Born on May 2, 1871in Cobourg, Canada, Duffy relocated to New York in 1893 to teach French at what is now known as Xavier High School. In 1896 he was ordained as a priest and accepted a faculty position at St. Joseph’s Seminary located in Dunwoodie, NY. He remained there for the next fourteen years.
Father Duffy began his military service with the Fighting 69th Infantry during the Spanish-American War of 1898 where he served as First Lieutenant and chaplain. World War I found him earning a number of medals while serving in Europe with the famed Rainbow Division. He is the most highly decorated cleric in the history of the U.S. Army; among which awards are the Distinguished Service Cross, Conspicuous Service Cross, and the Distinguished Service Medal.
Post war, Father Duffy returned to New York where he served as a pastor at the Holy Cross Church until his death on June 27, 1932 at the age of 61 years. In 1927 he ghost-wrote a thoughtful article dispelling anti-Catholic notions of religious freedom and freedom of conscience with respect to political norms at the time.
A 1940 film called The Fighting 69th depicted Father Duffy’s life and his military exploits. His persona was portrayed by famed actor Pat O’Brien, co-starring James Cagney.
Today, we pay homage to this extraordinary man via a stoic statue in the northern triangle of Times Square. Known locally as Duffy Square, it is home to the bronze portrait of the military priest depicted as a uniformed soldier, standing tall in front of a granite Celtic Cross, with a helmet at his feet and a bible in his hands.
Frankly, I found this tribute a bit burlesque. Father Duffy served honorably when called to arms during times of war, and further, the Times Square district for a number of years as a priest. That said, placing an icon depicting a humble and discreet man in the middle of such a heavy tourist area appears more commercialized and less effigial in nature. Additionally, since the statue portrays him as a soldier, we should note that Father Duffy’s namesake is already commemorated at Camp Smith’s Spiritual Fitness Center; a New York Army National Guard installation located in Cortland, New York – a more appropriate tribute.