Caption: CUA students in uniform on steps of McMahon Hall, 1917. From the Lawrence F. Wright Photograph Collection.
During World War I, The Catholic University of America (CUA) was one of the first Catholic institutions to declare its war stance; university rector Bishop Thomas J. Shahan wrote to U.S. President Woodrow Wilson on March 28, 1917, who replied two days later thanking him. Lay students recruited for a drill on campus under the leadership of University instructors who had prior military experience. Many students also joined reserve or active duty units. In the spring of 1918, the War Department established the Students’ Army Training Corps (SATC), a precursor to the modern Reserve Officer’s Training Corps (ROTC). The SATC was enthusiastically received and nearly 400 students were inducted. Additionally, the War Department’s Chemical Service Section used Maloney Hall for chemical warfare experiments.
The American bishops, also hoping to demonstrate Catholic loyalty, created the National Catholic War Council (NCWC) to represent Catholic interests in Congress, address needs of soldiers and war workers, and promote the Americanization of recent immigrants. Paulist priest John J. Burke was put in charge with an executive council of delegates from the archdioceses, the Knights of Columbus, and the American Federation of Catholic Societies. Burke organized an ecumenical committee to advise the U.S. War Department, which in return recognized the NCWC as an official government agent in war welfare work. Following the Armistice, the National Catholic War Council was succeeded by the National Catholic Welfare Council, currently known as the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB).
Individual Catholics contributed to the war effort on many levels. Margaret Richards Millar was part of the NCWC’s overseas support operations to both soldiers and civilians. Admiral William S. Benson, the first Chief of Naval Operations, was the highest ranking Catholic in the U.S. military, and after the war was the first President of the National Council of Catholic Men (NCCM). Bruce M. Mohler, later director of the NCWC Immigration bureau/department, served as an engineer (sanitation) in France and Poland while Robert L. O’Connell was a combat engineer in France and Germany. Other Catholic soldiers, many of whom bravely paid the ultimate price, were later immortalized in D.J. Ryan’s newspaper column Catholic Heroes of the World War.