SUMMER 2014 / VOL. 14 ISSUE 2
Fr. Francis Gleeson, originally from Templemore, Co. Tipperary, volunteered in 1915 to be an Army chaplain. He was posted to the Western Front as chaplain to the Munster Fusiliers and his place in history is secured by his domination in the painting by Italian artist Fortunino Matania. The painting depicts the moment he gave the Last Absolution to the battalion at the Rue du Bois on May 8, 1915, the evening before many of them were killed or wounded.
That night, Fr. Gleeson recorded the names of the 800 men who received communion. This information was later used in identifying the casualties and provided contact addresses for many of the families.
At Passchendale on Nov. 10, 1917, Fr. Gleeson again recorded the names of the soldiers and was part of the effort of writing to grieving parents telling them their sons had died. Parents would have been comforted by the fact that the priest had offered confession and communion to the soldiers before the conflict.
He wrote: "Spent all night trying to comfort aid and remove the wounded. It was ghastly to see them lying there in the cold, cheerless outhouses, on bare stretches with no blankets to cover their freezing limbs. I shall never forget that young officer with the shattered left arm nor you Barrowdale, of the Welsh, who was a great organist and played for me at Epan. Heartbreaking to see him dying there - wasting away...."
Although originally from Tipperary, Fr. Gleeson trained and served as a priest in the Archdiocese of Dublin. After the war, Fr. Gleeson returned to ministry in Ireland, here it is reported that he was not always made welcome by some of his clerical leaders because of his association with the British Army. But ironically, because of his army experience he was appointed on Feb. 12,1923, as chaplain with the Dublin Army Command of the National Army in the new Irish Free State.
But as time and memory moved on, so in old age and as a gesture of solidarity,
he donated the purple stole he wore at Rue du Bois to the Munster Fusiliers
regiment. He died as a Canon of the Archdiocese of Dublin in 1959. Some
say he is buried in Glasnevin Cemetery. However it is also claimed he is
buried in Castlelough in his native Co. Tipperary.
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