By Ron Leir & Kevin A. Canessa Jr.

For many years, St. Stephen’s Church in Kearny has celebrated a special Mass in February dedicated to the parish’s former curate, the Rev. John P. Washington, one of the “Four Chaplains” who gave their lifejackets to others during the sinking of the USAT Dorchester in the North Atlantic on Feb. 3, 1943, by a German U-boat.

Together with Father Washington, the other chaplains assigned to the ship were the Rev. George L. Fox, a Methodist; Rabbi Alexander D. Goode; and the Rev. Clark V. Poling, of the Reformed Church of America.

But who was Father Washington?

John P. Washington was born July 18, 1908, in the Roseville section of Newark, the first child of Frank and Mary Washington. Six more siblings followed. The family’s home parish was St. Rose of Lima, where young John served as an altar boy and, early on, aspired to the priesthood.

After graduating from Seton Hall College in South Orange in 1931, Washington entered the Immaculate Conception Seminary in Darlington, became a deacon in 1934 and a priest in 1935. He was assigned, initially, to St. Genevieve’s in Elizabeth and then to St. Venantius in Orange before arriving at St. Stephen’s in 1937 as the parish was in the process of relocating from Midland Avenue to Washington Avenue.

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Ten years ago, St. Stephen’s former parish trustee, the late retired Municipal Court Judge John McLaughlin, told The Observer he was in kindergarten or first grade at the time and he recalled, “Father Washington used to take the altar boys and various classes from school to Bertrand’s Island, an amusement area in Lake Hopatcong. I went. He was pretty good at working with kids.”

The late parishioner Paul Shalvoy, another of the altar boys who assisted Father Washington serve Mass at St. Stephen’s, said when the priest was in charge of the local Catholic Youth Organization (CYO), he arranged to transport a St. Stephen’s youth team to Ruppert Stadium in Newark’s Ironbound area to participate in CYO track meets. 

“I was in St. Stephen’s grammar school at the time and I ran in the relay races,” Shalvoy recalled. “And I remember that Father Washington bought us hotdogs and sodas and in the late ‘30s, that was a treat. He was a very nice guy.”

Revs. Washington and Byrne used to go house-to-house to take the parish census, McLaughlin recalled.

At St. Stephen’s, Washington developed a reputation as a “forward-thinking” cleric, the Rev. Joseph Mancini, pastor of St. Stephen’s, said. “He integrated public and parochial school children for social gatherings, for example, which was unheard of for that time.”

As the story goes, Mancini said, on Dec. 7, 1941, Washington had taken his mother out to dinner in North Arlington and, on their way back to Kearny, heard about the attack on Pearl Harbor. It was then, Mancini said, that the young priest decided to enlist.

He very nearly didn’t make it.

According to Shalvoy, Washington wanted to go into the Navy, but was rejected because of flawed sight in his right eye.

“Well,” Shalvoy said, “one of our other priests, Father Gordon Byrne, who was home on military leave at the time, suggested trying the Army, instead, because they gave the physical in a darkened room and when you read the eye chart, you could hold the card over the same eye for each reading, so that’s what Father Washington did — he covered the same (bad) eye twice” and passed the physical and was appointed an Army chaplain, assigned to the 76th Infantry Division.

On Nov. 13, 1942, Washington was sent to Camp Myles Standish in Taunton, Massachusetts, and on the train ride there, St. Stephen’s parishioner Nancy Waller said Washington encountered her husband’s parents who were then en route to Boston for their honeymoon.

“They were probably the last parishioners to see Father Washington before he shipped out,” Waller said.

It was in New England Washington made his final stop on the road to war: He went to Military Chaplains School at Harvard where he met Fox, Goode and Poling.

In January 1943, all four sailed out of Boston Harbor on the Dorchester, a converted luxury liner, as part of a three-ship Army transport convoy, bound for Greenland. 

They would never reach their destination.

According to Mancini, survivors’ accounts indicate Washington went to bat for Jewish servicemen looking to host Sabbath services Friday night in the ship’s mess hall. Non-Jewish soldiers playing cards there weren’t inclined to move, but Washington reportedly persuaded them to take their game elsewhere.

