Congregation of the Holy Cross Ordination with Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C. (center), June 24, 1943. The newly ordained give their first priestly blessings.
Source: University of Notre Dame Archives.

Ordination & Pastoral Work


In June of 1940, following his sudden departure from Rome in advance of the Second World War, and after two weeks at home in Syracuse, Ted Hesburgh headed to Washington, D.C. He then spent the next three years studying at Holy Cross College. During this time, Father Hesburgh, and his friend, Charles Sheedy, got involved in writing booklets for men and women in the U.S. Armed Forces. Father Hesburgh recalled, "Together we cranked out a monthly news bulletin and a magazine for chaplains and a variety of publications as the need arose." They realized there was a need for a spiritual guide for servicemen. They found a French guide, Pour Mieux Servir (To Serve Better), and Father Hesburgh translated it into English. They titled it For God and Country and printed it as a pocket-sized book. Three-million copies were distributed.

After three years at Holy Cross College (and one year of theology in Rome), Father Hesburgh earned his S.T.L., or licentiate of sacred theology. In June of 1943, he returned to Notre Dame for an eight-day retreat. On June 24, 1943, Theodore Martin Hesburgh was ordained a priest of the Roman Catholic Church at Sacred Heart at the University of Notre Dame, which he considered "one of the most beautiful Gothic churches in America."

Father Hesburgh later recalled seeing his family, along with those of his fifteen classmates, sitting in the front pews as he processed in. He remembered the Mass was celebrated in Latin by Bishop John Noll.

Congregation of the Holy Cross Ordination class with Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C. (far left), June 24, 1943.
Source: University of Notre Dame Archives.


He later reflected:

It was a solemn-joyous kind of a day, one of deep, abiding feelings for me as well as for my loving parents. I gave them and my sisters and brother my first priestly blessings. Nine years before, in September 1934, I had left home with a far-off dream to become a priest at Notre Dame, and when I walked out of Notre Dame's parish church, I, Theodore Martin Hesburgh, was what I had always wanted to be: a priest. Pausing, as had so many before me, at the sculptured east side door of Sacred Heart, a memorial to the Notre Dame men who had given their lives in World War I, I read the dedication above the door: God, Country, Notre Dame. I would dedicate my life to that trinity, too.

World War I Memorial door, Church of the Sacred Heart. "God, Country, Notre Dame, In Glory Everlasting."
Source: University of Notre Dame Archives.


After the ordination and celebratory brunch at the campus dining hall, Father Hesburgh and his family drove to Norwalk, Ohio, where he said his first Mass at the Church of St. Paul. "St. Paul was always one of my favorite saints," he recalled in 1982. "We got home the next day, and I had two weeks at home, which were wonderful."

Work and Studies

Father Hesburgh remembered being "a young, sheltered, but very eager priest when I returned to Washington, and truly fortunate in coming in contact at the start with so many good priests who influenced my life by their advice and example." His first assignment as a priest was filling in for two weeks at St. Martin's Church in Washington, D.C., where he heard his first confession. "I considered myself lucky to have been assigned there." He remembered the Church's pastor, Father Bill, as "a warm, cheerful, giving man of enormous energy and goodwill."

Another one of Father Hesburgh's first duties was to conduct a three-day high school retreat on short notice. When the young priest questioned his own abilities to lead a retreat, the superior at Holy Cross College, Father Christopher O'Toole, was sure he could handle it. Father Hesburgh recalled Father O'Toole and his favorite response, "'Oh, you can do it,' and he left me to my own devices." Father Hesburgh learned to have more confidence in his abilities as a priest.

During the summers of 1943 and 1944, Father Ted had a more permanent assignment at St. Patrick's Church. Following his first summer at St. Patrick's, Father Hesburgh began his doctoral studies at the Catholic University of America.

Although his first year of doctoral work was demanding, Father Hesburgh was given the assignment of chaplain at the National Training School for Boys, which was a juvenile correctional institution run by the Department of Justice. He got to know the five-hundred boys there, where he attended meetings, held Saturday night confessions and Mass, and instruction on Sundays. He also worked at the Boys Club (now the Boys and Girls Club) and started a Newman Club at Howard University.

That academic year (1943-1944), Father Hesburgh also got involved with the Washington United Service Organization (USO), "a nonprofit organization that provides programs, services, and live entertainment to United States troops and their families." He was asked by a priest, Father Tom Dade, who hosted a radio show in Washington, D.C., to temporarily take over the USO club. Father Hesburgh became "a host and a friend to thousands upon thousands of servicemen and women who looked upon USO clubs as home away from home." They scheduled popular bands from around the country to play for free at the club. "It was not unusual to have two or three of these top name bands playing at the same time on different floors of the club for a thousand or fifteen hundred jitterbugging men and women in the uniforms of our Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines. It was a sight to see." He added, "I became a super expert over night at dancing, but my job was mainly to circulate all night."

Father Hesburgh realized, after meeting thousands of women through the USO, that they were in need of a spiritual guide as much as men. So, based on letters he had written to his sister Betty, an officer in the WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service), as well as conversations with the women he got to know in the service, he wrote Letters to Service Women and had almost half a million copies printed for the number of women in service.

