brave, and successful Catholic chaplains on either side of the Civil War. Born in County Roscommon Ireland in 1822, he emigrated to the United States at a young age and was ordained a Holy Cross priest at Notre Dame in 1859. Enlisting in the Union army at the behest of Indiana’s Governor Oliver Morton in October 1861, he served with the 35th Indiana Infantry Regiment (1st Indiana Irish) until victory was secured by the summer of 1865. Repeatedly praised by his commanders, Cooney stayed up late hearing confessions, ministered to the sick in hospital, and did not shirk from the dangers of battlefield if a dying man needed last rites. He became close friends with two of the Army of the Cumberland’s most senior Catholic leaders: its overall commander, William S. Rosecrans, and its chief of cavalry, David Sloane Stanley.[2] Typical of the praise he received during the war, the 35th Indiana’s colonel, Bernard F. Mullen, conspicuously commended Cooney’s conduct at the Battle of Stones River (December 31, 1862-Januar 2, 1863) at the end of his official report:

“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.”[3]

Unfortunately for Cooney, his memory has been overshadowed by his fellow Holy Cross priest and two time Notre Dame, Rev. William Corby, C.S.C. Corby’s recorded his wartime deeds posterity in his well-received Memoirs of Chaplain Life (1893). His famous absolution “under fire” that he gave to the men of the Irish Brigade at Gettysburg on July 2, 1863, was celebrated in an 1891 painting by Paul H. Wood and in two bronze statues erected on the battlefield and at Notre Dame in 1910 and 1911 respectively.[4] Although Cooney had himself given general absolution to his men at the earlier Battle of Stones River, Corby’s absolution took place at the war’s most famous battle and in the North’s most famous Irish Catholic unit. Although recent books by George Rable and James M. Schmidt have brought Cooney back to the attention of Civil War scholars and buffs, the 35th Indiana’s chaplain is still little known compared to the more famous Corby.[5]

Fr. William Corby statue at Notre Dame, dedicated in 1911 (Author photo).

Although Cooney failed to complete a planned history of Catholic Civil War chaplains, he still left behind several important artifacts of his own from his wartime career. The most valuable of these to historians was a collection of his wartime correspondence published by historian Father Thomas T. McAvoy, C.S.C., in 1933.[6] Cooney also had an engraving commissioned depicting scenes from his chaplaincy. Although lacking the artistic merit of Paul H. Wood’s painting of Corby’s absolution at Gettysburg, the engraving depicted Cooney saying Mass for soldiers and heroically attending the dying on the battlefield. It also seems to have served as the inspiration for a special chalice Cooney had made commemorating his Civil War service.

The day before he mustered out of the army on June 16, 1865, Cooney’s regiment gave him a farewell gift of one-thousand dollars to buy a new set of vestments and a chalice. Rather than use the gift right away, Cooney waited until the fortieth anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood to have a very special chalice constructed. Early in 1899, he commissioned the Andrew Messner Company in Cincinnati, Ohio, to make a chalice depicting scenes from his wartime chaplaincy and of Catholic sisters tending to wounded men in military hospitals. As Father Cooney explained to a friend in February of that year, “The chalice and its ornaments will be a synopsis of the ministrations or services of the Catholic Church in the army, during the war of the Rebellion.”[7]

Fr. Cooney’s Civil War Chalice (courtesy Congregation of Holy Cross).

After three months the chalice was complete, just in time for the celebration of Cooney’s 40th anniversary of priesthood. On July 2, Notre Dame’s president, Father Andrew Morrissey, C.S.C., celebrated a Mass in Cooney’s honor. A reporter for the Chicago Tribune noted that the church was “crowded to the doors,” and the service was well attended by Cooney’s fellow priests and former wartime comrades. Morrissey praised Cooney’s services both to the Church and his country during the war. During the ceremony, Cooney proudly wore his new vestments and used his new Civil War chalice, both serving as visible “tokens of the love and veneration of his regiment.” “Nothing could be more tender nor more appropriate than the beautiful present made to you by your regiment of the Chalice,” wrote his friend General Stanley from Paris, “for surely you did labor most faithfully for the good of their Souls.”[8]

Plaque describing Fr. Cooney’s Chalice (courtesy Congregation of Holy Cross).

Suffering from a prolonged illness and acute deafness, the old priest finally passed away on May 7, 1905. In addition to the students and faculty of the university, local Union veterans from South Bend’s Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) post also attended the funeral Mass on campus. The chalice used to celebrate the service was none other than Cooney’s special Civil War chalice that he had commissioned six years previously. His fellow priests bore his coffin “enveloped in the national ensign” to its final resting place nearby Fathers Edward Sorin and William Corby. At the end of the ceremony, Brother Leander, then president of Notre Dame’s GAR post, threw an American flag over the coffin saying, “In behalf of the Grand Republic for whose integrity and unity our late comrade, Rev. P. P. Cooney, offered his services during the War of the Rebellion, I deposit this flag.” The Notre Dame Scholastic found it to be a “fitting” end for someone who had struggled for “national and temporal union” as a wartime chaplain as well as the “universal and eternal union” with God as a Catholic priest.[9]

A closeup of the chalice’s Civil War scenes (courtesy Congregation of Holy Cross).

Cooney’s remarkable chalice now resides at the museum in Notre Dame’s Basilica of the Sacred Heart, where it remains a little known but entirely fitting tribute to his priesthood and Civil War chaplaincy. I am grateful to the Congregation of the Holy Cross for permission to publish photos of the chalice on my blog.

 


[1] Ben Thompson, “Mass. Historical Society unveils Robert Gould Shaw sword display,” Boston Globe, July 18, 2017.

[2]Arthur J. Hope, C.S.C., Notre Dame: One Hundred Years (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1943), 129-130; Aidan H. Germain, Catholic Military and Naval Chaplains, 1776-1917 (Washington, DC: n.p., 1929), 63-64.

[3] Bernard F. Mullen, Official Report of Battle of Stones River, January 5, 1863, in The Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, Series I, Vol. 20, p. 612.

[4] University photographer, Matt Cashore, has a gallery of images of Wood’s painting, the Corby statue at Gettysburg, and the 150th anniversary celebration Mass presided over by Notre Dame President John Jenkins, C.S.C., available here: https://sites.nd.edu/ndphotography/2013/06/.

[5] George Rable, God’s Almost Chosen Peoples: A Religious History of the American Civil War (Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 2010); James M. Schmidt, Notre Dame and the Civil War: Marching Onward to Victory (Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2010).

[6] Thomas McAvoy, ed., “The War Letters of Father Peter Paul Cooney of the Congregation of the Holy Cross.” Records of the American Catholic Historical Society 44 (1933):47–69, 151–69, 220–37.

[7] “Presentation to a Catholic Chaplain,” Boston Pilot, July 15, 1865; “War Chaplain’s 40th Anniversary,” undated newspaper clipping; Peter P. Cooney to Peter A. Baart, February 11, 1899, Peter Paul Cooney Papers, University of Notre Dame Archives (UNDA).

[8] “Presentation to Father Cooney,” Chicago Tribune, July 3, 1899; “Chalice to Father Cooney,” The Inter Ocean (Chicago, Illinois), July 3, 1899; David Sloane Stanley to Cooney, October 31, 1899, Cooney Papers, UNDA.

[9] Notre Dame Scholastic, May 13, 1905.