Early on Feb. 3, 1943, a German sub fired three torpedoes into the Dorchester, quickly sending the vessel to a watery grave. Of some 900 men aboard, only 230 survived.

As the story goes, the Four Chaplains, who would have survived otherwise, offered their life preservers to others and made the ultimate sacrifice of laying down their lives for friends.

In 1944, the Army awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and Purple Heart to the four chaplains, presenting the medals to family members; in 1948, the U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp commemorating their selfless actions; and in 1961, Congress authorized a Special Medal for Heroism awarded by President Eisenhower.

After the tragedy, clubs were formed in the parish in Father Washington’s name. They put on performances, fundraisers. One parishioner initiated a campaign to have Father Washington canonized by Rome, but it never happened.

And St. Stephens began a practice of celebrating an annual Mass in Father Washington’s memory.

A decade ago, Mancini said the idea for a Four Chaplains Monument came about as a byproduct of a conversation he had with Brooklyn artist Fred Moshey, who does reproductions of religious statutes and other items.

“At the time, I was thinking of establishing a (religious) gift shop here at the parish,” Mancini said, “and I was giving Fred a tour of the church and I showed him the granite tablet there honoring Father Washington.”

Moshey happened to mention his visit to St. Stephen’s and the connection to the Four Chaplains to a Canadian sculptor colleague Timothy P. Schmalz who expressed his desire to memorialize the quartet with a 12-foot-tall, 2,000 pound bronze monument.

And, as the number of World War II-era veterans continues to come to an end, Mancini said the monument serves “to keep the story of the Four Chaplains going” and to reinforce the message of the chaplains’ “bravery, courage and sacrifice, which kids today especially need to hear.”

“Today,” Mancini said, “there’s a lot of emphasis on ‘I’ – we have the I-Pod, I-Pad, I-Max – there’s no sense of ‘you’ or ‘us.’ We read about multi-million dollar sports celebrity heroes. But we need genuine heroes who embody truth. And I know of no better example than this excerpt from the Gospel of St. John: ‘Greater love has no man than to lay down his life for his friends.’”

Beautifying the monument

Now, nearly a decade after the monument made its debut, the parish is set to re-dedicate it Sunday, Feb. 6, after the noon Mass (the annual Father Washington Mass) after Kearny Boy Scout Joe Drefko refurbished it as his Eagle Scout project. The community is invited to attend the Mass.

Drefko, a St. Stephen’s parishioner, says he noticed the monument was starting to deteriorate, so it was a relatively easy decision for him to refurbish it as his project.

“When I began to think about my Eagle Project, the Four Chaplains Monument on the front lawn of St. Stephen’s Church came to mind,” Drefko said. “I decided to come up with a plan to refurbish the monument because it was not in good condition and I felt the need to do something to change that out of respect for the four chaplains. 

“There was damage to the statue itself from weather and time, cracks in the base and overgrown shrubs. There wasn’t a place for people to sit and think about the sacrifice the four chaplains made. The monument, which was installed in the place it stands now back in 2013, depicts an important piece of our church history and I really wanted to make it beautiful again and make improvements to the area.

Drefko says he and his cohorts spent nearly 420 hours working on the monument and it resulted in something new and exciting for visitors.

“My plan included restoring the statue, repairing the base and removing the overgrown hedges and shrubs in the area. I laid a brick path leading up to the monument, planted new shrubs, placed a plaque with the story of the four chaplains on the base and installed a bench.” 

In all, Drefko says he knows how important teamwork is after an undertaking like this.

“I’m very grateful to the many parishioners, Scouts and friends who helped with the work and supported my Eagle project” he said. “I could not have done it without them.”

Editor’s note: This is an updated story that originally appeared in The Observer in 2012. If you’d like to learn more about the Four Chaplains, there’s a tremendous documentary from 2004 called “Sacrifice at Sea: Heroic Story of the Four Chaplains and The SS Dorchester.” You may view it on Amazon Prime Video for $1.99 as a rental or $4.99 as a purchase. It’s ironically 43 minutes in length and is an absolute treasure trove. Though no one from St. Stephen’s appears in the documentary, the parish is thanked in the closing credits.

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