In the publication, every letter begins, "Dear Mary, Bets, and Anne: . . ." and ends with "Love, as ever, from your brother, Father Ted." As a brother would, Father Hesburgh wrote that they were to avoid alcohol and watch out for men with "bad intentions." He also suggested that they go to Mass and Confession regularly, and pray daily. Largely, though, Father Hesburgh used the short, pocket-sized booklet as a means of encouragement. One letter reads:

Don't ever underestimate the tremendous importance of your way of life. . . . God had put us where we are for a purpose, but He leaves it up to us to find that purpose and to fulfill His Will in every task of every day. ... Nothing is insignificant in the plan of God.

One of the last pieces of advice in the letter reads: "Whatever you want to be and whatever you want to do in the future always remember that you are building the future now. ... Just stay close to Our Lord and His Blessed Mother and I know that the years will be fruitful."

Father Hesburgh later reflected, "Just a handful of us priests wrote these inspirational booklets on all manner of subjects, and overall, I would guess that between six and seven million copies of them were distributed throughout the armed forces. Judging from the incredible amount of mail they generated, I would think hundreds of thousands of lives were affected."

Portrait of Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C., c. 1945.
Source: University of Notre Dame Archives.


The Dissertation

During his second year of doctoral studies, Father Hesburgh was quite busy. Besides a heavier than usual course load, he also had to write his five-hundred-page dissertation to submit by March 1 in order to graduate the following spring. When he wasn't in class, or acting as chaplain, he was working on his dissertation from 7 a.m. to 12 a.m., every day except Christmas. The title of his dissertation was The Relation of the Sacramental Characters of Baptism and Confirmation to the Lay Apostolate. He credits his friend Jim Doll, a Holy Cross seminarian, for typing ninety pages of footnotes (which included eight languages), and Jim Norris, who directed the National Council of Catholic Servicemen, for giving Father Hesburgh five of his best typists to type the necessary five copies of five-hundred pages of text. He recalled the stressful day his thesis was due:

The day the dissertation was due, the five young women were still typing and I was beginning to get apprehensive. The head of the theology department, a monsignor named Joseph Fenton, was known as a stickler on rules. A deadline was a deadline. Mine was five o'clock. No exceptions.

The dissertation was done with ten minutes to spare, and a kind-hearted secretary bent the rules and kept the office open to accept it twenty minutes late.

Father Hesburgh then successfully defended his dissertation and had it published with the new title, Theology of Catholic Action. After graduation, he wasted no time in contacting his superior, Father Steiner, and reminded him of his desire to be a Navy chaplain. One of his friends promised him a place in the class of chaplains at the College of William and Mary (which would lead to a chaplaincy on the Pacific) if he were given permission by his superior. He waited two weeks for a reply in the mail.

The letter finally came, and it was not what Father Hesburgh was hoping to hear. Father Steiner said he was to go home for a week, then return to Notre Dame to teach. Thousands of officer candidates were being sent by the Navy to Notre Dame for training, and he was needed on the faculty. Father Hesburgh later said, "It was as if the Lord were saying to me, 'Your planning is terrible. Leave it up to Me.'"


Excerpt from Fr. Hesburgh's Oral History Interviews
Fr. Hesburgh talks about his priestly ordination


Well, it was like all ordinations. In those days everybody was ordained on the twenty-fourth of June, which is the feast of St. John the Baptist. I had had two devotions in my life, and it was interesting. One was to the Sacred Heart, which came from my mother, and the other was Corpus Christi of the Blessed Sacrament. As I was ordained a subdeacon it just turned out it was on the movable feast of Corpus Christi and priest on the feast of the Sacred Heart. So, it was an interesting concatenation of events that brought that about, because the one was a fixed day, the twenty-fourth of June, the other was a movable feast. The day was, of course, as always, preceded by an eight days retreat. In those days they meant eight days retreat. I don't think anybody makes that kind of retreat any more, but they were tough. Then we took the train out to South Bend and stayed in St. Edward's Hall, as I recall, and went over the evening before to practice. Bishop Noll was the consecrator-or the ordainer. We arrived on time the next morning, and of course all our relatives had come out, but we didn't see any of them. They were all in the front pews. Next day we could see them as we marched in. It was a long ceremony in those days, much longer than today, and of course all in Latin. The Litany of the Saints and many anointings, binding of hands and many things. I think they were in some ways much more significant than the way the modern ritual goes. That's a matter of taste. There are some things about the new ritual that I like better and some I like less, but as far as the ordination goes most of the new ritual I like very much.

