The Archdiocese of Chicago Unveils Online Photo Exhibit of Former World War II Chaplain Rev. John T. Beyenka on Veterans Day, Wednesday, Nov. 11
Chicago - (Nov. 9, 2020) – The Archdiocese of Chicago’s Archives and Records Center is launching an online photo exhibit of Rev. John T. Beyenka, a decorated World War II chaplain and former pastor emeritus of St. Monica Catholic Church in Chicago, on Veterans Day, Wednesday, Nov. 11. Beyenka served as chaplain for the Army's 351st Regiment of the 88th Division, known as the "Blue Devils,” from 1943 to 1946. He provided spiritual leadership for troops in Italy and Africa and won the Bronze Star for distinguished service under combat conditions. He retired from being pastor of St. Monica in 1983 but continued his priestly ministry until his death at the age of 85 on Jan. 23, 1998 in Wheeling.
“This year, in honor of Veterans Day, the Archives and Records Center will commemorate an archdiocesan priest of military service,” said Meg Hall, director of the Archdiocese of Chicago’s Archives and Records Center. “We are fortunate to be the repository for Fr. Beyenka’s World War II personal archives. His ministry illustrates how to witness Christ under extraordinarily difficult circumstances.”
Beyenka saw firsthand the horrors of war during the Allied invasion of Italy. He saved his wartime memorabilia, including daily letters home, scrapbooks of army photographs, pins and patches, which his family donated to the archdiocese after his death. These items are the foundation of the exhibit and offer a rich illustration of his war experience.
“Throughout my life, my uncle was my hero and now, in death he has reawakened my affection for him and the call for me to serve Christ and his Church,” said Beyenka’s nephew, Rev. Michael Meany, pastor of St. John Brebeuf Parish in Niles. “When I reread some of his letters written during the war, I feel like I'm with him again. I sincerely hope this exhibit on my uncle’s life inspires others, especially the young to follow Christ and to appreciate the profound depth of faith that enabled him to continue his priestly ministry for more than 50 years. He served most generously to his dying day, celebrating the joys and sorrows of the people he served. May he rest in peace.”
Raised on Chicago's Northwest Side, Beyenka attended Quigley Preparatory Seminary before entering St. Mary of the Lake Seminary in Mundelein. In 1937, he was ordained by Chicago's first cardinal, George Mundelein. His first assignment was at Sacred Heart Parish on 19th and Peoria. Two years after his ordination, World War II started and, in 1943 Beyenka enlisted.
After basic training, Beyenka was eventually assigned to the 351st Infantry Regiment, part of the 88th Infantry Division. The Regiment was formed with 2,500 men, roughly half of whom were Catholic and from New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. He worked with other chaplains in the Regiment tending to the spiritual needs of the men, with particular care made to serve the sacramental needs of the Regiment’s Catholics.
When Beyenka became a chaplain in the Army, he joined what is known as the Military Ordinariate. During World War II, Archbishop Francis Spellman of New York oversaw more than 3,000 chaplains serving all around the world. By 1943, more than 100 of those chaplains came from the Archdiocese of Chicago.
Beyenka celebrated Mass, frequently gave soldiers Holy Communion and heard their confessions before combat. Beyenka often corresponded with the families of the soldiers and, at times, he was charged with writing letters to inform families of their sons’ deaths.
As soon as the 88th Infantry Division arrived in Italy, they encountered heavy fighting. When speaking to a reporter, Beyenka called the arrival a “bitter baptism of fire.” When the 88th Infantry Division occupied Rome, which had been largely abandoned by the Nazis other than a few tank battalions in the surrounding countryside, Beyenka and his comrades were the first Allied troops to enter the Eternal City, where they were greeted as heroes. Pope Pius XII greeted the 88th Division as liberators, granting them a special audience and blessing. Beyenka and the other chaplains were granted a private audience with Pius XII and were able to say Mass at the Vatican.
Throughout the course of the war, Beyenka was with his division on the front lines, transporting casualties into the medical tents and offering last rites. His efforts did not go unnoticed by his comrades and superior officers, and on Aug. 3, 1944 Beyenka was awarded the Bronze Star. In April of 1945, he and a priest liaison from the Axis side negotiated the surrender of 700 German soldiers, and was awarded an officer’s pistol. A few days later, the German army in Italy surrendered.
As the conflict came to an end, the Allies wanted occupation forces to stay behind and Beyenka and his remaining soldiers had to relocate to northern Italy. Left with almost no friends due to casualties of war, Beyenka spent nearly half a year in northern Italy contemplating if he would ever be able to return home.
On Jan. 12, 1946, Beyenka departed on a ship for New York City to return to Chicago. Upon his return home, he was assigned as associate pastor at St. Edmund Parish in Oak Park (1946-1959) to decompress and learn how to live at home again. His other assignments were at St. Albert the Great in Burbank, St. Genevieve in Chicago and as pastor at St. Monica in Chicago.
To view the full Beyenka photo exhibit, please visit https://archives.archchicago.org/photo-exhibit/fr-john-beyenka.
Source: Archdiocese of Chicago’s Archives and Records Center and its noted resources.