|Notre Dame Archives.
Father Peter Paul Cooney C.S.C. a priest of the Holy Cross order from Notre Dame University in South Bend, Indiana was born in 1832 in County Roscommon, Ireland. Cooney's family immigrated to Monroe, Michigan where he grew to manhood. He attended Notre Dame University and entered the seminary after graduation. In 1859 Father Cooney became an ordained Catholic priest.
Father Cooney was the longest serving Catholic chaplain in the Union Army during the American Civil War, joining the regiment in October 1861 and leaving to return to the University of Notre Dame in September 1865. He had a tough job ahead of him. Many Irishmen rejoiced in having a Catholic chaplain within its ranks. The majority of the "1st Irish" were Democrats and Catholics.
In a letter taken from the Indiana Historical Society, one soldier gives a picture of Cooney:
The flutter of the "Green Flag", or the sweet strains of "Patrick's Day," or "Garryowen," arouses his Irish blood, and for a moment he forgets he is a Priest and thinks himself a soldier. ... He knows human nature thoroughly, looks leniently upon the frailties of mankind, mildly censuring the misconduct of the men, and zealously urging them to a faithful performance of their duty to God and country. To say that he is much respected by the men of the regiment, is saying too little; He is loved by them.
While in camp, Cooney had duties other than being a priest. He was the president of the Temperance movement within the 35th Indiana and also the caretaker of the soldiers' pay. The soldiers would give the priest their pay and, in return, Cooney would personally take it back to Indiana to be distributed among the men's family. In all reports and incidents, it seems that the men trusted Cooney not only with their religious needs, but also the needs of their families.
|Boys ... this is a New Year; many of you will never see the sun go down today.|
Cooney was dedicated and resourceful. In a letter written to his brother in Michigan, Cooney relates a story that took place before the battle of Perryville. The priest asked the men to construct him a makeshift confessional out of three stacks of rifles and three blankets. The stacks were placed in the form of a V. The three blankets formed two walls and a roof for the structure. Father Cooney would sit in this structure and give confession to the men.
In another letter written to his brother, Father Cooney described calling the men together for absolution before combat at Stones River:
Boys ... this is a New Year; many of you will never see the sun go down today; I desire to say to you a few words. You are an Irish regiment. Your countrymen have already proved their devotion to the flag of the nation by their courage and stamina on the field of battle. The eyes of the division are on you. Your friends at home expect much from you — you must not disappoint them. Now, then, many of you have not been to your religious duties. All of you make a good act of contrition, sincerely ask God for your forgiveness and I will announce absolution.
|Notre Dame Archives.The main building at the University of Notre Dame in 1865.|
After absolution was given, the men of the 35th Indiana let out a cheer for their chaplain. Cooney was right: Before the sun set on that cold January day, the 35th Indiana left 127 brave men killed, missing or wounded upon the field of battle.
Cooney stayed with this Irish regiment for four years, praying, caring for the wounded and preparing the fallen for their final journey to heaven. In September 1865, he was told to report back to South Bend, Indiana, where he performed religious duties until his death in 1905. Today, one can travel to Notre Dame and see some of the papers as well as Cooney's vestments in the Notre Dame Museum and Archives.