Thirty-seven year old Fr. Thomas M. Conway had long had a kinship with water. When ministering as a priest in Buffalo, his favorite way to relax was to navigate his little sailboat in the unpredictable waters of Lake Erie. How both ironic and fitting that, as a Navy Lieutenant, he lost his life comforting survivors floating in the waters of the Philippines Sea. He was the last military chaplain to die in World War II. The dog tags? He'd removed them from the body of each man as he died, intending to contact their relatives.
Conway was born in 1908 in Waterbury, Connecticut, the oldest of three children born to Irish immigrants. He eventually came to the Buffalo, N.Y. area, and first earned an AB degree at Niagara University, then enrolled in Our Lady of Angels Seminary on the Niagara U. campus.
He was eventually ordained as a priest for the Buffalo Diocese, serving eight years in various parishes - St. Rose of Lima, All Saints, St. Teresa, St. Nicholas. Finally he came to St. Brigid in the Old First Ward, a parish originally populated by Irish immigrants who worked on the wharfs and in the grain elevators of the Buffalo River and Erie Canal. Bill Milhomme, who's done extensive research on Conway, tells us that Conway was a man's man, "in touch with and sympathetic to the blue collar realities of his parishioners living among the Erie Canal neighborhoods."
When World War II broke out, Fr. Conway petitioned his Bishop, Bishop John A. Duffy, over and over again to allow him to become a Navy military chaplain, and his persistence paid off. Eventually he was assigned to the U.S.S. Indianapolis, a heavy cruiser sent to the Pacific Theater. Fr. Conway was beloved by the crew, friendly with men of every faith. On Sundays, he would celebrate a Catholic Mass, and then later lead a Protestant service. The day before D - Day, on Okinawa, the ship was hit by a Japanese Kamikaze attack, and nine men were killed. While the ship was being repaired, instead of taking time to relax, Fr. Conway used his own funds to travel across the country to visit the families of the nine men killed in combat, to talk to them about their deceased loved ones and to describe their burials at sea.
Fr. Conway was sleeping soundly on July 31, 1945, "when at 12:14 A.M., the first torpedo from the Japanese submarine, I-58, blew away the bow of the ship. Instants later the second struck near midship on the starboard side. The resulting explosion split the ship to the keel, knocking out all electric power." (Milhomme.) Within twelve minutes the unescorted cruiser slipped beneath the waves of the Philippine Seas. There had been 1,196 men on board.
Approximately 800-900 men, including Fr. Conway, made it into the water. Only a few life rafts were released. Most of the men wore standard Kapok life jackets and life belts. No one noticed that the ship was missing. Four days later, when the survivors were accidentally spotted by a pilot, only 316 men were still alive.
During those four days, men hung onto life rafts and others floated next to them. They'd slap their hands violently in the water to scare off the sharks. But the greatest danger wasn't the sharks, it was the salt water. Dehydrated men succumbed, one by one, to drinking it, and became delirious.
Fr. Conway gave up his life vest and swam among the men from group to group for the first three days, praying with them, giving them hope that they'd be rescued, administering the Last Rites (currently called the Sacrament of the "Anointing of the Sick.) Thomas Helms, in his book "Ordeal by Sea," describes the priest's ordeal:
"Father Thomas Conway...burned himself out keeping up a constant patrol among the men, ministering to the dying, talking reason into others who had become momentarily deranged and calming the frightened with prayers."
Some survivors mentioned that occasionally they'd hold the priest up for a few hours so he could rest. But eventually Fr. Conway burned out and became delirious himself, muttering incomprehensible words, some obviously Latin. Now crewmen held him up in earnest as he lapsed into a coma. Finally he died. Gently a crewman took his jacket off his body and allowed him to sink below the waves. He would never be able to comfort the survivors of the men whose dog tags he had so lovingly collected as they died in the water.
Today a small park on Ohio Street in the Old First Ward in South Buffalo has been named "The Father Conway Park." Residents there believe his spirit watches over the souls of the children who drowned in the park area while it was still undeveloped.
Fr. Conway's life and death are an inspiration to us because all of us called by Christ are called to be a priestly people, giving our lives in service to others. We can ask ourselves: how often do we spend our time "paddling" from group to group of family and friends, ministering to them? Do we spiritually and emotionally lift up those in danger of drowning in a sea of depression, despair, fear, and lack of hope? When others have lost all hope of spiritual rescue, do we pray with them, stay with them, remind them that God is our Rescuer? That God will never abandon His people, in life and in death?
Do any of us, still searching for what God wants of us, think that He might be calling us to become priests? To paddle around touching the lives of people drowning in a sea of materialism and lack of faith?
Today we celebrate the life of another great priest, St. Paul of the Cross, who founded the Passionist Fathers. The reading from the Common of Pastors today is from Hebrews13:7-9 a, and contains these words:
"Remember your leaders who spoke the Word of God to you; consider how their lives ended, and imitate their faith."
May we always remember the priests whose lives and whose faith have touched us, challenged us, made us realize that God's Word is a sword of truth meant to strike our hearts. To wake us from sleep lest we drown in selfishness and self-absorption.
Navy Lieutenant and Father Thomas M. Conroy, pray for us.