St. Mary's and the War

By Jeanine (Engell) Dredger (SMA '86, SMC '88)
Written for the Alma Mater, 1991 Winter issue

"To those worthy sons of St. Mary's who, holding their country's cause dearer than all things of earthy, have offered their lives that America may live; to the brave fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, wives and children who await their victorious return -- this number of the DIAL is respectfully and devotedly inscribed."

Thus begins the Mary 1918 "Service Issue" of the St. Mary's College DIAL, the official school literary publication, read by students and alumni alike in the old days of SMC. In browsing through issues of the DIAL, which were published during World War I, we see, from the sentiments woven into the words of the letters and articles, thoughts that are in our own minds today.

When World War I reared its ugly head, St. Mary's rallied to the call of the nation. The faculty placed the campus at the disposal of the government, and for a time, the S.A.T.C. (Student Army Training Corps) was established here. Alumni and students as well responded in overwhelming numbers to the needs of the country. The DIAL did its part to be the "link" which kept soldiers and students bound together ever so strongly -- bringing news from home and the old "Alma Mater" to the soldiers, and bringing the realities and events of the war to the students. Over 700 alumni of SMC took part in the war, filling the pages of the DIAL during these troubled years with letters and stories, addresses, and photos of the "old boys over there."

We can read in the editor's words the solidarity and pride binding students, parents, and soldiers: "...We dare say this issue will be prized by many of our readers. First of all, we hope it will please the folks at home, those who have claim on 'our' boys. It has been our privilege, in collecting material for this issue, to get in touch with many of these fathers and mothers. We have received many letters; and every letter, no matter how brief, told a story of love, of right pride, of anxiety perhaps -- but not weakness. Between the lines of these letters, one might read every quality that can be put into any real definition of patriotism... Any man that has spent a year at St. Mary's has formed ties of friendship that are unique and lasting... if that old friend's complete address is given on our list, sit down today and write to him. It will be good for your soul, and it will mean a great deal to him. You owe him more than a letter. And when you say your prayers, remember him, for he is in a serious business. When you sat beside him in the study hall; when you and he played the same games on the campus, and said the same prayers aloud in the chapel, and ate and slept and studied under the same roof -- in those days you never thought of calling him a hero. But you will be proud to shake hands with him if he comes back. And if he doesn't, you will be glad you wrote to him, and you will be comforted by the thought that in your daily prayers you asked God to watch over him."

But the War, as in any war, was not without cost. As a new school term began, news of the first American to die in France came, bringing the reality of the war closer to home. It was a sobering piece of news for the students to learn that one who was so recently a "St. Mary's boys among St. Mary's boys," had paid with his life the price of his devotion to the flag. Lieutenant William T. Fitzsimons of the Medical Corps had attended St. Mary's College, and was a graduate of the University of Kansas. Fitzsimons had studied surgery at the Roosevelt Hospital in New York and went to Belgium with the first Red Cross ship sent from this country. He had seen eighteen months' service in France, this being his second trip. After arriving in Liverpool on August 12, he was immediately stationed at the front, his experience making him an invaluable man.

The first official report carried little detail, except that three other Americans associated with him in hospital work had been killed also, and a number of others wounded in a German air raid. At the time of his death, Lieutenant Fitzsimons was acting as Adjutant to the Colonel commanding the Harvard Hospital unit. He had been recommended for promotion to a captaincy on the day he died; the Representative Borland of Missouri, on September 10, introduced a bill empowering the President to enter Dr. Fitzsimons' name on the records with the promotion he would have received had he lived. He was the first American officer to give his life for his country in this war. He was twenty-eight years old.

It was sad news for the students and faculty of St. Mary's. Sad, especially, for the faculty who had known him, and who remembered him as a thoroughly good, Catholic boy, a student of high ability, and a pleasant, companionable friend. But it was inspiring news as well. Understandably, even those who had never known him felt that St. Mary's had been honored in a singular way. "St. Mary's mourns the death of Lieutenant Fitzsimons, but she is proud to call him her son. St. Mary's will remember him as her first hero of this terrible war, and she knows that the story of his brave death will be an inspiration to her sons as long as good and brave men are honored. As long as his Alma Mater exists, his name will be pronounced with reverence."

His soul received the consolations of his Faith as well, for a Solemn High Mass of Requiem was celebrated in the Cathedral of Kansas City for him. It was attended by soldiers and sailors in uniform, consular agents and officers, and a throng of civilians that packed the Cathedral, while thousands had to remain outside. Father Curtis Tieran, Chaplain of the Second Missouri Field Artillery, and a former St. Mary's student, sang the Mass. ON that same day a High Requiem Mass was celebrated in the Immaculata Chapel by Father C.J. Scott.

In 1920, the Alumni Association of St. Mary's College voted and planned to construct a memorial arch in memory of Lieutenant Fitzsimons and all the St. Mary's men who fought in the war, especially the nineteen who paid "the supreme sacrifice." Aided by the effort and inspiration of Fr. William E. Cogley, Rector of St. Mary's from 1918-1922, their dream became a reality. The inscription on the Arch reads, "To the Sons of St. Mary's College who Served their Country in the World War, the Alumni have built this Memorial."

The Arch is surmounted by the Cross, and bears on either side of the inscription the seal of old St. Mary's College, one commemorating the founding of the Society of Jesus in 1540, the other the founding of St. Mary's in 1848.

The dedication of the magnificent Memorial Arch took place at the Diamond Jubilee Celebration in June of 1923. The largest Alumni meeting ever held at St. Mary's took place during this Jubilee.