Fr. Aquinas Colgan, O. Carm., a young, sandy-haired priest first walked onto the campus of the Lewis Holy Name School of Aeronautics in 1939. For two years, he acted as Chaplain and instructor for the young students. A licensed pilot, he quickly became known as the “Flying Priest.”
Born on Chicago’s South Side and educated at Mt. Carmel High School and the Catholic University of America, Fr. Aquinas was ordained in 1933 by the Most Rev. Bernard J. Sheil. He was a professor of Spanish at Mt. Carmel until his appointment as Chaplain at Lewis Holy Name School of Aeronautics. When the United States entered World War II, Fr. Aquinas quickly enlisted, and graduated from the chaplain’s course at Harvard University in the June of 1942. He found himself assigned as a priest to the 1st battalion of the Army’s 31st “Dixie” Division.
During the three years he served in the Army, Fr. Aquinas walked, marched, camped and prayed with his fellow G.I.’s as they battled their way through the war in the Pacific. Wherever his men were, that’s where Fr. Aquinas was. He ministered to his men by driving from campsite to campsite, well known by his Jeep, which was emblazed with the words “Chicago Streetfighter.” He made hundreds of battle weary G.I.’s members of his fictional “Chicago Streetfighters Club” and each member received a special engraved card allowing them a day’s stay in Chicago on him. They loved him for his quick wit, ready intelligence, deep and abiding moral and ethical beliefs and because he believed in them.
It was on Mindanao Island, in the Philippines in the waning days of the War that the true measure of his devotion was played out. Under heavy fire from enemy forces, wounded soldiers were yelling out for medical attention. The medics who entered the forest were promptly shot down. Despite the protests and pleas not to enter the heavily fortified woods, Fr. Colgan replied, “Those are my boys. They need me. I should be with them.” No sooner had he reached the wounded than a burst of machine gun fire cut him down. After the ensuing battle, he was found with his arms draped protectively over the body of a fallen medic. The much beloved padre of Chicago’s south side was dead.
For his battlefield heroics, Fr. Aquinas was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for valor. He was one of only seven chaplains so honored in World War II. In addition, he had already won the Purple Heart with an Oak Leaf Cluster for heroism and two previous wounds.
Since 1955, Lewis University has honored the life and legacy of Fr. Aquinas Colgan through the presentation of the Fr. Aquinas Award to a graduating senior. This award recognizes a student who exemplifies the triumphant spirit, boundless energy and courageous life of Fr. Aquinas.
Excerpted from Remembering Chaplain Colgan of World War II by Kevin Shanley, O.Carm.