The time came for the central act of ordination. In those days it was rather dramatic. Then we were all anointed and went over and got our oil washed off our hands with bread crumbs and lemon. It's always a curious thing and they always do it-lemon and breadcrumbs to get the oil off your fingers. They consecrate your thumb and forefinger. Immediately after the ceremony, of course, we all blessed the bishop who had ordained us, and then all the relatives lined up at the altar rail. Someone was nice enough to snap a picture of me giving a blessing to one of my sisters. I think it was Mary. My mother and dad and three sisters and Jimmy, who was nine years old, came up for a blessing. Then we had a nice brunch, I guess you'd call it today, over in, I think, the upstairs Faculty Room of the dining hall. There was only one dining hall then. And then we piled in the car and drove as far as we could. At thirty-five miles per hour we got as far as Norwalk, [Ohio]. Again, I liked the coincidence. I said Mass in the Church of St. Paul, Paul was always one of my favorite saints, as you may have noticed in the canon. If you can add somebody, always add Paul. I should have added Peter too this morning, but I forgot.

Anyway, we got home the next day, and I had two weeks at home, which were wonderful. I used to proudly walk to church with my new chalice. Everybody kicked in what gold jewelry they had to get me this chalice. Somebody had it made at Gorham in New York. I still use it every day when I'm home.

Pastoral Work

Excerpt from Fr. Hesburgh's Oral History Interviews
Fr. Hesburgh talks about his first experience as a pastor, in Washington, D.C.


Then I went to Washington, and they told me to go down and take [the] place of the people who were going on vacation at St. Patrick's parish. I had already, in the interim, put in some time in at St. Martin's parish, which I found interesting. But I stuck it out a month at St. Patrick's parish on 10th and G in Washington, D.C. I was there two summers running. It was a very tough summer because Washington, D.C. is like a furnace. Right in the middle of the war, in 1943, I was a brand new priest and eager to get out and work. What occurred that summer, that five or six weeks in a parish, I found wonderful, because the priests I was with were interesting. The pastor became a cardinal, Larry Sheehan. He was then Monsignor Sheehan. Another priest who was in the parish became a chancellor. Another became the chancellor of the new archdiocese when Washington was set up as an archdiocese. And there was one more priest there who was very interested in radio and television. He got me into radio broadcasting while I was at the parish.

Part of the job I inherited was that when Tom Dade, who was the radio priest, who was also into a lot of other things-he was one of those guys that was very talented. And the war was on, and he took over the K of C on 10th and K. It was a great big building, and he got all the Army, Navy, Air Force bands-it wasn't Air Force-Air Corps at that time, part of the Army, and he ran a USO club. And he had 18,000 Navy women alone signed up at that club, plus all the WACS, the WAAFS, and everything else besides the WAVES. Then he went on vacation and said, "You take care of the club while I'm on vacation." That club was a fantastic operation because-

What year are you talking about?

I'm talking about 1943 and a little bit of '44. The fact was, that club catered to all the floating military population in Washington, D.C. You've got to remember that during the war, Washington, being the capitol, had all kinds of service people coming and going. They were lost souls, many of them. They were away from home the first time, wandering around the streets. Our idea was to keep the kids off the street and give good entertainment. So what do we give them? We gave them the best bands in the world, because when the big band leaders were inducted they brought their whole band in, and they were in the Army, Navy, or Air Force, and they were mostly sent to Washington, which was a center for great music. And we got them to volunteer their services at our club. We had bands that would have cost us an incredible amount of money doing this for wartime service for free. These kids would come in off the street and have Guy Lombardo and the best bands in the world playing, and they could dance to them. That was the time of the boogie-woogie and all that kind of wild dancing. I became a super expert over night at dancing, but my job was mainly to circulate all night. I would work the territory. We had two or three floors. We'd have a top band on the first floor, a top band on the second floor. And we had these multiple bands going, and we'd have 1,000 to 1500 kids in there dancing. But they were off the streets. It was a wholesome thing.

When the women's auxiliary started up, as a matter of fact, my sister, Betty, when she graduated from college in '43, went to work for the Air Force in a civilian capacity, and then joined the WAVES and trained at Smith College and became an officer in the WAVES. So part of the letters were not phony. I did have a sister in the service. In '43 and '44, working at St. Patrick's, I got to know thousands of service women. They were marvelous, dedicated, often quite a group of holy women, who were doing this out of sincere sense of patriotism. It struck me, since we had already written a book for servicemen, there ought to be something for servicewomen. I went down, there was a gal named Fitzgerald, Margaret Fitzgerald, working with Tom Hinton at the NCCM, National Council of Catholic Men, and I said, "If I write a booklet-we've got the one for men," they said, "We sure do, two million copies at the moment." "If I do one for women would you print it?" They said, "Of course. We're dying to have something for women. We've got nothing for women, and we're supposed to be the USO for the Catholic section." So I wrote this in my garret room at St. Patrick's. It was hotter than blue blazes. I wrote the thing. But the nice thing about it was that I had all these women that were coming to the club, and I got to know a lot of them. I had them all read it and make suggestions. They were in service. And while it may sound quaint today, it was not quaint then, because I had ... women who were in the service, in all the services, read that thing and gave me suggestions. And finally ... they all told me it made sense to them. Then I turned it in and they printed it up. The interesting thing was that in those days everything was being done in bulk. They printed up the same number of that booklet as there were women in service, and they all disappeared from the racks. Then they decided the men were taking them off the racks, so then they printed almost double copies. I don't know, five-or six-hundred-thousand. But more than the women that were in service.



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