Early Diocesan Priest Instrumental At American Legion’s Beginnings
By Amanda Hudson, News Editor
November 3, 2022
ARCHIVES—As Veterans Day 2022 approaches, Father Lonergan’s service in the military comes to mind.
Born in Polo in 1884, Father Joseph Michael Lonergan has the distinction of being the first priest ordained in the Diocese of Rockford after its establishment in 1908. He was ordained to the priesthood by Bishop Peter J. Muldoon at St. James Pro-Cathedral in Rockford on June 27, 1909.
We gain a glimpse of his early life from a May 8, 1923, article in the American Legion Weekly. That article notes that Father Lonergan was called “the miracle halfback” when he was a student at St. Viator College in Bourbonnais. He stood out also in baseball, “known for his ability to turn infield grounders into base hits,” it says, batting .448 his final year. 
In his first year after college, he was a section boss over more than 100 men working at the Illinois Central railroad. A year later, he began studies for the priesthood.
Father Lonergan served over the years at a number of diocesan parishes — in Aurora, Cary, Crystal Lake, Dundee, Durand/Irish Grove, Gilberts, Menominee, Rockford and Woodstock. 
After beginning his priesthood as an associate at St. Mary Parish in Aurora, he was made pastor of St. Anne Church in Barrington in 1911 with parish territory including portions of Cook, Lake, McHenry and Kane counties. 
In the six years he was there, he built three churches, opened “stations” at Cary, Algonquin, Dundee, Gilberts, and took care of an “outmission” in Crystal Lake. Those grew into mission parishes and eventually parishes.  
His military service came about in 1917 when Camp Grant was built — now the site of the Rockford International Airport — and Bishop Muldoon sent Father Lonergan there as his representative. In that unofficial position, the young priest distinguished himself by standardizing the times of all Catholic services held in the camp.
General Thomas Barry at Camp Grant asked Father Lonergan to join the U.S. Army as a first lieutenant chaplain, and Bishop Muldoon gave his consent. Camp Grant was the only training camp in WWI that fielded an entire division, “The Blackhawks.” Father Lonergan went overseas as chaplain of the Blackhawk (86th) division of the U.S. Army in France. 
Shortly thereafter, he was assigned to the 20th Engineers (Forestry) in the Vosges Mountains at the southern end of the Argonne in the Toul sector. That outfit was scattered from Alsace to Bordeaux, with 20,000 men organized on a regimental basis. They took part in some bloody fighting with their chaplain in the trenches with them. 
“At all events it was the largest regiment in the world,” says the American Legion Weekly.
Father Lonergan helped dying soldiers write their last letters home, later bringing those letters home to their families.
In April, 1919, Father Lonergan was promoted to Captain and assigned to Division Headquarters of the 90th Division, staying with them until he was discharged, returning to the U.S. in August, 1919. 
He served the National Catholic War (Welfare) Conference in Washington, D.C., for a few months after his military service, working in the agency that visited wounded veterans in hospitals and returning 
In January 1920, Father Lonergan became pastor at St. Patrick Church in Irish Grove and at St. Mary Parish in Durand, where he worked on building a new church for the growing congregation. 
He soon joined the American Legion at Durand. The American Legion was a new entity, having been chartered by Congress just a few months earlier in 1919 as a patriotic veterans organization. 
Father Lonergan was elected department chaplain for the American Legion District of Northern Illinois, and then was elected as the Legion’s national chaplain at its St. Paul convention in 1924, serving in that position until 1925. 
At a meeting of the Legion’s National Executive Committee, Father Lonergan said, “I would like to see more emphasis placed on using the chaplain in the Legion. Just as in the Army he took care of his religious duties and went a little further and took care of everything else that was missed, he can do the same thing in the Legion. There isn’t a single function in the Legion where a chaplain can’t reflect experience, knowledge, and that most wonderful thing — comradeship.”
Regarding hospitals, he noted, “have your chaplains go through there who, with their experience of visiting sick men, who, with the natural response that sick men give to the call from a clergyman (and) with the confidence that they will put in a chaplain that they won’t put in anyone else, can comfort these men.”
Father Lonergan saw a similarity between a post and a parish, saying, “If you have a Legion post where the men feel at home, they will work hard. And it’s the same way with a parish. In either organization, the homey one is a better unit and produces more loyal people.”
He remained active with the Legion, speaking, traveling and helping to organize Legion posts around the country even as he pastored parishes through the Great Depression and beyond.
Later in his priesthood (1952-1963), Father Lonergan was chaplain in residence at St. Joseph (Mercy) Hospital in Aurora, also helping out in area parishes. He retired April 12, 1963, and died Oct. 8, 1967.
The American Legion Weekly magazine article quoted General Charles Martin in a report where he had given Chaplain Lonergan a rating of 98%. “In all of my experience in the Army, I have known no chaplain ever to do so much for the men as did Chaplain Lonergan for the men of the 86th Division while he was assigned to duty there.”
The magazine added that the priest was “an exceptionally, extraordinarily good Legionnaire … before that he was an exceptionally, extraordinarily good army chaplain.”
Happy Veterans Day to all who served America well.
—Ed O’Brien contributed to this article.
Shop Religious items at HOLYART.COM